- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said his city should “double down” on gun laws that are among the most stringent in the country, as leaders in the nation’s capital and other cities view the sudden debate over guns as a pressing issue that afflicts youth both inside and outside of school walls.

Hours before the National Rifle Association on Friday called for armed security in all schools, D.C. officials joined U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in calling for tighter curbs on firearms in the wake of the school shooting in Newton, Conn., on Dec. 14 that killed 20 children and six adults — plus the shooter’s mother at her home.

“For the people in Newtown, this was a shocking event,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said Friday. “Our children face gun violence every single day.”

Mr. Gray, standing outside a school in the Northeast section of the District, acknowledged that the city’s push for restrictions on firearms has attracted criticism from gun-rights advocates.

“But I think we’re right,” he said, moments after telling an audience at Neval Thomas Elementary School that the District is on pace for its fewest homicides in a calendar year since 1960.

The horrific incident in Connecticut startled the nation and ignited debate over gun control and a perceived culture of violence, but it also turned attention to ongoing violence in American cities. A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle recently noted “there isn’t a gun store in Oakland — yet the city is awash in guns and ranked as one of the nation’s most violent cities.”

Police in Chicago have recorded 2,364 shooting incidents and 487 homicides, 87 percent of them gun-related, The Washington Post reported Friday.

In the District, Mr. Gray pointed to an incident at the Family Research Council in August, when a gunman entered the conservative think tank’s downtown offices. A security guard, Leo Johnson, was hailed as a hero for wrestling the man to the ground before he could inflict any violence inside the building. Using the incident as evidence, he said leaders need to “do whatever we can to get guns off the street.”

Mr. Gray dismissed talk of armed guards in schools as akin to the “O.K. Corral” and expressed concerns that children could take possession of guns that are introduced into a school setting. Ms. Henderson and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier also waved off such talk, saying the community would not stand for it and many safeguards are in place already, including an active-shooter program that was implemented after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999.

“I think (the training) lends a lot of comfort to the educators because there is some sense of what can happen, what should happen, and how to react if something does happen,” Chief Lanier said.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent who recently gained legislative oversight of education, said school security is a concern in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, but “I’ve got a more immediate safety issue.”

“Gang violence in schools actually inhibits our ability to consolidate schools,” he said, referring to a plan to close some schools and reallocate resources. “There are certain communities that, if you attempt to integrate them in a public school setting, you’re going to have a problem.”

He also said the mental health component of the post-Newtown debate is reminiscent of the issues he addressed in legislation last year, which is designed to improve the way D.C. youth are screened for behavioral health programs. He took on the effort after a series of retaliatory attacks in 2010 that left five dead and nine wounded, including three young city residents in a hail of gunfire on South Capitol Street.

“Behavioral health has been the red-headed step child of health forever,” said Mr. Catania, who is leaving the helm of the council’s Committee on Health.

He said measures in the legislation, which passed into law, will serve as the “most comprehensive behavioral health infrastructure of any city in America.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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