Guns Are in Schools but Not in the President's Vocabulary

President Bush participates in a panel discussion on school safety at National 4-H Conference Center.
President Bush participates in a panel discussion on school safety at National 4-H Conference Center. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

President Bush has always been a disciplined man, but yesterday he set a new standard for self-control: He moderated an hour-long discussion about the rash of school shootings in the past week without once mentioning the word "guns."

First lady Laura Bush was nearly as good, giving a seven-minute speech at yesterday's White House Conference on School Safety without mentioning guns. Two longtime aides, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, deftly led hours of panels at the National 4-H building in Chevy Chase with only a few glancing references to weapons.

This was no misfire. The White House, hastily arranging yesterday's forum to react to shootings over the past fortnight at schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin and Missouri, neglected to invite any gun-control advocates. In fact, how the killers had carried out their deeds might have remained a mystery if 19-year-old twin brothers Theo and Niko Milonopoulos hadn't infiltrated the gathering.

Managing to get in front of a microphone during question time, Theo pointed out to Gonzales that "the common denominator in the rash of school shootings" has been access to high-powered guns. He asked what could be done to reduce the spread of such weapons "in light of the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban?"

"Assault weapons," Gonzales repeated. Some in the audience chuckled as he looked to see who on the panel would take the question.

The attorney general decided to do it himself. "Obviously, kids shouldn't have access," he granted, before quickly adding that there is no need for new laws. "We need to make sure those who break the laws are prosecuted," he said.

"There's a big elephant in the room and it's gun control," Niko observed after the panel ended.

The Bush administration has for years been known for its use of human props to make its points: middle-class "tax families" to pitch for tax cuts, victims of Saddam Hussein's torture to pitch for the Iraq war, and friendly partisans to pitch soft questions at "Ask President Bush" sessions. The technique is not new; Bill Clinton did much the same when hosting events about race.

Still, yesterday's forum was unusual. While experts dispute how much blame to place on children's access to guns, even the invited guests found it a bit odd to banish the topic entirely from a school-violence forum. "No one wants to touch gun control before an election," surmised one participant, Warlene Gary of the National PTA.

Democrats and gun-control advocates shut out of the invitation-only event had to do their sniping from a distance. They pointed out the COPS in Schools program, given $160 million in 2000, has been cut to zero. "The Bush administration is in denial," protested the Violence Policy Center.

At the conference, Bush's thoughts leaned in the opposite direction; he mused at one point about whether schools were becoming too locked down.

Gonzales advised Bush that one panelist said metal detectors send "the wrong message about what we think of our kids."

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