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School Shootings Drive Discussion of Gun Laws at Democratic Debate

By Evie Blad — June 26, 2019 5 min read
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A significant portion of Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate focused on gun laws, school shootings, and a youth activism movement that started 50 miles away from the Miami debate site after a February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Within days of that shooting, Stoneman Douglas students launched A March for Our Lives and inspired their peers to assemble at statehouses around the country. They later worked to increase youth voter registration leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

While smaller acts of gun violence are far more common than mass shootings at schools, those incidents have formed a powerful catalyst for renewed conversations about moves such as universal background checks, bans on sales of certain types of firearms, and federal funding for research of the issue, the candidates agreed.

“These Parkland kids from Florida, they started literally a national shift,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “If we get bested by a bunch of 17-year-olds, it’s the best thing that ever happened.”

School shootings are statistically rare but widely covered, and they play an outsized role in the gun debate. That’s especially true since 2018, when Americans saw two of the five deadliest shootings at K-12 schools in U.S. history—in Parkland, where 17 people died, and in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 people died.

“The worst thing is knowing that your child might be worried about what could happen at school, a place that is supposed to be safe,” said former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro. “The answer is no, we don’t have to accept that.”

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke called out the names of Santa Fe students and Rhonda Hart, a woman who helped him in his unsuccessful campaign for Senate after her daughter, Kimberley, died in that school shooting.

“They’re making our democracy work, ensuring that our values ... are reflected in the laws that we pass,” he said.

Those large school shootings left state and local policymakers around the country scrambling to invest in increased school security measures, policing, and mental health programs for students. They also motivated a wave of states to pass “red flag” laws, which give judges and law enforcement the authority to restrict someone’s ability to access and purchase guns if that person is deemed a threat to self others.

At the national level, President Donald Trump’s school safety commission, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, recommended schools consider arming teachers. But no new gun laws have been enacted on the federal level, as youth activists had hoped.

The 10 candidates debating Wednesday night largely agreed that they would support measures like universal background checks. And most said they would support bans on “assault weapons” and “weapons of war,” like the AR-15 a former student used in the Parkland shooting.

In additon to those measures, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for federal funding for research into gun violence, a priority of the youth activists.

“We have to treat it like a public health emergency,” she said. “We need to fight for our children.”

“Seven children will die today” of gun violence, Warren said, a statement Politifact called mostly true. “And they won’t just die in mass shootings.”

A spending bill approved by the House earlier this month includes $50 million for gun-violence research. Democrats in control of the House have made funding this research a top priority, although it still depends on Senate action. A provision in a 1996 spending bill effectively deterred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching the issue, although in 2018 Congress clarified this language to say that federal funding can go toward the study of gun violence.

Social-Emotional Learning and School Counselors

Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan said that, in addition to gun laws, lawmakers also need to focus on providing supports for students who’ve experienced trauma, boosting counselors in schools, and social-emotional learning programs to address the roots of violence and social isolation. Ryan has championed social-emotional learning, even filing federal bills to provide teacher and principal training on SEL.

“We need to start dealing with the trauma that our kids have,” Ryan said. “We need trauma-based care in every school. We need social-emotional learning in every school.”

The most recent federal data show that 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, and 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses. And, while researchers say there is no set profile of a school shooter, they have identified meaningful connections with adults and peers as protective factors that may prevent distressed children from acting violently. Student supports and social-emotional learning were a key focus of a recent education funding bill passed by the Democratic House, but that bill still faces an uphill climb to becoming reality.

Some researchers say the focus on school shootings in media coverage has warped public perception of the issue, making schools seem more dangerous than they actually are.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker touched on that by discussing violence in his own neighborhood.

“This is not about policy,” he said. “This is personal.”

Political scientists are still evaluating the effects of emerging youth activism on guns.

Conventional wisdom holds that supporters of gun control list it among a wide range of policy priorities they consider when deciding whether to support a political candidate and that gun-rights advocates are more likely to be single-issue voters, opposing anyone who favors new restrictions.

But researchers say youth movements, and the use of social media, have created new communities—and political power— for voters who favor tougher gun laws, and have the potential to drive those issues up on candidates’ lists of priorities.

There was little substantive conversation about education policy in Wednesday’s debate, though candidates did briefly mention student debt, early childhood education, and the need to prepare students for a changing economy.

The Democratic debates continue Thursday as the remaining 10 qualifying candidates take the stage in Miami. Read about other education issues they may discuss here.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gestures towards New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. --Wilfredo Lee/AP

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