A tentative compromise on federal gun legislation by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators would seemingly break the pattern of polarizing debate and inaction that follows most mass school shootings.
The proposal also calls for funding for mental health and school safety programs. But the specifics of the deal—like how much money could go to schools—and the likelihood that it actually becomes law are not certain.
The outline was announced by 20 senators, including 10 Republicans, Sunday in response to a string of mass shootings in recent weeks. That timeline includes the May 24 attack at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school in which an 18-year-old suspect shot and killed 19 students and two teachers, the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 killings in Newtown, Conn.
Here’s what educators need to know about the tentative agreement.
What’s in the deal and what’s left out?
The outline released over the weekend falls far short of what advocates for stronger gun laws, and President Joe Biden, have long pushed for.
Notably, it would not create a ban on “assault weapons,” like the powerful AR-15 rifle used in Uvalde and many other school shootings. A previous federal ban on such weapons expired in 2004. It also wouldn’t raise the age to purchase these weapons to 21, as some have pushed for. And it wouldn’t close loopholes that allow firearms purchases without background checks in some situations.
On guns, the agreement would:
- Create an “enhanced review process” for gun buyers 21 or younger that “requires an investigative period to review juvenile and mental health records, including checks with state databases and local law enforcement.”
- Close the “boyfriend loophole” by prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence or subject to a domestic violence restraining order from purchasing guns through the federal background check system.
- Clarify who must register as a federally licensed firearms dealer, which would subject sales to background checks and “crack down” on criminals who traffic guns.
- Provide resources and support to help states and tribes create “red-flag laws,” which allow courts to suspend an individual’s access to firearms if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. Nineteen states already have such laws, but educators and law enforcement officials have said it’s not always clear what counts as threatening behavior worthy of intervention.
What does the agreement say about school safety and mental health?
After the Uvalde shooting, a group of education organizations urged Congress to take action on guns, saying poor mental health wasn’t solely to blame for the attacks. That coalition urged Congress to shore up existing programs, like the STOP School Violence Act, rather than create new grants and requirements from scratch.
The senators’ agreement isn’t specific about which programs it would fund, or how much those programs would receive under an eventual bill.
Here’s what the agreement would do:
- Provide funding to expand school-based mental health, student supports, and wraparound services that address issues like hunger and connect students to community resources. The proposal does not detail what programs this would include.
- Fund unspecified telehealth programs to provide mental health support for “youth and families in crisis.” A coalition of education groups has advocated for increased flexibility to use Medicaid dollars for mental health treatments in schools, including through telehealth services.
- Expand community behavioral health centers and provide “major investments” for suicide prevention programs and crisis and trauma intervention.
- Fund unspecified programs “to help institute safety measures in and around primary and secondary schools, support school violence prevention efforts, and provide training to school personnel and students.”
What happens next?
Senators and their staffs now have to do the hard work of converting a thin outline of an agreement into bill text that outlines all of the sticky specifics that could make it more or less likely that the proposal eventually becomes a law.
Educators will likely be most interested in what school safety and mental health programs would receive funding through the bill and how prescriptive the text will be about how that money can be spent.
While some Republicans in Congress have suggested schools should reroute COVID-19 relief aid to add more police and security measures, some Democrats have criticized such measures as “turning schools into fortresses” without making students any safer.
How likely is it that an eventual bill becomes law?
For those hoping for even baby steps of federal action following the Uvalde shooting, the most crucial detail of the agreement is that 10 Republican senators signed onto it.
While Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, it takes 60 votes to overcome the Senate’s filibuster threshold. Assuming all 50 Democratic senators support the final bill language, those 10 Republican supporters could be enough to bring the measure to a vote.
The devil will be in the details.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for example, voiced support for the negotiations, stopping short of giving full approval to the outline. Some Republicans may find fault with the details of the gun provisions, including the specifics of enhanced background checks for younger buyers.
For some Democrats, the outline fails to deliver on policies they’ve advocated for. And some may be concerned about how much money could flow to school police or physical security measures.
But negotiators, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., see the proposal as a positive step forward.