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Students demonstrate at the U.S. Capitol during a national school walkout to stop gun violence, Wed., March 14, 2018. (Leandra Bernstein, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

Students protest gun violence at the Capitol as House passes first school safety bill


WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — On Wednesday, thousands of students in schools across the country participated in a walkout to demand action on gun control and an end to school violence. In Washington, hundreds of students rallying on the lawn of the Capitol as lawmakers inside held hearings and the House passed the first school safety legislation since the Parkland, Florida shooting.

One month after the 17 students were killed by a gunman at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, students from around the country, but mostly D.C., Maryland and Virginia, showed up in force to confront a Congress they believe has been complacent.

"We wouldn’t be here if they were doing enough," said one high school student from Sandy Spring, Md.

A student organizer from a nearby Maryland academy explained, "People are afraid to go to school now."

Students walk out nationwide protesting gun violence

While some students have only recently become acutely aware of their security in the classroom, others have lived with the fear of gun violence for years. "I was in third grade when that happened," said a Montgomery County high school shooting, referring to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. More recently, her father took the extraordinary step of buying a bulletproof backpack insert.

"It's not ok for students to go to school and be afraid," said another student from Bethesda, Md. "We want change."

Inside the building, the STOP School Violence Act passed in an overwhelming vote of 407 to 10. The bill was described by its chief sponsor, Republican Rep. John Rutherford of Florida, as "an important first step towards keeping our students and our teachers safe."

The bill will provide $50 million in new federal grant money to help harden school sites and help teachers, students better identify, report and communicate with law enforcement about credible threats of violence.

The lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, Florida Rep. Ted Deutch explained that the STOP School Violence Act is a good piece of legislation, "It will not solve our gun problem."

"It will help troubled students that need help get help and it will help teachers and law enforcement identify potential threats before it's too late," Deutch said.

Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who represents the Connecticut district where the Sandy Hook school shooting took place, stressed that the bill "will not save every life threatened with gun violence, but it will save some. And we need to do what we can."

That sentiment was echoed by other supporters of the bill on the left and right, who each insisted that more has to be done.

"This needs to be the first of a long line of steps that this Congress owes to the American people, owes to the students gathered on the lawn of the Capitol today and in every classroom throughout America," Esty said.

Students from Georgia and New York demonstrate at the U.S. Capitol on Wed., March 14, 2018. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

On the other side of the Capitol, senators on the Judiciary Committee were weighing next steps. They heard testimony from Parkland families and survivors and they grilled the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and Secret Service. Some lawmakers postured for gun control advocates or guns rights group, but many were desperate to find a narrow bipartisan pathway forward to curb gun violence.

Currently, there are two bills that would almost certainly pass Congress, addressing school safety and gun control. One bill will harden school sites and provide resources to prevent school safety threats before they materialize (Senate and House versions). The other bill will strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (Fix NICS).

Both have bipartisan support in the House and Senate, broad support from the public and were described in President Donald Trump's school safety and received his informal endorsement during a roundtable discussion with lawmakers last month.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah is the lead sponsor of the STOP School Violence Prevention Act, a bill that has a number of similarities to the one that passed in the House on Wednesday. Neither bill authorizes funds to arm teachers.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Hatch described the bill as a "historic investment of a billion dollars in school safety infrastructure, prevention training for the entire school ecosystem, the formation of crisis intervention teams with mental health professionals, and better coordination between schools and law enforcement."

The Republican senator was flanked by a handful of the 38 Republican and Democratic cosponsors of the bill, along with Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School last month.

The bill is intended to prevent the breakdowns that occurred in local, state and federal law enforcement when they failed to recognize clear threats and act on tips from which could have prevented the alleged Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, from taking action.

On Wednesday, the FBI acting deputy director David Bowdich, again acknowledged the FBI's failure to respond to red flags. "The FBI could have and should have done more to investigate the information it was provided prior to the shooting," Bowdich told lawmakers.

In September 2017, the FBI was tipped off to a Youtube video posted by Cruz bragging, "Im going to be a professional school shooter." In January, a friend of the shooter's family called in to the FBI's anonymous tip line saying Cruz had purchased several weapons, was mutilating small animals and "he was ready to explode." In both instances, the investigations were closed.

Similarly, Parkland Police visited the alleged shooter's home multiple times, but did not use the tools at their disposal to address the threat.

oth FBI deputy director Bowdich and deputy director of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Brandon told lawmakers that their agencies would benefit from legislation, like the STOP School Violence bills, that provide threat response tools, training and resources for law enforcement, school officials and mental health providers.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican sponsor of legislation to improve the national criminal background check database (NICS) used by vendors to authorize gun purchases, pressed his colleagues to seize on areas of agreement and immediately pass gun legislation.

"We could pass the Fix NICS bill today in the United States Senate," Cornyn said. The bill now has 70 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle and represents a modest step to ensure federal agencies regularly update the information in the NICS database, so individuals with a history of spousal abuse or violent crime, cannot obtain a firearm through a licensed gun dealer.

Since the Parkland, Fla. shooting on February 14, Cornyn has taken the floor of the Senate every day to ask his colleagues to vote on Fix NICS.

The bill was in response to the November 2017 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman killed 26 people worshipping at a church. The shooter, who was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force, was able to legally buy his weapon despite a domestic assault conviction. The Air Force failed to update the information in the NICS database, an oversight that enabled him to buy firearms.

There are other measures being considered by Congress, like a bill to require background checks on all commercial firearm sales drafted by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Other members of Congress continue to push a ban on bump stocks, the accessory used by the Las Vegas shooter last October to make his rifle function, effectively, as a fully-automatic weapon. Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to review whether bump stocks can be banned through regulation. On Wednesday, the acting head of the ATF told lawmakers that legislation prohibiting bump stocks "is clearly the best route."

A Maryland high school student holds a sign outside the U.S. Capitol during a national school walkout to stop gun violence, Wed., March 14, 2018. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

On the Capitol lawn, some students wanted to see Congress take immediate action on new gun control laws, while others stressed the need to tackle school safety first. All were passionate and impatient in demanding Congress do something, and many declared their intent to fight over the long haul.

"It's not easy to make change," one Maryland highschooler said, "but what else are we supposed to do, sit back and relax?"

Later this month on March 24, there will be a nationwide "March for Our Lives" to push for action to end gun violence. The demonstrations are largely being organized by the student survivors of the Parkland shooting.

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