What has Trump done to protect US schools from gun violence in the past year

Is he listening?
Is he listening?
Image: REUTERS/Jim Bourg
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A year ago today, the White House held an emotional public meeting with recent American survivors of gun violence.

“How did we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook?” asked Sam Zeif, a student at Florida’s Montgomery Douglas High School, where 14 kids and three school staff had been slaughtered just a week ago, including his best friend.

“We need to do something. And that’s why we’re here. So let’s be strong, for the fallen who don’t have a voice to speak anymore, and let’s never let this happen again. Please. Please,” Zeif said, his voice breaking.

The US has far more mass shootings, and a higher rate of gun deaths, than any other developed nation, because it has less strict laws about who can own a gun or hold ammunition.

President Trump pledged a year ago to support “strong background checks” and tougher age limits for gun purchases. Days later, on Feb. 27, 2018 he reiterated those promises, while mocking state governors for being “so afraid” of the National Rifle Association, the pro-gun lobby group. On March 12, 2018, the White House issued a list of ways in which it promised to “secure our schools.”

Since the Parkland shooting, “we have made tremendous strides,” Trump said in an statement on Feb. 14, 2019, the one year anniversary of the tragedy, citing a number of changes including millions in funding to schools and local communities, and passing tougher requirements for states to report to a federal database. But the results have been the opposite of what was expected.

Mass shootings have not dropped

The official number of US gun deaths in 2018 won’t be released until late this year; in 2017 they hit a 20-year high. There have been six incidents of gun violence in schools since Parkland, the same number as there were in the full year of 2017; at least 1,200 US kids have been killed by gun violence in the 12 months since the Parkland shooting, according to “Since Parkland,” a project led by teen journalists. As of Feb. 20 the US has had 43 mass shootings (in which four or more people were shot or killed) in 2019, up from 33 mass shootings in the same time frame last year.

Here’s what’s changed on the ground.

The Fix NICS Act

The federal legislation was passed in March of 2018 as part of a larger spending bill. It’s the continuation of a nationwide effort first started by a firearms trade group to require states to do a better job reporting people who are prohibited locally from owning a gun to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a federal database run by the FBI.

While the White House has associated the bill with the Parkland anniversary, it is more closely linked to the 2017 Sutherland, Texas shooting, after which the Pentagon inspector general discovered that the Air Force had known about the shooter’s record of violence, but failed to notify the FBI.

The new law promises to “hold states accountable” that don’t report correctly, and give grants to those that do.

The FBI’s NICS section “cannot currently gauge if there has been a significant increase based on the passing of the legislation,” a spokeswoman told Quartz. As of Jan. 31, 2019, the database had 19.5 million active records, up from 17.5 million a year ago; about 230,000 of that increase was from “State Prohibitors.” It is important to note that the “NICS Indices is ever-changing,” the FBI spokeswoman said. “Contributors add, modify, and delete NICS Indices records on a daily basis.”

The Stop School Violence Act

The legislation, also passed in March of 2018 as part the same spending bill that funded the NICS act, gives $75 million in 2018 and $100 million every year from 2019 to 2028 to schools to set up anonymous reporting systems for threats of violence, improve coordination with local law enforcement, and teach school officials, students, and police more about identifying and preventing violence.

The Department of Justice said in October it had received some $70 million in grant funding for this purpose, and started distributing it:

  • $24 million was awarded to 91 schools (pdf) for programs to “create and operate threat assessment and crisis intervention teams and to develop technology for local or regional anonymous reporting systems.”
  • $28 million was awarded to 85 schools (pdf) to “provide training and education on preventing violence and effectively responding to related mental health crises.”
  • $19 million was awarded to 68 schools and local law enforcement centers (pdf) to “create and operate threat assessment and crisis intervention teams and to develop technology for local or regional anonymous reporting systems.”

The justice department does not have any information on the impact of these awards so far, and most of the work on setting up new programs is just underway. ”We are currently in the early development stages of implementing the programs that received funding from the DOJ,” said Mark Bosma, the public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management.

Vermont received DOJ using funding for a new community care-taking program called SurviVermont that will be introduced this year, and for a police school safety tip line, he said. SurviVermont will “empower Vermonters with information about what they can do to protect themselves and others should they find themselves in a situation involving an active shooter or violent threat,” Bosma said.

The Federal Commission on School Safety

The Department of Education, which heads this Trump commission, started a website on school safety, and issued a lengthy report (pdf) on the topic in December that recommended arming teachers, among other options, but said it didn’t think Trump’s promise of raising age limits to buy guns would make schools safer. The commission was roundly criticized by gun-violence prevention experts for failing to include them in the process.

The US’s biggest teachers unions issued a report this year disputing the commission’s findings. The report recommended a focus on identifying troubled students and intervening before they come to school with a gun; the commission’s “reactive solutions focused on armed staff and teachers…serve only to put our children in more danger,” it said. State measures to arm teachers have mostly stalled under opposition from parents and schools.

Strengthening background checks

Last March, the White House called states to adopt “Extreme Risk Protection Orders” (ERPOs), also known as “red-flag laws,” which allow local law enforcement to seize firearms from people believed to pose a risk to themselves or others. As of Jan. 19, 2019, 13 states had passed such laws, up from just five in 2017.

Gun-safety activists say those have come with little help from Trump. The president “has absolutely not followed up on his promise to support extreme risk protective orders,” says Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, a gun-safety advocacy organization. There are things Trump could do, Lloyd says: the president could support a bipartisan bill that was introduced this month that would make it easier for states to establish an ERPO, for example, or he could push senate judiciary chair Lindsey Graham to pass a bill Graham himself introduced last year to establish a federal ERPO system.

“There are many bipartisan solutions to address gun violence in this country, and the president needs to do more than offer lip service to this public-safety issue that’s devastating American communities,” Lloyd says.

Mental health reform

Last year, Trump proposed “expansion and reform of mental health programs, including those that help identify and treat individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others, “including a review of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and other statutory and regulatory privacy protections.

The Department of Education recently released a FAQ to “clarify” what information schools can share with law enforcement in the interest of school safety, and recommended this December that Congress modernize the FERPA act to make it easier for mental health providers to share private medical information. Also in December, the Department of Health asked for public input about scaling down privacy barriers to sharing medical information and increasing parental involvement in medical care under HIPAA, citing the opioid crisis. There have been no changes to existing laws.

Bump stocks

In December of 2018, the Department of Justice officially banned “bump stocks,” gun add-ons that are capable of turning a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun. Owners have until March of this year to turn in their devices.