Biden, Harris, on Campaign Trail, Press School Shooting Issue

Joe Biden speaks to reporters at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H.
Joe Biden speaks to reporters at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H.

School shootings are shaping up as a big issue on the Democratic campaign trail.

Campaigning in Nashua, New Hampshire, on May 14, Joe Biden took a question about the topic from a high school student who said his school has students practice what to do if a shooting breaks out. The former vice president responded by citing a Harvard Kennedy School poll he said showed young people are concerned about it.

“I’m the only guy ever, nationally, to beat the NRA,” Biden said, taking credit for a 1994 crime bill he crafted as a senator that banned “assault weapons” and cop-killer bullets.

After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 students, President Obama asked Biden to develop a plan to respond.

“Look, the Second Amendment exists, but it doesn’t say you can own any weapon you want,” Biden said. “If you own a gun, put a damn trigger lock on it. Put it in a case.”

Biden called the gun issue his “single biggest priority in terms of dealing with the concerns of young people right now.”

Talking to reporters after the event, Biden said he was open to a “federal gun licensing system” or weapons that required their owner’s fingerprint to unlock. He said the biggest political obstacle to gun control law wasn’t gun owners or the National Rifle Assocation but “gun manufacturers. That’s where the money is.”

On May 15, the day after Biden visited Nashua, a rival candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, went to the same city and announced her own proposal on the issue. She said as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to act, but if it didn’t she’d take executive action to “ban the import of assault weapons into our country.”

Challenged later by a New Hampshire editor, Michael Graham, who noted that New Hampshire has high rates of gun ownership but low rates of gun violence, Harris said she’d been approached after the campaign event by a student who had been “terrified” by a drill at her school covering lockdown procedures in case of an active shooter.

“There was a high school student, a young woman, here after the event who was crying on my shoulder–crying big tears– because she has had to go through those drills and she is afraid,” Harris said.

An article in the Spring 2019 issue of Education Next (“Protecting Students from Gun Violence”), said that “target hardening” actions might contribute to student anxiety. “Some students might feel safer and calmer in hardened environments, but it is equally plausible that intensive security procedures send the message that schools are unsafe, fearful places, thus adding an element of stress to the learning environment,” the article said.

The most recent Harvard Kennedy School survey of 3,022 18- to 29-year olds, conducted March 8 to March 29, 2019, found 58% of respondents “concerned that gun violence will affect you, or someone close to you,” and 39% not concerned. Asked which issue concerned them most, a combined 5% listed “Gun Control/Second Amendment Issues” or “Safety/Security.”

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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