Published Online: December 18, 2012

Newtown Massacre Reignites Federal Gun-Policy Debate

An ornament for Noah Pozner hangs on a tree at one of the makeshift memorials for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Monday in Newtown, Conn. Pozner, who turned 6 last month, was among the 20 children killed when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Friday and opened fire.
—Mary Altaffer/AP

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last week have reopened the debate in Washington over gun policy as lawmakers ponder how the federal government can help head off similar, future tragedies, despite a polarized political climate and a tight rein on spending.

Earlier today, President Barack Obama had discussions with White House staff members, Vice President Joe Biden, and some members of the presidential cabinet to begin looking at ways the country can respond to the massacre in Newtown. Among those attending were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. The White House did not release any information about specific next steps.

So far, President Obama has not directly called for changes to gun laws. However, in addressing a memorial service for the Sandy Hook victims Dec. 16, he said that the country needs to do more to keep children safe.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end,” said Mr. Obama at the service for 20 students and six staff members slain Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, did not mention a specific gun control measure, but said in a speech on the floor of the Senate Dec. 17 that the chamber would “engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow.”

Already, some lawmakers—including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.­—have put forth concrete ideas on gun control. On NBC’s Meet the Press earlier this week, Ms. Feinstein, who has authored gun-restriction legislation in the past, said she is planning to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons, like the one used in the Sandy Hook shooting.

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Visit Education Week's collection page for complete coverage of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

And in a statement released on Friday after the massacre, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education committee, expressed a similar sentiment saying, “We must come together as a nation to honestly discuss how to prevent people intent on carrying out these savage attacks from so easily obtaining guns and ammunition.”

Likewise, Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate panels that oversees K-12 policy and spending, said that as a recreational hunter he respects the right of citizens to own guns, but he believes it may be time to rethink laws permitting citizens to own assault weapons.

“We need to ask whether people need unlimited access to any arms, including those capable of shooting hundreds of bullets in a very short time,” the Iowa Democrat said in a statement. “We can support gun rights while continuing to support responsible legislation to reduce crime and make our schools and communities safer. And Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a gun rights supporter, said on MSNBC that he would be open to such a ban. “Everything should be on the table,” he said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who has a “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, also expressed interest in banning assault weapons, according to published reports.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut, called for the creation of a commission on violence, according to a White House pool report. “These events are happening more frequently, and I worry that if we don’t take a thoughtful look at them, we’re going to lose the hurt and the anger that we have now,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, seconded that recommendation in a Dec. 16 appearance on Fox News, adding that he would like to “go beyond” Sen. Lieberman’s idea for the scope of the panel and put “school safety” in its purview. Mr. Durbin added he plans to hold hearings on the constitutional questions of limiting the Second Amendment when a new session of Congress convenes in January.

And Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, believes that in the wake of Sandy Hook, “policymakers on all levels of government have a responsibility to reexamine the issue of school safety,” said his spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger.

If the panel suggested by Sens. Durbin and Lieberman is formed, it won’t be the first body to investigate the causes of a school shooting.

After the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, President George W. Bush sent U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, as well as the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, on a nationwide “listening tour” to pinpoint potential policy prescriptions to prevent future tragedies. The trio of cabinet members concluded that schools needed to clarify student privacy laws to facilitate the sharing of information between K-12 schools and colleges, among other recommendations. The shooter in that incident, Seung-Hui Cho, had received mental health interventions as a high school student that Virginia Tech had not been aware of.

And after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, Gov. Bill Owens formed a panel which faulted the school for failing to do enough to prevent a culture of bullying, among other conclusions.

School Safety Spending

The tragedy at Sandy Hook comes just a few years after Congress—with the support of the Obama administration—zeroed out federal funding for state grants to help bolster school safety. President George W. Bush administration had also sought to eliminate the program.

The grants, which were last funded in fiscal year 2009 at nearly $300 million, helped schools pay for everything from metal detectors and security guards to drug-abuse prevention and conflict resolution training. After the program was scrapped, a smaller portion of money—currently nearly $65 million—was kept in place for national activities on school safety, although Mr. Obama has sought to combine that funding stream with other programs aimed at mental health, school climate, and the safety of postsecondary institutions. The Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools was also essentially downgraded within the department’s structure last year.

But the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools program wouldn’t have made a difference in the case of Sandy Hook, which featured a perpetrator who was not a student at the school, and used a weapon to shoot his way into he building, said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Sen. Harkin. “No activities funded by the Safe and Drug Free Schools program could have prevented a tragedy in which a non-student carrying multiple guns forcibly broke into a school,” Ms. Cyrul said. “That was never the purpose of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program.”

Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, echoed that sentiment.

“Over the past decade, the Department of Education has consolidated various school safety programs to better fund the programs that work best—and in recent years, pressure to rein in spending has led to reduced funds,” he said. “However, while the investigation into exactly what led to the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary is ongoing, it should be clear that it was not the result of these funding cuts.”

Still, the elimination of the Safe and Drug Free School state grants was a loss to districts, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va. The program allowed districts to take a proactive approach to school climate and safety issues, including training staff on how to take steps to prevent a crisis, such as a school shooting, she said.

Advocates also point to the importance of funding for school counselors, which has been slashed in many districts during the recession. And the Obama administration has also proposed eliminating the $53 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, in favor of a broader funding stream that schools could use for counselors, but also for activities aimed at improving school climate and safety.

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Authorities in Newtown have said there was no recent connection between the alleged Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, and the school, although he attended schools in the district. Still, K-12 counselors are often the first to pick up on a person’s mental illness and get them the help they need, said Myrna Mandlawitz, the director of government relations for the School Social Work Association of America, in Sumner, Wash.

“What comes to my mind is how shortsighted it is to cut funding for these kinds of programs,” she said. “We react really strongly when these horrific events occur, we don’t realize that prevention is the way to deal with a lot of this.”

And school counselors, she pointed out, can be helpful in the aftermath of situations like this, helping teachers and parents cope with children’s questions and anxiety, she added.

Sen. Harkin also hit on the importance of mental health services in his statement, saying he wants to take a closer look at the federal role in providing communities with help in obtaining needed services—with an eye on “prevention and early intervention.”

Vol. 32, Issue 15

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