The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School have reopened the debate in Washington over gun policy, as lawmakers and administration officials ponder how the federal government might help head off similar violence, despite a polarized political climate and a tight rein on spending.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been tapped along with other Cabinet members to serve on a White House task force that will examine gun violence, mental-health services, and other policies following the killings last month in Newtown, Conn. President Barack Obama said the panel, led by Vice President Joe Biden, will present its recommendations in time for his State of the Union address this month. Mr. Obama has said he will work with Congress in an effort to make the panel’s ideas a reality.
Mr. Duncan, who was named the most anti-gun member of the president’s Cabinet by the National Rifle Association in 2009, will be working on the panel with Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
President Obama signaled that he’d like to see the panel consider a ban on military-style weapons, such as the one used in the Newtown shootings, and that he favors stricter background checks for would-be gun purchasers.
For his part, Mr. Duncan declared student safety a “collective responsibility” in a Dec. 21 speech. He specifically urged federal lawmakers to reduce the size of magazines, reinstate a ban on assault weapons, and ensure existing laws are being enforced.
School Programs Eyed
Already, some lawmakers—including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.—have put forth concrete ideas on gun control. Ms. Feinstein, who has been the author of gun-restriction legislation in the past, said last month that she is planning to introduce a bill to ban assault weapons.
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Two senators who have traditionally supported gun rights, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Warner, D-Va., each expressed an interest in banning assault weapons in the wake of the shootings.
Also in Congress, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has released a pair of bills on school safety, one of which would make it easier for governors to call on National Guard troops to help in such efforts.
The other bill, called the “Secure Our Schools” Act, would set up a joint task force between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education to develop new safety guidelines for schools.
It would also seek to make grants under the Justice Department’s office of community-oriented policing services’ Secure Our Schools program more accessible by lowering the local matching requirement to 20 percent, from 50 percent. The grants help schools install tip lines and surveillance equipment and to secure entrances.
The bill also would increase the authorization for the program to $50 million, from $30 million, which would essentially allow Congress to direct more money to it.
And in the House of Representatives, Reps. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced a bill last week to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, such as that used with the weapon in the Sandy Hook shootings.
Such responses follow a scaling-back in federal financial support for school safety programs in recent years.
Congress, with the support of the Obama administration, zeroed out funding for state grants to help bolster school safety. President George W. Bush’s administration had also sought to eliminate the program.
The grants—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 amount of money—currently nearly $65 million—was kept in place for national activities on school safety, although President Obama has sought to combine that funding stream with other programs aimed at mental health, school climate, and the safety of postsecondary institutions.
The Education Department’s 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, in which the gunman was not a student at the school and used a weapon to shoot his way into the building, said Kate Frischmann, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panels that oversee K-12 policy and spending.
“No activities funded by the Safe and Drug Free Schools program could have prevented a tragedy in which a nonstudent carrying multiple guns forcibly broke into a school,” Ms. Frischmann said. “That was never the purpose of the Safe and Drug Free Schools program.”
Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for Secretary of 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.”
Sen. Harkin also hit on the importance of mental-health services in a 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.”
Staff Writer Nirvi Shah contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Tragedy Sets Off Fresh Debate Over Federal Gun-Policy Role