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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stirs confusion, faces criticism over gun remarks

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faces criticism after telling members of Congress that a school safety commission, formed after a shooting at a Florida high school, would not study guns.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faces criticism after telling members of Congress that a school safety commission, formed after a shooting at a Florida high school, would not study guns. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is under attack after telling Congress that a safety commission formed following a February shooting at a Florida school would not examine the role firearms play in school violence.

About 60 people — including advocates, parents and students — gathered at Education Department headquarters Wednesday to share their views on school violence and their concerns about the direction of the Federal Commission on School Safety. The panel was created by President Trump in response to the Parkland, Fla., shooting, which authorities said was carried out by a gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle.

Outside, about a dozen people from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence protested, including one dressed as a bear — a reference to DeVos’s comments last year that a Wyoming school might need a gun “to protect from potential grizzlies.”

The meeting at the headquarters — which was previously scheduled — came a day after DeVos told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that examining the role of firearms in school violence was “not part of the [school safety] commission’s charge,” even though the White House directed the panel to examine age restrictions for certain firearms. Her comments stirred anger and confusion, particularly from gun-control advocates.

“What we heard yesterday only confirms what we already knew: The Trump administration is far more concerned with securing NRA support than addressing the root causes of gun violence — namely, our lax gun laws,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the nation’s largest gun-control groups. Feinblatt was not at the Education Department meeting.

There have been at least 17 school shootings this year that have left 31 people dead, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, who appeared on behalf of DeVos, attempted to clarify the role of the commission at Wednesday’s meeting. Neither DeVos nor other commission members attended the meeting, opting to send representatives.

“There are over 300 million guns in America. . . . The commission will not be looking at ways to confiscate those weapons or abrogate the Second Amendment,” Zais said. “But what we will be doing is looking at specific age limits for the purchase of specific kinds of weapons, and we will be examining legal procedures for the confiscation from people with identified mental health issues.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who grilled the secretary Tuesday over whether the commission would examine guns, said Zais’s comments muddied matters further. And he said he wished the commission would expand its scope.

“The Deputy Secretary doesn’t so much ‘clarify’ Secretary DeVos’ testimony as to flat-out contradict it,” Leahy said in a statement.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, which left 17 people dead, spurred a nationwide movement — led by young people who survived the massacre — to demand more gun control.

Beyond age restrictions for firearms, Trump directed the school safety commission to study whether violent entertainment or the news media played a role in fomenting school shootings. He also asked the panel to examine whether to revoke Obama-era guidance intended to address the disparity in discipline rates between black and white students.

Advocates for civil rights and for students with disabilities voiced their concern at Wednesday’s meeting over the possibility that DeVos would roll back the discipline guidance. They say the guidance provides necessary protections for students of color and students with disabilities, both of whom are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates. Critics of the guidance, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have suggested the directive is discouraging schools from kicking out dangerous students or referring them to police.

Some at the meeting Wednesday encouraged DeVos to rethink the commission’s focus on gun laws.

Michael Yin, who graduated Tuesday from Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, Md., told the commission he understands why it may not want to take a deeper look at gun control.

“People are worried about their Second Amendment rights, and changing gun laws may be hard,” Yin said. “But, still, though this may be a difficult issue to talk about, it’s a necessary one.”