Trump school safety plan backs arming teachers, drops controversial gun measures
The White House has released details of President Donald Trump’s proposal to improve school safety in the wake of a fatal mass shooting at a Florida high school, but critics say it fails to address some key issues and dodges subjects that could prove thorny with his pro-gun base.
The president’s proposal, released nearly a month after the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, largely reflects priorities he has laid out in public appearances and tweets in recent weeks: arming teachers, hardening schools, and taking limited steps on gun control.
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Under the plan, the Justice Department would assist states to provide rigorous firearms training for teachers who want it. The administration also wants to encourage veterans and retired law enforcement officers with weapons training to go into education.
The president is endorsing two pieces of legislation already introduced in Congress. One is the STOP School Violence Act that authorizes grants for violence prevention training for teachers and students.
The administration is also fully throwing its support behind legislation co-sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., aimed at increasing the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The White House is encouraging states to pass laws allowing risk protection orders that would authorize law enforcement to take guns away from people deemed to be a threat to themselves and others. Florida recently became the fifth state to introduce so-called “red flag” orders.
In addition, Trump wants to see better coordination between mental health professionals, schools, and law enforcement, and he is ordering a full audit of the FBI’s tip line after a warning about Parkland shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was mishandled by FBI call-takers.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted at Monday’s White House briefing that Trump has not abandoned raising the minimum age to purchase some firearms, but his proposal is focused on things with broad bipartisan support and things the executive branch can do administratively.
“He hasn’t backed away from these things at all. They’re still outlined in the plan, but he can’t make them happen with the stroke of a pen,” she said.
Trump, who has tapped Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to lead a Federal Commission on School Safety that may examine some restrictions on gun rights, defended his plan on Twitter Monday.
“Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House. Legislation moving forward. Bump Stocks will soon be out. Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!” he tweeted.
The National Education Association was disappointed by Trump’s proposal, which includes several measures the organization that represents 3 million teachers has previously opposed.
“Let us be crystal clear and reiterate that our students need fewer guns in schools — not more of them — and bringing guns into our schools does absolutely nothing to protect our students and educators from gun violence,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement Monday.
The proposal has received a mixed response from Congress, including senators from Florida.
“I applaud the President for supporting many of the initiatives I have offered that will promote gun safety, including incentivizing states to adopt Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) and the Stop School Violence Act,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a statement.
“The answer to protecting our kids and communities is not more guns in our schools or arming teachers. That's a terrible idea. We should be focused on expanding background checks and getting these military-style assault rifles off the streets,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
School safety experts see some positive aspects of Trump’s plan, but other elements are causing concern.
According to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, encouraging states to audit school district emergency plans is helpful because many states have “few carrots and no sticks” to incentivize planning. He is also pleased by Trump’s support for the STOP School Violence Act.
“Today, that’s the most balanced, on-target proposal I’ve seen in the whole discussion at the federal level even since Sandy Hook,” he said of the legislation.
However, he does not support the widespread arming of teachers.
“I think it’s a high risk, high liability proposition,” he said.
If the DeVos commission brings in school safety professionals instead of special interests and political insiders, Trump sees some opportunity for progress, noting that a school safety commission in Oklahoma has been very productive.
Chris Dorn, a senior analyst at Safe Havens International, only sees value in having teachers carry weapons in limited situations, but he does like the idea of having more people with military or law enforcement backgrounds working in schools.
“If we are going to arm teachers, this may be one of the best groups to look at if they are current on their training and have been properly screened and vetted,” he said.
He also believes schools need more consistent recommendations for best practices and the resources to train for and implement them.
“The biggest thing that would help schools is more support and funding for basic security equipment and training,” he said. “I think it is unrealistic to expect schools to buy guns for teachers when many cannot afford door lock upgrades or improvements to their building communications systems.”
The president’s proposal has already come under fire for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it directly contradicts things Trump said as recently as the day before.
At a rally Saturday, Trump mocked the notion of creating commissions to solve the nation’s problems, but on Sunday, the White House proposed creating a commission to solve the problem of school violence.
“His own words undermine his seriousness of doing something to protect our students, educators and communities. Our students deserve better,” Eskelsen Garcia said.
At a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers in late February, President Trump took Republican Sen. Pat Toomey to task for not including a provision in his gun control proposal to raise the age for purchases.
"You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA," Trump said.
Weeks later, after a private meeting with NRA officials, Trump did not include a provision to raise the age for purchase in his proposal. He also backed away from comments at that meeting with members of Congress that appeared to endorse universal background checks and taking people’s guns without due process.
The result is a school safety plan that hews very closely to the NRA’s positions. Speaking to reporters Sunday, an administration official insisted the president is not concerned about the NRA, but he now believes the age limits are a state issue.
A state-level effort to raise the minimum age in Florida is already facing legal pushback from the NRA, which claims the bill “punishes law-abiding gun owners for the criminal acts of a deranged individual.”
Gun control advocates have slammed President Trump over the omission of firearm restrictions he has at times leaned toward supporting, and they have accused him of cowering before the NRA just as he alleged Toomey had.
“The White House plan is a complete failure of leadership. On gun safety, they shrug and pass the buck to the states. But when it comes to the NRA’s priorities, they’re happy to push for a federal mandate that guts state laws,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement.
"We need adults in Congress to listen to the public and pass gun reforms that put the safety of our children first, not to kowtow to the gun lobby and the dangerous policies it promotes,” said Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“Our students need more books, art and music programs, nurses and school counselors; they do not need more guns in their classrooms. Teachers should be teaching, not acting as armed security guards,” Eskelsen Garcia said in her statement.
Trump maintained at his meeting with lawmakers last month that "I'm not into popularity, I'm into getting something done that's good." However, in his tweets Monday, he suggested a lack of political support (“to put it mildly”) is standing in the way on age limits.
However, in a recent CNN poll, 71 percent of respondents supported raising the minimum age to buy any gun to 21, including a majority of Republicans. An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released last week found that only 42 percent of Americans support Trump’s preferred solution of arming teachers.
Confronted with that conflict Monday, Sarah Sanders said Trump was referring to the political will in Congress to pass a federal law.
Experts who study the contentious political debate on gun control were unsurprised to see the president shy away from a showdown with the NRA.
“When push comes to shove, he realizes the NRA has much too much strength in Congress to allow those kinds of reforms to go forward,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
Matthew Lebo, chair of the political science department at Stony Brook University, noted that the sequence of events was similar to Trump’s handling of immigration, when he seemed to back more moderate measures in a public meeting with Democrats but later adopted a more hardline stance.
“This has been his pattern in many areas where something that might sound good to him pops out of his mouth and might be popular with the American people and he says it but then he is reined back in,” he said.
Many had been hopeful after the Parkland shooting that the advocacy efforts of the teen survivors would fundamentally alter the gun control debate and lead to reforms that have long been popular with the public but opposed by the gun lobby. While efforts again appear to be stymied, Lebo warned it is too soon to conclude those expectations were unfounded.
“Things might be different, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans in Congress or a Republican president will change their positions easily on it,” he said.
The extent of the shift may not be clear until November when we see whether gun control advocates can damage pro-NRA politicians and elect candidates who support firearm restrictions.
“The truth is, the gun debate is not going to change overnight,” Winkler said.
Security experts fear the gun fight detracts from a discussion of what they see as more pressing school safety issues.
“Since Sandy Hook, school safety has been politically hijacked by both sides of the gun issue,” Ken Trump said.
Shootings may garner headlines, but other emergencies like traffic fatalities are much more common.
“There are proven ways to make schools safer that have nothing to do with gun control or armed security,” Dorn said. “We also know that active shooters are not the biggest risk in schools.”
Among both political experts and safety experts, there was a sense of resignation that Trump’s school safety commission will accomplish little, especially if it turns out to be the kind of commission Trump himself derided over the weekend.
“In Washington, when you set up a commission, it often means you’re just delaying moving on anything,” Winkler said.