- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The House approved $50 million in annual federal funding Wednesday to help schools assess their safety risks in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as Congress took its first modest steps into the roiling gun debate.

Across the Capitol, meanwhile, the FBI admitted that it bungled its handling of tips that warned about dangers of Nikolas Cruz, the accused shooter. But David Bowdich, the acting deputy director of the FBI, said it’s not clear that the bureau could have done enough to prevent the massacre given current laws.

“While we will never know if we could have prevented this tragedy, we clearly should have done more,” Mr. Bowdich told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held an oversight hearing to investigate the shooting and federal failures beforehand.

Meanwhile, thousands of students walked out of classes to rally outside the Capitol in Washington and other locations across the country, marking one month since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting claimed the lives of 17 people.

They called on Congress to go far beyond the school safety bill and consider gun bans and tighter restrictions on who can legally purchase weapons.

Mr. Cruz, 19, legally bought the AR-15-style rifle that police say he used during the assault on a school he used to attend.

The bill that cleared the House, the Stop School Violence Act, would send $50 million in annual grants to schools to help them develop threat assessment and response plans, and initiatives to try to flag early warning signs of students who might be dangers to themselves or others.

Republicans lauded the measure as a positive step forward. The House generally has not been quick to embrace legislation in response to mass shootings.

“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,” said Rep. John H. Rutherford, Florida Republican and sponsor of the bill.

Democrats signed onto the effort but said it’s nowhere near enough.

“The families and students suffering from heartbreak of gun violence deserve real leadership in this body, not a Republican White House and a Congress that are saying one thing and doing another,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

She joined the student protesters outside the Capitol and urged them to keep the pressure on Congress.

“You are creating a drumbeat across America — a drumbeat that will echo until we get the job done,” Mrs. Pelosi told the crowd.

The House last year passed a bill, Fix NICS, that pushes federal agencies to provide more records on banned gun buyers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. It was coupled with legislation to expand concealed-carry rights.

Senate Republican leaders are pushing for a vote on the Fix NICS legislation, but the chamber remains stalemated over procedural squabbles.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said he is trying to figure out how to move gun-related legislation. He noted that Democrats bypassed the committee process to bring such bills straight to the floor in the past.

“It’s possible that a similar approach may be used now as the Senate works together to consider what should be done about school safety and preventing mass violence,” Mr. Grassley said. “In the meantime, we’re holding this hearing, which I believe is of great importance for the entire Senate and, indeed, the country.”

Mr. Grassley helped draft the Senate version of Mr. Rutherford’s safety grant bill and announced Wednesday that he plans to introduce separate legislation to help the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center conduct research into school violence.

Senate Democrats said they want to go bigger.

“We don’t have a scheduled vote. We don’t have a bill that has moved out of committee to the floor,” said Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat. “We don’t seem to have the moral urgency to do things that we see that are obvious to do.”

Some in Congress are also eyeing a ban on “bump stocks,” which are after-market add-ons that effectively increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles to that of machine guns.

Bump stocks gained attention after about a dozen were found in the hotel room of the gunman who killed nearly 60 people and wounded hundreds of others in Las Vegas last year.

The Obama administration determined that it couldn’t ban the devices administratively, but the Trump administration said this weekend that it will try anyway.

“[A] law is clearly the best route, but we’re doing everything within the executive branch that we can do … to enhance public safety, to keep an open mind about bump stocks,” Thomas E. Brandon, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said at Wednesday’s hearing.

The committee also heard from Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed at Stoneman Douglas. Mr. Petty praised a bill passed last week by the Florida Legislature. That legislation increased the state’s minimum age to buy most rifles from 18 to 21, allowed for new court orders to block guns from potentially dangerous people and paved the way for non-faculty school employees to carry weapons on campus.

Nikolas Cruz and the deadly danger he posed were the worst-kept secrets in Parkland,” Mr. Petty said. “Every relevant authority knew he was deeply troubled with a potential for lethal violence.”

Katherine Posada, a teacher who survived the Feb. 14 shooting, said many elements in the Florida bill took steps in the right direction, but she opposes putting more guns in schools.

“While increased funding for mental health programs and school security will no doubt have positive effects, mass shootings will not stop until we rid society of the weapons that make them possible,” she said.

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