Education Groups Set Their Sights On Influencing Debate Over Guns

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As days lapsed into months following last spring's tragedy at Columbine High School, the National Education Association got tired of waiting for federal lawmakers to act on proposals to combat gun violence. So the union quickly assembled a coalition of groups interested in gun control, bought advertising space, and sent a message to Congress.

"No More Delays on Common-Sense Gun Laws," declared the ensuing advertisement, which ran in the June 14, 1999, issue of Roll Call, a newspaper widely read by Capitol Hill insiders. "Congress owes it to the students of Springfield, Edinboro, Jonesboro, West Paducah, Pearl, Bethel, Moses Lake, Littleton, Conyers, and children in every community and every school."

The full-page ad, which listed 11 school-related organizations as sponsors, is one example of how education organizations have begun reaching beyond school safety initiatives to promote gun-control measures aimed at society at large. While some groups have long been politically active on the issue, others have only recently shed their traditional neutrality after watching news reports on school shootings stack up.

This growing activism is often seen by gun-rights advocates as misplaced, especially in light of statistics suggesting that overall school violence is actually on the wane. Still, the spate of multiple shootings on school grounds in recent years has prompted more education groups to conclude that they have little choice but to become involved.

"Whenever we see students losing their lives or being seriously injured, as advocates for children, we need to stand up and work to prevent these tragedies from happening," said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "We're supporting safety locks on guns and any measure we feel is going to help keep guns out of the hands of children."

Taking Aim at Guns

School groups have involved themselves with gun-safety efforts to different degrees and through various means. Some, including the National PTA and the NEA, have done everything from urging their members to send letters to Congress to endorsing the Million Mom March, a demonstration calling for the passage of gun-safety legislation scheduled for May 14 in Washington. Others have passed resolutions advocating broad, theoretical support for gun safety.

Members of the American Association of School Administrators voted to pass one such resolution during a meeting of delegates last month. The resolution was by no means an explicit endorsement of gun control, stating only that such strategies as raising the minimum age for gun ownership, limiting the availability of ammunition, requiring child-safety locks, and securing privately owned guns "must be considered." Still, such a move would have been unheard of 10 years ago, said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the organization.

"A lot of our members are outdoorsmen who hunt and fish and have real reservations about limiting access to weapons," Mr. Hunter said. "There were people who were not happy about it. But the events in the last couple of years have caused a real change in our willingness to speak out on this issue."

Gun-safety advocates at the national and state levels say they couldn't hope to gain the legislative support necessary to pass limitations on gun ownership or firearm-safety requirements if they couldn't point to a coalition of different groups that also support such measures. The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights advocates, they say, are simply too politically powerful.

Marie Carbone, the director of congressional relations for Handgun Control, a Washington-based group that promotes stricter gun regulation, said the NEA and the National PTA are both hard-working allies.

The two education groups fought actively in 1993 for the passage of the Brady Law, a measure that requires background checks on firearms purchasers, and again to pass a federal ban on certain types of "assault weapons" in 1994. They say they plan to go full throttle with lobbying efforts again if federal lawmakers heed President Clinton's recent call to resume action on gun-control bills currently pending in Congress. The House and Senate versions of the bills, which include requirements for safety locks on new firearms and for background checks at gun shows, have not moved out of a congressional conference committee that was set up last August.

"If it's just Handgun Control up there the members might think, 'Here we go with this gun-control organization at me again,'" Ms. Carbone said. "It makes a huge difference to say, 'Here's an education group and a health group; we're all in this together.' "

That said, educators would have greater say in the running national debate over gun control if they consolidated their scattered initiatives and resolutions and spoke with one voice, said Alicia Horton, the director of the Handgun Control's education division.

"I could safely say that all national groups dealing with young people and education are interested in dealing with gun violence, but how they go at that differs greatly," Ms. Horton said.

She also said that education groups would benefit by overcoming their tendency to act only after a highly publicized school shooting. "Some proactive behavior would really forward this issue," she said.

Activity in States Varies

At the state legislative level, education groups' involvement in efforts to regulate guns is mixed.

In Colorado, where the shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. a year ago this week have tilted political sentiment toward more regulation of guns, the state PTA affiliate has actively lobbied for new gun laws. Members have traveled to Denver to testify in favor of greater regulation, in addition to calling and writing their local lawmakers, said Cynthia Stone, a spokeswoman for SAFE Colorado, a gun-control-advocacy group.

Recently, the Colorado PTA announced it would support a SAFE Colorado effort to put an initiative on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would close the so-called "gun-show loophole" that lets some vendors sell firearms at gun shows without conducting background checks. Law-enforcement officials have determined that two of the three firearms used by Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold at Columbine High School were purchased by a third party at a gun show.

"Columbine opened a lot of members' eyes to this issue," said Jody Townsend, the president of the Colorado PTA. "There's fear now—people wondering what they can do to stop this from happening again. We're looking to try a lot of different avenues, because you can't make schools into prisons."

But the Colorado Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA, said that it has largely stayed out of the debate over gun control at the state Capitol.

"We have so many other things to do," said Jeanne Beyer, a spokeswoman for the association. "If it doesn't have to do with schools, if it has to do with child-proof locks and safe storage, my guess is that we wouldn't deal with it. It has to be not just child-related, but school-related, in order for us to get involved."

The state PTA in California has also actively advocated tighter gun-control measures over the past 10 years, most recently contributing to the lobbying efforts leading up to last year's passage of a legislative package limiting handgun purchases, restricting gun-show sales, and imposing new safety standards for all guns sold in the state.

Other state education organizations, meanwhile, have "been involved, but haven't been leaders" in efforts for more gun regulation, said Chuck Michel, the counsel for litigation and local affairs for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, an advocacy group for gun owners that is independent from the NRA.

Representatives of the NRA, based in Fairfax, Va., declined repeated requests from Education Week for comment on the role of education groups in the nation's gun-control debate.

But Mr. Michel said that parents and educators should both do more research on the impact of gun-control initiatives before they throw themselves into the issue.

"The Columbine shooting has been held out as a justification for stricter gun laws," he said. "But Klebold and Harris laughed at the people who thought they would be able to stop them by having stricter gun laws. They broke about 20 laws in firing the guns and getting them. The fact it was all illegal did nothing to stop them."

No Formal Position

In Texas, the state NEA affiliate has not staked out an official stance on gun-related issues, although its members agree with the national union's stance on weapons regulation, said Donna New Haschke, the vice president of the Texas State Teachers Association. "We haven't made a deliberate decision not to take a stand on this; it just isn't something that's come up with our members," Ms. Haschke said. "We certainly deplore gun violence."

In New Jersey, meanwhile, both the state PTA and NEA affiliates have been crucial to a current push to require that all new handguns sold in the state include "smart gun" technology that would prevent a gun from being fired by anyone but its owner, said Bryan Miller, the executive director of the gun-control group Ceasefire New Jersey.

Though that measure is still pending, state legislators have already passed a law requiring all new handguns sold in the state to come packaged with safes to store them in or basic trigger locks.

"They are our strongest supporters," Mr. Miller said, referring to the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey PTA. "Ceasefire is a relatively small group, so we need to be able to multiply our effort with like-minded groups."

Educators' activism in the Garden State has also trickled down to the local level. The Franklin Township Education Association recently initiated a program that, if approved by a town committee on safe and orderly schools, would allow for the distribution of gun locks to residents with firearms not currently equipped with such devices.

"Since Columbine, everyone has really tried to stay focused and do things in their own communities that could prevent something like it from happening to them," said Diane Mazurowski, the safety co-chairwoman of the Trenton-area association.

Such grassroots efforts are crucial to ultimately making schools safer, argued Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, the medical director of the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan, or HELP, Network, a Chicago-based organization.

Ms. Christoffel said local education groups ought to become partners in community efforts to address violence, determining who has guns, and how they filter into nearby neighborhoods.

"You can't address violence in schools without first addressing violence in communities," Ms. Christoffel said. "When it's lapping at your door, it's too late."

Vol. 19, Issue 32, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: April 19, 2000, as Education Groups Set Their Sights On Influencing Debate Over Guns
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