“So we’ll look at gun violence in schools, but not look at guns,” Leahy, the subcommittee’s vice-chair, said at the end of his back-and-forth, after unsuccessfully pushing DeVos to opine on whether an 18-year-old should be able to easily purchase an AR-15 rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. “That’s an interesting concept.”
DeVos’s admission stands in contrast with the duties the commission was given at the outset—in fact, examining age restrictions on certain firearm purchases is the first item on the White House’s bullet-point list detailing the commission’s areas of focus. When the Education Week reporter Andrew Ujifusa asked DeVos’s spokeswoman on Tuesday to clarify the matter, she emphasized that, unlike Congress, the commission can’t create or amend gun laws but confirmed that it will look into “all issues the President asked the committee to study”—a framing that appeared to contradict what DeVos had said in her testimony.
The responses from both DeVos and her spokeswoman will likely do little to assure the Senators and others who believe gun reform is integral to efforts to make schools safer. For them, the secretary’s promise to study the “culture of violence,” where it comes from, and how it manifests itself in different ways is incomplete if it’s not coupled with a hard look at gun laws.
By relegating gun control to the backburner, the commission could wind up exemplifying what critics say is the Trump administration’s half-hearted approach to the country’s school-violence phenomenon. After all, the budget DeVos was promoting on Tuesday proposes cutting by $25 million funds designated for national school-safety activities compared with 2017 levels; it also would do away with a $400 million grant program that can be used for violence-prevention efforts.
“This budget is another example of an empty promise made by this administration to address the senseless gun violence devastating our families and our schools and our communities around the country,” said Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, during the hearing. “Your safety commission has yet to take any real action steps and now your budget would eliminate grants used to improve student safety for the second year in a row. After the tragic Parkland shooting, you said Congress should hold hearings on gun and school safety. So, in a show of good faith, I urge you to commit to testify on what meaningful gun safety reform we can enact to help end the scourge of violence in the schools.”
When it was her turn to question DeVos, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, also a Democrat, pointed out that the school-gun-violence problem is unique to the United States. She then went on to beg the secretary to tweak the commission’s mission to ensure it actively studies gun laws and the role that guns play in school violence.