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December 12, 2018

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With gun control nearing a dead end, the GOP turns to ‘school safety’


Al Drago / The New York Times

Students sit in protest outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2018.

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders, turning away from significant gun control legislation, have shifted instead toward measures that would beef up security at the nation’s schools, hoping the push will quell public uproar over the recent massacre in Parkland, Florida.

But as students and parents from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School continue their own organizing, the school safety strategy is unlikely to end the debate. Democrats and gun control advocates accused Republicans and the National Rifle Association of using school safety to divert attention from what they see as the real issue: the proliferation of guns that have been used in mass shootings at concerts, in movie theaters, on college campuses, in churches and at workplaces, as well as at public schools.

“This time, the gun rights crowd messed with the wrong community, the wrong kids and the wrong dad,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed at the school. He added, “I intend to be a part of breaking this gun lobby.”

The Republican House plans to vote next week on the STOP School Violence Act, a bill that would authorize $50 million for safety improvements, including training teachers and students in how to prevent violence and developing anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence.

The bill, drafted by Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., a former sheriff from Jacksonville, Florida, is one of a flurry of bipartisan measures introduced in the House and the Senate devoted to school safety — without curbs on guns. In the Senate, a companion bill would also give schools money for physical improvements, such as installing metal detectors or bulletproof doors.

And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced his own school safety measure Wednesday. His bill would allow 100,000 public schools to use federal dollars for school counselors, alarm systems, security cameras and crisis intervention training.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threw her weight behind what she said was the only approach that could muster broad support after a brief but contentious visit Wednesday to Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were gunned down on Valentine’s Day.

“I think there’s an opportunity to take some practical steps that many, many people agree on and continue pushing forward on things that have broad support,” she said.

But as the midterm election season begins, the school safety votes may be only an opening volley.

“The Republicans would like to have the public think they’re doing something and have the NRA think they’re doing nothing,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

Gun control has long been one of the most divisive and contentious issues in Washington, and the rush to legislate on school safety reflects the difficulty of passing measures that have anything to do with guns. On Wednesday, students advocating gun safety legislation staged a sit-in outside the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, chanting “Enough is enough!” and “Not one more!” Eight were arrested, police said.

But most gun safety proposals — including expanding background checks for gun purchases, raising the minimum age for buying rifles to 21 from 18, banning assault-style weapons like the AR-15 used by the gunman in Parkland and taking guns away from people deemed mentally unfit — appear to be going nowhere on Capitol Hill. President Donald Trump’s mercurial statements have not helped. At a televised White House session, he appeared to back broad gun control legislation, only to muddy his position after an evening meeting with the NRA’s chief lobbyist.

One exception is the Fix NICS Act, a modest measure that would offer incentives to states and federal agencies to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, for gun purchasers. The measure, which is backed by the NRA, has passed the House and has broad bipartisan support in the Senate.

But even that legislation is facing a hurdle: McConnell cannot bring it up quickly for a vote because Senate rules require unanimous consent to do so, and at least one senator, Mike Lee, R-Utah, has objected. And while McConnell is a co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the STOP School Violence Act, he has not said when the Senate will consider it.

The Senate’s chief sponsor of the STOP School Violence Act, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said in an interview Wednesday that his aim was to focus on “special programs and special approaches toward making these schools safer and more acceptable to the families and kids.”

As for Democrats who consider the measure insufficient, Hatch said: “That’s their motif every time. I mean, they know that if they can raise hell against guns and so forth, that that gives them a lot of publicity. But that doesn’t necessarily help us in our educational processes.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of Hatch’s bill, said he did not want the Senate to lose sight of more far-reaching legislation that would address gun violence head-on.

“That’s a useful bill, but it doesn’t have anything to do with gun laws,” Murphy said.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, also welcomed efforts to increase safety and resources, but she said legislators and Trump had used it deflect from the larger demands of the public.

“The kids from Stoneman Douglas said, ‘Do certain common-sense, gun violence reduction measures — don’t change the subject,'” Weingarten said.