“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
In the National Rifle Association’s first public statement since the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre echoed the urgency of would-be gun control reformers in the White House and Congress, while pushing for a drastically different course of action. In a 20-minute statement, the face of the NRA laid out a case for upping the number of armed personnel in schools — both police officers and armed armed school personnel — and heaped blame for gun violence on a failing mental health system, sensationalist media and violent video games and films.
Political Party Time: Sandy Hook hasn’t dampened pols’ enthusiasm for gun fundraisers.
One year since the tragedy in Newtown, mental health remains a potent issue — the National Alliance for Mental Illness’ State Legislation report for 2013 finds that most states have increased their budgets for mental health services in the wake of recent mass murders. However, legislation that would bring more armed personnel in schools has largely stalled, while the video game industry has successfully dodged attempts at greater regulation of its violent titles.
More guns in schools?
In LaPierre’s appearance last year, the NRA announced its new task force on school safety — the School Shield Initiative — led by former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. SSI’s findings and policy recommendations were released in April. Along with improved emergency planning and coordination with local law enforcement, the group recommended that schools increase the number of trained adults with firearms in schools. This personnel would undergo training of 40-60 hours by the NRA and would cut down the emergency response time in the event of an attack. The Shield Initiative full report also included sample legislation to allow for more individuals to carry concealed weapons on schools and strategies for funding an increased police presence in the education system.
LaPierre argued that “Gun Free Zones” were partially responsible for the atrocity, advertising to “every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.” An analysis of Sunlight’s Open States data by Education Week found that plenty of state legislators echoed the sentiment. The report analyzed more than 450 laws on school safety sponsored in the wake of Sandy Hook and found 101 that would increase police presence in schools, 84 that dealt with arming school employees and 73 that would ease prohibitions on carrying guns in schools. But just a small fraction of these measures were enacted into law.
This smattering of new pro-gun school safety laws vary widely in both aim and scope. Alabama’s HB 600, for instance, allows “retired law enforcement officers to serve as part-time school resource officers on a part-time basis specifically in Etowah County schools,” according to Education Week researchers. Kansas’ HB 2052 “allows school boards to authorize employees with permits to carry weapons at schools, and loosens prohibitions on carrying guns on school grounds.” As previously reported by Sunlight, the Sunflower State enacted a law nullifying federal gun control laws on firearms made in the state.
It appears that the initial fervor for increasing armed security in schools has died down recently. The majority of these bills were sponsored in the first four months after the shooting.
In Congress, conservative members have proposed plans to eradicate Gun Free Zones and allocate funds for more school police officers as well as making access to a Domestic Violence Lawyer more affordable for middle class families. But they’ve failed to gain much traction.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., introduced the Citizens Protection Act of 2013 just 19 days after the massacre. The bill would repeal the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1990, though it is still pending any congressional action. Though lobbying reports from the NRA do not make any explicit mention of Massie’s bill, it is not clear if the organization actively lobbied members in support of the legislation.
However, the gun rights group did use its extensive advocacy muscle to push for new appropriations for armed school security.
NRA News aired a segment on the Protect America’s School’s Act of 2013 sponsored by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., while NRA-hired lobbyists flacked the bill inside the Capitol. Like Massie’s legislation, however, this bill has languished for months as the national dialogue shifted to assault weapon regulation and background checks.
Video game violence
One of the most controversial claims made by the NRA post-Sandy Hook involved the alleged link between video game violence and school shootings. The group blamed a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people” that produced titles like “Grand Theft Auto” (see picture above) and films like “Natural Born Killers.”
The Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, was an video avid game player who owned titles ranging from the hit “Call of Duty” to “School Shooting,” in which a player murders virtual students. Though restricting children’s access to virtual bloodshed had support from both sides of the aisle in 2013, the video game industry’s burgeoning K Street presence scored a string of victories, including the defeat of a bill that would have given legal teeth to the currently voluntary ESRB video game ratings.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the industry’s main trade group, cites studies finding no correlation between children’s exposure to video game violence and aggressive tendencies, and has amassed a considerable influence team to argue its case on Capitol Hill.
As Sunlight reported in February, the gaming industry has been upping its political profile with significant campaign contributions to Democratic members and a seven-figure lobbying budget. The ESA had spent nearly $4 million on K Street through the third quarter of this year, and has assembled a lobbying team boasting 39 individuals with experience in the federal government, according to OpenSecrets.
In a statement in July, the ESA maintained that it welcomes additional research into the effects of video game violence on children. That’s the stated aim of S 134, the Violent Content Research Act, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. But some in the tech community worry the study could be a step in the direction of regulating free speech. There has been no action on the legislation since Rockefeller introduced it Jan. 23.
On top of a wide-ranging lobbying agenda focused on data privacy, high tech jobs and gun control, the trade group successfully stymied the recurring threat of legally-enforced content ratings for another year. While stores like GameSpot have an internal policy forbidding employees from selling ‘Mature’-rated games to minors, there is no legal penalty for doing so.
In the past, the ESA and the grassroots League for Gamers stared down a threat from the Violence in Video Games Labeling Act in 2012; now the 2013 iteration from Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, seems destined for a similar fate. The bill has not seen legislative action since January.
Mental health initiatives
The White House’s announcement earlier this week that it would devote $100 million to mental health resources to honor the anniversary of Sandy Hook caps a year in which state budgets for the mental health services have grown for the first time in years.
In its yearly report, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that a years-long trend of diminishing budgets for mental health had reversed in 2013, citing Newtown as a key mitigating factor.
Some states have also taken a more aggressive approach to screening and treating mental illness in the wake of the tragedy, the NAMI report finds. Nebraska’s LB 556 — signed by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman in June — provides for more screening services and mental health training for children. Nevada’s AB 386 established a pilot program for similar screenings in that state’s schools.
NAMI warned against an “avalanche of state legislation aimed at maintaining public safety” that would have a “chilling effect on willingness to seek care or that would erode the civil liberties of people who engage in mental health care,” citing the New York’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act, which mandates reporting requirements by clinicians in order to limit gun sales.
On Capitol Hill, however, a tight-fisted Congress has failed to pass several bills that would increase funding for mental health resources. The NRA-backed Mental Health First Act of 2013 was one of the bills to get gummed up in the legislative process. Though the NRA’s lobbying disclosures lists the bill as one of its legislative priorities, ambiguities of lobbying disclosure mean that it is impossible to know just how much of the group’s $2.5 million lobbying budget was devoted to the bill.