U.S. gun panel to report soon
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering a $50 million plan to fund hundreds of police officers in public schools, a leading Democratic senator said, part of a broad gun violence agenda that is likely to include a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips and universal background checks.
The school safety initiative would make federal dollars available to schools that want to hire police officers and install surveillance equipment, although it is not nearly as far-ranging as the National Rifle Association's proposal for armed guards in every U.S. school.
The idea is gaining currency among some Democratic lawmakers, who see it as a potential area of common ground with Republicans who otherwise oppose stricter restrictions on firearms. Liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she presented the plan to Vice President Joe Biden, and that he was "very, very interested" and may include it in the policy recommendations he makes to President Barack Obama.
"If a school district wants to have a community policing presence, I think it's very important they have it," Ms. Boxer said in an interview Thursday. "If they want uniformed officers, they can do it. If they want plainclothes officers, they can do it."
But hope of finding an accord over gun laws dimmed considerably Thursday after the NRA lashed out publicly against what it called the administration's "agenda to attack the Second Amendment" after meeting with Mr. Biden and senior White House officials.
Mr. Biden plans to present recommendations from the administration's working group on gun violence to Mr. Obama next Tuesday. The vice president said Thursday that he sees an emerging consensus around "universal background checks" for all gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has said he also supports a ban on assault weapons.
The New York Times is reporting today that while White House officials see such as ban as an element of whatever final package is proposed, it is trying to avoid making its passage the sole definition of success, given the entrenched opposition from gun rights groups and their Capitol Hill advocates. Instead, the Obama administration is emphasizing other new gun rules that could conceivably win bipartisan support and reduce gun deaths.
The gun industry has long opposed universal background checks, a renewed assault weapons ban and curbs on magazine capacity. After its 95-minute White House meeting Thursday, the NRA that it would have nothing more to do with Mr. Biden's task force, foreshadowing a partisan and emotionally charged fight over gun control.
"It is unfortunate that this administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation's most pressing problems," the NRA said in a statement. "We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen. ... We will now take our commitment and meaningful contributions to members of Congress of both parties who are interested in having an honest conversation about what works -- and what does not."
Mr. Biden met with other gun-owner groups as well as representatives of hunting and sporting organizations Thursday in his ongoing effort to survey interest groups in the wake of last month's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adult staff members.
Attorney General Eric Holder met separately Thursday with major gun retailers, including Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods based in Findlay, west of Pittsburgh, as well as Dunham's Sports and similar retailers. Dick's suspended its sales of certain weapons a few days after the Newtown killings, a move that has made the company a target of much criticism from some gun owners. The company has not indicated if or when it might sell those items again.
Mr. Biden already has spoken with law enforcement leaders, gun violence victims and gun-safety groups and has had conference calls with governors and other state and local elected officials of both parties.
The vice president said that, going into Thursday's meetings, his task force heard repeatedly about the need to strengthen background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. He said the proposals would go beyond closing a loophole that exempts some private firearms sales, such as gun show transactions, from background checks.
"There is an emerging set of recommendations -- not coming from me, but coming from the groups we've met," he said. "There is a surprising, so far, a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks." These recommendations were not only about "closing the gun-show loophole," he said, "but total universal background checks, including private sales." He said the focus would be on how to "strengthen those background checks."
Mr. Biden also mentioned strengthening the ability of federal agencies to conduct research about gun violence. He drew a comparison between current limits on federal gathering of data about gun violence and 1970s-era restrictions on federal research into the causes of traffic fatalities. He stressed a need for the government to collect information about "what kind of weapons are used most to kill people," and "what kind of weapons are trafficked weapons."
The administration is weighing solutions beyond gun laws, including mental health and education initiatives. Ms. Boxer's school safety plan would cost about $50 million and restore or add funding to some Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, programs that pay for police officers, tip lines, surveillance equipment and secured entrances at public schools.
After the Newtown shootings, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre proposed that every school in the nation be protected by armed guards, who could be volunteers, firefighters or private security personnel. Ms. Boxer said her plan is limited to law enforcement officials from the community, and that any decision would be up to individual schools.
First Published January 11, 2013 12:00 am