Jahana Hayes was teaching in Waterbury on Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, about 20 miles away.
Her own school went into lockdown, as did her son’s preschool. Then Hayes received a call from her husband, a Waterbury police officer.
“He said, ‘it’s bad, really bad,’ ’' Hayes recalled. Twenty-six children and educators were fatally shot before the gunman killed himself.
Hayes, now a Democratic member of Congress, said the shooting strengthened her resolve to address gun violence. “As an educator and a parent … this is deeply personal for me‚’’ she said. “Now I have a responsibility as a legislator.”
Hayes, whose district includes Sandy Hook, is a chief sponsor of a measure that directs federal departments to track data related to school shootings, from a shooter’s demographics to the type of weapon used.
The bill also seeks to answer a basic question: what constitutes a school shooting? There is no federal definition of the term, leaving policymakers to rely on news accounts.
“We’ve seen an uptick in school-based violence, school shootings, and it’s fascinating to me that there’s no official data collection means by the federal government so that we can clearly define a response or put preventive measures in place,’' Hayes said.
“On a very basic level, there’s no federal definition of what a school shooting is or what constitutes a mass shooting, so every single one of these incidents is looked at as an individual incident,’' she added. “At the very least, we need to have a universally recognized term.’'
Education Week journalists began in 2018 tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths. There is no single right way of calculating numbers like this, and the human toll is impossible to measure. We hope only to provide reliable information to help inform discussions, debates, and paths forward.
Hayes joined with fellow Democrats Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Lucy McBath of Georgia in sponsoring the School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act.
Wasserman Schultz’ district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were shot and killed in 2018, and McBath’s 17-year-old son was shot and killed in 2012.
A summary of the bill was not available on the Congressional website, but the measure’s sponsors said it would direct the U.S. Department of Education, in conjunction with the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, to produce detailed annual reports on school safety.
The reports would include shooting and fatality statistics, shooter and victim demographics, shooter motivations and the types of firearms and ammunition acquired and used. They would also track prevention efforts, such as school building design and communication and response plans.
The National Rifle Association has long pushed back against legislative efforts to mandate studies and the collection of data related to guns used in crimes, calling such efforts an infringement on the Second Amendment. An email to the organization was not returned.
Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said law-abiding gun owners also feel grief and empathy when school shootings occur.
“We are also parents and involved community members,’' she said. But she noted a similar bill was proposed in 2019 and it did not pass because “it embraces elements of gun control, not just research.”
Sullivan compared the proposal to the sweeping gun control laws passed by the Connecticut legislature in 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.
“Our priority should be first and foremost that school security is adequate,’' she said. “Sadly, we are woefully short of that goal which is clearly evident. We are concerned that a bill such as this will have the same effect on a national level as Connecticut’s PA 13-3, in which the State executed only on the gun control aspect virtually ignoring the school safety and mental health elements.”
But to Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, such data collection efforts are key to documenting the scope of the problem.
“For years, the NRA and the gun lobby do not want Americans to know the true nature of gun violence in the United States,’' Stein said. “We need to be looking at this just as we look at any other public health crisis.’'
Stein noted the volume of data related to the COVID-19 crisis that has been collected by the government and made easily accessible to the public, including positivity rates, hospitalization metrics and deaths.
“There’s no reason why law enforcement and lay people should be able to go on an easily available website and find out what gun violence looks like in their neighborhood the same way they can with the pandemic,” Stein said.
He praised Hayes’ bill, but said he would like to see the data collection expanded to include all shootings, not just those that happen on school grounds. Last week, the governors of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania announced that they will share data on firearms in response to a nationwide spike in gun violence.
“While we’re supportive of Rep. Hayes’ bill, we do also think that the focus should be greater than school shootings,’' Stein said. “We should also be looking at shootings that happen everyday … we should be looking at community gun violence and suicide.’'
Hayes said she hopes this year’s version of the legislation will win passage, if for no other reason than the fact that more lawmakers have experienced the anguish of mass shootings in their districts.
“For years, this felt like something that happened in someone else’s school or in someone else’s neighborhood,’' Hayes said. “But so many communities are being personally impacted. I’ve seen some of my colleagues change their position because there was an active shooter where they live.’'
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