GOP talk of school ‘hardening’ panned as fig leaf by Democrats
Republicans discussing school safety grants; Democrats prefer to keep focus on gun control
Senate Republicans are floating the idea of more federal grant funding for school safety measures following the Tuesday shooting at a Texas elementary school in which a gunman killed 19 children and two adults.
Democrats are once again pushing for gun control measures following two mass shootings this month with double-digit death counts —the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting and the racially motivated murder of 10 Black shoppers and employees at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 14.
But Democrats have been unable to garner enough Republican support to pass any sort of gun legislation following similar shootings, leaving the chances of getting 60 votes slim.
Republicans are instead focusing on increased security measures, or school “hardening,” following the shooting.
Similarly, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday during a Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the agency is working to “harden” schools, including training local law enforcement on active shooter situations and creating public service announcements about school security.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said after a GOP Conference lunch Wednesday that she advocated for “taking COVID money and repurposing that to put out matching grants that states could use to harden their schools," and "several people mentioned similar things.”
Congress has already moved to provide more school security funding in recent years, authorizing $1 billion over 10 years following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That funding is dependent on appropriations, which lawmakers could decide to bolster in the wake of recent mass shootings.
[Congress set aside $1 billion after Parkland. Now schools are starting to use it]
The Justice Department is distributing prior appropriations to school districts across the country, including providing $126 million in December 2021 to schools for physical improvements and training for personnel and students.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he wants to harden schools, “and if it requires some federal encouragement to do that, I think that’d be fine.”
Increasing funding for school districts and local law enforcement is an area where bipartisan compromise is feasible, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said.
“The one thing that we have proven that we’re able to do is to spend more money,” Rounds said. “And sometimes it means providing those local units of government with the resources that they need, to actually be able to address, on a local, location by location basis, that additional help.”
But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer quickly threw cold water on the idea that Democrats would be satisfied with “hardening schools,” pointing out that law enforcement was already on scene at the Texas school when the massacre occurred.
“Hardening schools would have done nothing to prevent this shooting,” he said. “In fact, there were guards and police officers already at the school yesterday when the shooter showed up. … The shooter got past all of them with two assault weapons that he purchased. They couldn’t stop him.”
Schumer said Wednesday he would like to find bipartisan agreement on a legislative response to the recent mass shootings and encouraged Republicans to vote in favor of a procedural motion Thursday needed to begin debate on House-passed domestic terrorism legislation.
Schumer said that bill could be used as a vehicle to debate gun control and school safety proposals from both parties. But if Republicans block that debate from unfolding, Democrats will still hold another vote in the near future on gun legislation, Schumer said, without committing to a specific measure.
During the FBI budget hearing Wednesday, Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called for legislation to strengthen background checks and stop allowing “the sale of weapons of war.”
Wray said the FBI has trained about 110,000 law enforcement officers on active shooter response and provided public service announcements and instructional videos to schools, places of worship and law enforcement.
“I hate the fact we even have to talk about hardening our schools, but it is a reality that they have become targets,” he said. “In addition to all of our investigative work, our bread and butter … we provide all sorts of support through training and capacity building.”
While the FBI also provides help in response to shootings, such as forensic support and shooting incident reconstruction, Wray said the agency wants to prevent shootings.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to better get in front of it,” he said.
Wray said the FBI’s top concern is lone actors attacking everyday people — as seen in the recent mass shootings.
“As the horrific attack a little over a week ago in Buffalo shows, we have to stay laser focused on our efforts to counter violence motivated by hate and extremism,” Wray said.
Funding for background checks
The FBI’s fiscal 2023 request includes $10.7 billion for salaries and expenses, a 6 percent increase over the $10.1 billion the agency received in the fiscal 2022 omnibus.
The FBI’s total budget request for fiscal 2023 is $10.8 billion, with $61.8 million for construction on top of the salaries and expenses request. In fiscal 2022, the FBI received $632 million for construction — more than 10 times what the administration asked for, with the $570 million addition directed by Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., to the FBI's Huntsville facilities.
The fiscal 2023 increase includes $48.8 million “to counter acts of mass violence and threats to public safety,” according to budget documents. This includes an additional $6.2 million for 70 positions to conduct background checks for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to budget documents.
The NICS processed over 34 million transactions in fiscal 2020, a 24 percent increase over the just under 27.5 million processed in fiscal 2019, the budget documents state.
The FBI is given three days to determine a person’s eligibility to purchase a firearm. If gun sellers don’t hear back from the NICS after three business days, they are allowed to transfer the gun to the buyer.
In 2021, 446,488 transactions were unresolved after the third business day, according to FBI data — a significant number, though only 4.3 percent of all sales.
The additional personnel are necessary “to maintain the integrity of the NICS Program,” according to budget documents.