WASHINGTON — As schoolchildren staged a walkout across the country to press for tougher gun controls, Congress took modest steps Wednesday to prevent violence in classrooms - even as lawmakers continued squabbling over broader action to curb gun rights.
The House overwhelmingly passed the first federal legislation to address gun violence or school safety since the Feb. 14 shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
Lawmakers passed the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, 407 to 10. The vote came hours after thousands of students marched through the streets of Washington and walked out of schools across the country to build support for similar legislation.
The bill reauthorizes a program created in 2001 through the Justice Department to prevent threats against schools. The legislation authorizes $50 million to intensify school security, pay for federal "threat assessment teams" to help school districts sort through reported threats, create an anonymous reporting system so that students and others can report threats and pay for training and technical assistance programs for law enforcement and school officials to help identify potentially violent behavior.
But the bill says nothing about firearms - a top demand of the Stoneman Douglas students, who sparked the national walkout and ongoing campaign to enact gun control measures. Students at the high school are pushing for consideration of a proposed federal ban on military-style rifles and a revamp of the national criminal background check system that failed to pass five years ago in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
"There is still much work to be done, but the best way to keep our students and teachers safe is to give them the tools and the training to recognize the warning signs to prevent violence from ever entering our school grounds. This bill aims to do just that," said Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., its lead sponsor.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., whose district includes Parkland, co-sponsored the bill, which was also backed by Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed by parents of the children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. A similar bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is awaiting consideration in the Senate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the legislation "a multifaceted approach that will help prevent school violence before it takes place." He said nothing Wednesday about the possibility of considering other legislation to address gun violence or school safety.
But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said earlier Wednesday that Rutherford's bill "will not be the only bill" passed to address school violence.
The House late last year passed legislation that would bolster the background check system by compelling federal agencies to accurately and quickly report information about people banned from buying weapons. But the "Fix NICS" proposal was coupled with a bill that would greatly expand the ability of Americans to carry concealed weapons across state lines.
In the Senate, a stand-alone "Fix NICS" proposal awaits consideration, but it is being held up by Republicans opposed to potential curbs on due-process rights and Democrats pushing for a broader debate on gun control. An expansion of concealed-carry rights is not under consideration in the closely divided Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a lead sponsor of the "Fix NICS" bill, said this week that his legislation "will save lives."
"I know there's pressure from those who want more controversial measures to be added, but, frankly, they are ones that can't pass the Senate, much less the House, or be signed into law," he said. "So I would hope that we would focus our attention on what is achievable, what is bipartisan, what brings together people at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum."
But on Wednesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., decried the lack of broader congressional action to prevent deadly school shootings, comparing the scourge of gun violence to drug addiction and incurable diseases.
"Why is it that when it comes to gun violence, which is responsible for just as many, if not more, deaths, we throw up our hands, we pretend there is no solution?" Schumer asked.
Similar sentiments expressed by several Democrats earned applause from the audience at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Parkland shooting.
"I don't know what we are waiting for," said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. "We don't need any more tragedies, and we don't need any more new ideas. We've got great ideas. What we need is the courage for Congress to act."
At the hearing, the FBI's acting deputy director, David Bowdich, repeated the department's assertion that warnings about accused shooter Nikolas Cruz were not sufficiently heeded.
"We made mistakes; there is no question about that," Bowdich said. "That said, I'm not sure we could have stopped the attack. But it sure would have been nice to try."
Senators grilled representatives of the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Secret Service. They focused primarily on the failure of law enforcement to act on dozens of tips received about the Parkland shooter, as well as their systems for assessing threats and collecting data on those threats.
Both Republican and Democratic senators questioned law enforcement agencies' ability to assess mass-shooting threats. But Republicans, led by Sens. Ted Cruz, Texas, and Lindsey Graham, S.C., focused heavily on the failure of law enforcement officers and whether disciplinary action has been taken against anyone, while Democrats primarily discussed the need for greater gun restrictions, notably background checks and curtailing magazine capacities, as well as better collection of data to help law enforcement agencies assess threats.