The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups allegedly influenced the federal government's recent decision to let public schools buy firearms with taxpayer money.
The American Federation of Teachers, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence announced this week that they were suing the U.S. Department of Education to find out how officials developed the policy.
The organizations, represented by Democracy Forward, previously filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for department documents. They wanted to know the role that the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists played, and which school districts were planning to arm their teachers.
The government failed to respond to the requests within 20 days, which violated the law, according to The Huffington Post. Details of communications involving the department, state and school district officials, and gun-rights groups are “plainly of great public importance,” the lawsuit states.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed two months ago that she was considering whether to let schools purchase firearms with grant money they receive from the Every Student Succeeds Act. Texas officials had sought permission to do so, even though lawmakers created the fund in 2015 to support academics.
The act authorized expenditures for art, music, mental health, digital technology, and dropout-prevention programs, The New York Times reported. The government earmarks about $1 billion per year under the statute for so-called “student support and academic enrichment” grants.
DeVos, signaling her opposition to restrictions on how districts may use the grants, wrote that she had “no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff.”
Gun-safety groups claim that the secretary's opinion contradicts the will of Congress, which has repeatedly stipulated that public-education funds may not be spent on weapons. The latest legislation addressing the controversy, approved in March, banned using any part of a $50 million school allocation for guns.
The Education Department “wants to turn the U.S. government into an arms dealer for schools. That's insane,” declared Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It's time Betsy DeVos starts standing up for kids and teachers, not the NRA.”
The Giffords Law Center argues that “schools should be a safe haven from the violence that touches so many Americans, yet many states lack proper legal protection against the presence of firearms in schools.”
The organization points out on its website that “gaps in gun-free schools laws, like concealed carry exceptions, threaten the safety of children and increase the likelihood of tragic school shootings.” Allowing schools to purchase firearms “will only lead to more gun deaths and injuries, not fewer,” according to the center, which advocates “laws that prohibit guns in schools and impose harsh penalties for gun possession.”
One of the NRA's most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would prevent the Education Department from providing funds for firearms. Rep. Robert C. Scott, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, agrees with the prohibition. He said DeVos is “openly violating the spirit of the law, as well as common sense about gun safety.”
“Redirecting that money to arm teachers and school staff will recklessly endanger the safety of both students and educators, while robbing underserved students of the support and opportunity they deserve,” Scott warned.
Others, including Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, contend that local officials should have the right to decide how to use federal funds. However, Alexander told the Times that he is “not a fan of arming teachers.”
Allowing guns in schools appears to be at odds with the grant program's “violence prevention” provision, which states that weapons are not compatible with a safe school environment.
The Times noted that Texas, which has established a “school marshal” program, is among nine or more states where school employees may carry firearms or have access to them. In May, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a letter to DeVos that the state needed more money for school-safety efforts.
President Trump weighed in on the matter by predicting that arming teachers would stop mass shootings in classrooms. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, fired back: “When Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, we were clear that these grants were intended to help foster safe, healthy and supportive environments that improve student learning — not prop up the NRA and gun sales.”
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, called Trump's stance “one more example of the corruption, greed and misplaced values of this administration.” She told the Times: “If we use the funds for what they were intended to be used for, we might start tackling some of the issues that lead to gun violence.”