Federal

Biden Credits School Shooting Survivors as He Creates Gun Violence Prevention Office

By Evie Blad — September 22, 2023 5 min read
President Joe Biden speaks about gun safety on Sept. 22, 2023, from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., applauds at left.
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President Joe Biden has established the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, fulfilling a longtime goal of school shooting survivors and families who’ve advocated for stricter gun laws and more federal research on firearms attacks.

The office, announced Friday, has the potential to elevate action on guns in the same way the Office of National Drug Control Policy spotlighted concerns about drug trafficking and substance use in the 1980s, researchers told Education Week.

The announcement was hailed as a victory by March for Our Lives, an organization founded by students to advocate for new gun laws following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Biden announced the office, which he created through executive action, alongside Rep. Maxwell Alejandro, D-Fl, who became the first Generation Z member of Congress after serving as the organization’s national organizing director.

“The brutal truth is that usually when the most people are paying attention to our movement, it’s usually coupled with gruesome death,” Frost said in the White House rose garden. “But not today.”

The announcement comes after large-scale school shootings in cities including Nashville, Tenn., and Santa Fe and Uvalde, both in Texas, added new fuel to activist efforts in recent years.

But educators are also concerned about events that are less likely to make national headlines, like five shootings at high school football games since the start of the current school year, or neighborhood violence that endangers students on the walk home from school.

“People think of school shootings as these kinds of rampage attacks … but there’s a lot of gun violence that takes place in and around schools, during extracurricular activities, and in the vicinity of a school,” said Louis Klarevas, a research professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies mass shootings. “This could elevate the awareness of those events.”

Thus far there have been 30 shootings in schools or on school grounds that resulted in injuries or deaths in 2023, according to an Education Week tracker that counts incidents that occur during school hours or school-sponsored activities. Under that definition, there were 51 school schootings in 2022, the tracker found.

In the absence of “sorely needed action” by Congress, like a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, the office will help coordinate federal efforts to “combat the epidemic of gun violence that is tearing our families, our communities, and our country apart,” Biden said as he announced the effort.

The new White House office will be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris. Its director will be Stefanie Feldman, a Biden aide who helped him coordinate the Obama administration response to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., when he served as vice president. The office’s two deputy directors previously worked at organizations that advocate for stronger gun laws.

“We know true freedom is not possible if people are not safe,” Harris said. She heralded youth advocates who included the office in their policy agenda.

The office’s creation comes about a year after Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most significant piece of gun legislation in decades. That law includes measures like additional background check requirements for teen gun buyers and additional funding for school safety and student mental health.

Coordinating research, elevating solutions

The new high-level federal office could help coordinate sometimes duplicative or disparate efforts by various federal agencies that research and respond to violence— including the U.S. departments of Justice, Education, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, Klarevas said.

That interagency work could include setting a national agenda that synthesizes effective state and local strategies, makes recommendations for funding and policy, and identifies unaddressed issues that need more federal attention.

It could also provide more direct top-down support for violence-prevention efforts, like New Jersey’s effort, which coordinates victims’ assistance and violence intervention efforts and convene researchers who study the roots of violence, said Daniel Semenza, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University who studies gun violence.

“Researchers have been calling for a centralized office for gun violence prevention in the U.S. for years, so it’s very exciting to see this become a reality,” he said.

Jaclyn Schildkraut, the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, said she hoped better coordination of research and resources would help tackle the “many unanswered questions” about the root causes of violence in schools that could help keep students and staff safe.

Researchers and prevention advocates have long lamented a lack of federal funding for gun research, including the motives that drive mass school attacks. Congress halted federal funding for gun research for decades until 2019, when it provided about $25 million for such efforts.

Some have also called for a clearer, consistent federal definition of terms like “school shooting,” which may be defined differently by different agencies.

The new office will also help to coordinate victims’ support after mass shootings in the same way the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds quickly after a natural disaster, Biden said.

Praise and criticism for gun-violence prevention office

Student survivors and parent advocates whose children died in school shootings praised the announcement Friday.

But Biden’s conservative critics and gun-rights organizations said the office would serve as political cover for what they see as the administration’s anti-gun agenda. Federal resources would be better used to enforce existing gun laws, they said.

The office’s success in the long-term may be driven in part by how future presidents handle its work, Klarevas said. Future administrations with different political ideologies or priorities may expand the office, defund it, or shift its focus from gun policy to broader concerns, like the use of social media or press portrayals of mass violence, he said.

“Things that may be a priority under the Biden administration might not be a priority under another administration,” Klarevas said.

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