Congressional Democrats from Florida are again pushing legislation to create a federal bank of actionable school shooting data they say is vital to addressing a problem that still plagues American campuses nearly four years since the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, whose district includes the school, is leading the charge with help from U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida, Lucy McBath of Georgia and others.
“We don’t really know how bad this grisly picture is (or) what the scope of the problem is,” Wasserman Schultz said during a press conference Monday on Zoom. “My colleagues and I want to fill that data and information vacuum.”
Wasserman Schultz has filed a bill (HR 5428) she calls the School Shooting Safety and Preparedness Act. Former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in 2019 filed a similar bill with that name, but it died after clearing committee on a party-line vote.
The new bill borrows heavily from its earlier incarnation.
If enacted, the measure would direct the departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services to produce detailed, annual reports on school safety indicators, including fatality statistics, shooter and victim demographics, the types of firearms and ammunition used, and track prevention efforts like building designs and communications and response plans.
“Without all of that, a true understanding of this problem will remain just as elusive as the best solutions we need to finally end it,” she said. “And without this data, that pushback against sensible and obvious reforms to prevent further gun violence will continue to cherry-pick statistics to maintain the status quo, which is an ugly reality.”
The bill would also create a federal definition for “school shooting.” There currently isn’t one.
“Right now, policymakers rely on media reports or outside groups to try to figure out the true state of school shootings in America,” she said. “With a standard definition, lawmakers will have a reliable way to measure incidents, trends and the impact of any reforms.”
After the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, which resulted in the deaths of 17 students and teachers, some 1.2 million Americans marched throughout the nation, including at a massive gathering in Washington.
“I went to my first three funerals of a lifetime within a week,” said survivor Catherine Allen, who now volunteers with Students Demand Action in Florida. “I lost part of myself — the part of myself that didn’t have to sit with her back to a wall, part of myself that let me be a child.”
But almost four years later, as an entirely new class of students attend the school, children are still demanding action, and much of the information needed to tackle the issue of school shootings still isn’t available or collated in a way that it could be effectively used.
“We need to understand what makes schools vulnerable and targets of these devastating attacks — what motivations underlie them, what firearms were used and how they were fired,” Deutch said. “We need to understand what safety measures were successful in preventing tragedy and saving lives.”
HR 5428 — which McBath is co-sponsoring with fellow Democratic Reps. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Carolyn Malone of New York, Andy Levin of Michigan, Colin Allred of Texas and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. — comes at a vital time, said Rob Wilcox, federal legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonpartisan gun control advocacy group former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg founded in 2013.
During the current back-to-school period, he said, Everytown for Gun Safety has recorded more incidents of gunfire on school grounds than during any similar period since the organization started its work. One study found mass shootings have soared across the country, spurred possibly by pandemic-related stress, among other factors.
“It’s nearly doubled the previous high,” Wilcox said. “There’s never been a more important time for our lawmakers or local school boards to take action.”
Like Gabbard’s bill before it, Wasserman Schultz said she expects HR 5428 to pass through the Education and Labor Committee, of which McBath is a member. For now, only Democrats have voiced support for the bill.
That shouldn’t be the case, as the bill only calls for more information and would not add any restrictions, said Wasserman Schultz, who vowed she and others backing the bill would continue to pursue bipartisan support.
“Why would people who actually want to solve the problem be afraid of collecting information?” she asked. “Republicans made the argument that this is a gun control bill disguised as data collection which — I have no idea what that means.”
And if HB 5428 can’t pass on its own, she said, it could be tucked into a bigger bill that would.
“(This) is the type of legislation that can be easily incorporated into larger legislation to which it would be germane,” she said. “Being a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, (there is) the opportunity to add it to appropriations legislation.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has indicated it will reengage on the issue of gun safety in both chambers of Congress, Deutch said, including legislation to mandate universal background checks on firearm purchases that is also coming.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “This legislation will gather data. Universal background checks will help save lives immediately. And we’re going to move forward on both.”