Forget banning assault weapons. Forget preventing people from obtaining “countless magazines,” or banning the manufacture of high-capacity clips, or expanding background checks for both guns and ammunition. Forget all of these commonsense measures that could prevent mass shootings like the one Wednesday in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. President Donald Trump, who got $30 million worth of help from the National Rifle Association on his way to the White House and is, in so many ways, the NRA’s dream president, will not do any of these things—nor will his Republican allies in Congress.
Typically, Republican policy responses to mass shootings involve anything but new gun laws: There are calls for improved mental-health services and outreach, and we hear that the government should just enforce the laws that are already on the books.
In his address from the White House Thursday morning, Trump called for action on mental health and said, “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.” House Speaker Paul Ryan noted that there are already laws that keep people with mental illness from obtaining guns, and that “if there’s someone who’s getting a gun who shouldn’t get a gun, we’ve got to look at those gaps.”
But the policies advanced by these two men will hamstring the government on even these measures. As Trump swings a sledgehammer to the hated “administrative state,” with Ryan’s support and encouragement, he is destroying or attempting to destroy some of the very modest programs the government does undertake to prevent mass shootings and violence in schools—even when it comes to enforcing current laws or improving mental-health services.
Trump would cut billions from Medicaid, and not long before he spoke at the White House Thursday, his secretary of health and human services testified on Capitol Hill that the administration hasn’t bothered to investigate how those cuts will impact people with mental-health or substance-abuse problems.
Trump’s proposed massive federal-spending cuts have led many federal departments and agencies to look at scuttling noncontroversial programs aimed at preventing massacres like the one in Parkland. For example, under Obama’s “Now Is the Time” initiative to slow gun violence, which was part of the administration’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre, HHS began distributing grants under the aegis of something called Project AWARE. In fiscal year 2017, the program awarded almost $65 million to state education authorities “to promote comprehensive, coordinated, and integrated state efforts to make schools safer and increase access to mental health services.” These included grants that would help teachers recognize and understand students’ mental-health problems, and to help school systems connect students who have behavioral health issues with the right services. The program also funded significant initiatives to prevent youth violence.
In its budget justification to Congress for fiscal year 2018, HHS proposed eliminating Project AWARE grants entirely. The request went from $64.7 million to $0.00. The budget document explained elliptically that HHS “is eliminating this program to reduce duplication of efforts.”
Throughout most of the Obama administration, the Department of Justice also had a multifaceted strategy to prevent youth violence. In particular, the Community-Based Violence Prevention program gave grants that focused on “stopping youth gang and gun violence” through partnerships with local law enforcement and community and faith-based groups. The 15 cities that received CBVP grants in 2014 reported reduced gun violence, and nine reported reductions in homicides and juvenile violent crime.
On Thursday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the Parkland school shooting and said, “It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening in our country…. We’ve got to confront the problem.” But his FY2018 budget justification eliminates the CBVP program entirely.
The Centers for Disease Control under Obama repeatedly asked Congress for $10 million to fund gun-violence-prevention research. That money was never provided, and Trump’s CDC budgets have stopped asking.
The National Institutes of Health has for years studied gun violence as a public-health issue—until Trump came into office, when funding for those projects was allowed to lapse. “We probably will issue [a new] funding opportunity announcement, but it will be on violence in general. I don’t think we have to specify gun violence,” an NIH official in charge of the grants said last fall.
Meanwhile, the White House fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, released just days before the Parkland shooting, calls for steep cuts to the federal systems that prevent banned buyers from obtaining firearms. The National Criminal Records History Improvement Program and the NICS Act Record Improvement Program would lose $12 million under Trump’s budget, which is a 16 percent reduction. The programs provide grants to states to fund better reporting of of criminal records into the national background check system.
Not long after he arrived in the White House, Trump signed a bill passed by his Republican Congress that would prevent the Department of Justice from using Social Security records to identify mentally ill people and prevent them from purchasing guns. This directly undermines Ryan’s stated desire to stop someone from getting a gun who shouldn’t have a gun.
We know that Trump and his Republican allies in Congress will not take any proactive measures to stop gun violence. They will issue vague calls for action, but they won’t put their money where their mouth is—their concern appears to end as soon as the press conferences are over.