The Battle Lines Over Guns Often Drawn by Funding

Gabrielle Giffords and Obama
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was severely wounded in a shooting in her home state of Arizona, hugs Obama during last year’s State of the Union address / Photo from Creative Commons

Story produced by the Chicago Bureau.

President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address Monday, promising to focus on climate control and pursue greater equality for gay Americans. Those issues, however, are just the beginning of the challenges he must face as he starts his second term.

Fixing a broken global economy still ranks first in the minds of many Americans, along with ending our conflicts abroad. On the domestic front there’s no getting around the debate over gun control, with both sides digging in for a fight in Congress – spurred on by a mounting body count that now includes a family in New Mexico, shot dead by a 15-year-old boy.

But as much attention is being paid to the politics, the fight over whether our nation’s gun laws are too strict or too loose has also raised the tricky question of how money factors in to both sides’ push to get their point across.

Emerging from the sudden debate on gun control elicited by the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., is a discussion of how gun laws are made, and who is spending money to sway votes. In an opinion piece in USA Today last week, former Arizona Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly took aim at national funding imbalances as they rolled out their newly formed political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions.

The column came 10 days previous to Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s extensive plan for combating gun violence. A victim of gun violence herself two years ago, a still-recovering Giffords attempted to spotlight the need for more money to counter the overwhelming fundraising advantage of the National Rifle Association and state and local organizations.

“[Americans for Responsible Solutions] will invite people from around the country to join a national conversation about gun violence prevention, will raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby, and will line up squarely behind leaders who will stand up for what’s right,” Giffords wrote of the purpose of her PAC.

Although Gallup polls show that almost 58 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, gun control groups are being outspent by their opponents by eye-popping amounts in the battle for Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, non-partisan that tracks campaign spending, the National Rifle Association alone spent 10 times the amount of all gun control groups combined in 2011 and 2012, spending 2 million dollars on lobbying in 2012. In addition, 1 million was directly given to candidates and political action committees.

Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handguns, told JJIE and The Chicago Bureau that there is a major disparity between lobbying funds and public opinion.

“We’re far outspent. They have a dues paying membership that brings in millions. They also, in addition to that, get a lot of money from the manufacturers,” Daley said.

However, Daley disagreed with the idea that such imbalances necessarily reflect the views of Americans accurately.

“The majority of money that they’re getting is actually from the gun manufacturers, not necessarily from membership. So you do get a strong amount of money that way,” Daley said. “Their membership does not always agree with them, either. I don’t necessarily think that all of them know what they’re doing, half the time, because the majority of individuals are for reasonable gun control laws.”

Yet Dave Workman, senior editor of The Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash., which claims over 600,000 members, said the individual nature of contributions to the various gun groups underscores the fact that gun groups have popular support. He notes that a large amount of funds for organizations like his come from individuals.

“This myth that’s been floated around for years that the gun rights movement is funded by all the gun manufacturers, I have to sit back and chuckle at that every once and a while,” Workman said. “If you look at the people who contribute at the grassroots levels, to the various gun organizations, they’re sending in $10, $25 checks, whatever they can afford…. The NRA for example reported the other day that their membership has surged by 250,000 [to 4.25 million] in the last 30 days, and that is a phenomenal amount of growth.”

Rather than leading to more funding for gun control, Workman suggests that Giffords’ new PAC might eventually succeed only in spreading the same funds to a larger number of organizations.

“This is an interesting situation, because on either side of the issue one presumes there’s a finite number of people who will consistently and repeatedly contribute to either a pro-gun or anti-gun organization,” Workman said. “This new movement by Gabby Giffords very well might end up as a competitor to some of the existing organizations when they go looking for money. Right away they’re going to get quite a bit of money for all those organizations because the gun prohibition community is looking at this as probably the best opportunity they’ve had in the last 20 years to push their agenda.”

Indeed, while there have been several deadly and tragic mass shootings over the years, including the one directed at Giffords herself, few have drawn the immediate and massive response that Newtown has received. The public outcry on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets have helped launch a serious discussion on the nature of gun violence in America and our attitudes towards mental health, with politicians like Obama and Biden calling for stricter restrictions on assault weapons and magazines.

In a nation of high murder rates, many guns, and a lot of violence balanced by a Constitution and a host of local laws that allow for closely held liberties and provide for gun ownership, the narrative on guns is being rewritten across the country, in towns big and small, on Facebook walls and in formal political debates. It is a narrative with real consequences for real people – Chicago topped the nation in homicides last year with 506 but is certainly not alone in feeling the effects of gun violence – but one that, like most things in Washington, is likely to be defined by money.

Young People Throng to Nation’s Capital to Catch a Glimpse of History

WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than a million people poured into downtown Washington, D.C., yesterday, a federal holiday dedicated to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., for the festivities marking the start of President Barack Obama’s second term in office.

The crowd included hundreds of thousands of young people from around the country, from elementary school students accompanying their parents to college-age youth hanging out with their friends. They spent hours traveling on buses and trains to the National Mall, more hours waiting in the January cold for the ceremonies to begin, and many more stuck in gridlock at security checkpoints and Metrorail stations afterward on their way home.

Youth Today asked some of these young people, many of whom were too young to vote for Obama either time, why they were there.

On the Orange Line Metrorail from Vienna, Va., to L’Enfant Plaza, D.C.

“I just wanted to see what Michelle was wearing,” joked Sarah Allu, 19, who boarded a Metrorail train in Vienna, Va., at the far end of the Orange Line, early Monday morning to head to the National Mall with Amandeep Sandhu, 20, and Pravarjay Reddy, 18.

All three remembered watching Obama’s first inaugural on TV four years ago. Now that they were in college so close to D.C., at George Mason University in Herndon, Va., they wanted to witness the second inaugural in person, Sandhu said.

Reddy, an international student who arrived in the United States from India last fall, said he was impressed by the orderliness of the American political process and the political enthusiasm of his American peers.

“People take pride in being involved in the system,” Reddy said. “Back in India, I don’t think many people are interested in politics at my age. That’s a big difference.”

All three of them had strong ideas about what Obama should accomplish in his second term. The country needs stricter gun laws and students need easier access to financing for college, they said.

But Allu and Sandhu, naturalized citizens whose families migrated from India years ago, opposed any initiatives Obama could put forward to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I think it’s a completely wrong idea,” Allu said. “We did a process. We paid so much to get where we are.”

Sandhu agreed. “It took us quite a while to get our citizenship,” she said. “Them coming in and getting the same rights is not right, because we worked hard for that and for so many years.”

7TH and D Streets NW

As the crowds streamed out of L’Enfant Plaza Metro station around 10 a.m., hawkers lined the street corners selling memorabilia like T-shirts, posters and cloth bags printed with four-year-old images of the Obama family. This vendor said she bought her wares wholesale, and was hoping to sell enough to make her mortgage payment. By noon, many vendors were already offering significant discounts.

7th Street and Independence Avenue NW

African Americans of all ages made up a large proportion of the crowds streaming from the L’Enfant Palza Metro station and toward the National Mall before the ceremonies. “I don’t see a lot of white people,” said one young woman in a low voice as she followed a crowd down Independence Avenue.

Security measures were in evidence everywhere. A helicopter patrolled overhead as crowds headed to the Mall.

12th Street NW and Independence Ave NW

Squashed between the masses of people trying to get to the Mall were seven students from Bullhead City Junior High School in Bullhead City, Ariz., and their five adult chaperones. They’d been in town since Thursday and had already visited Arlington Cemetery, the National Air and Space Museum and the Holocaust Museum, said Mike McClurg, a social studies teacher.

Last Constitution Day, the school held an essay contest for students to describe, among other things, their favorite Constitutional amendment and their favorite Supreme Court case. Several of the prize-winning essays, like those by eighth-graders Andrew Gutierrez and Desirae Webb, both 15, referenced Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling against racial segregation in schools.

Community groups, including veterans’ groups and the local Republican women’s committee, helped the group raise about $10,000 to travel to D.C. for the inauguration and some cultural sightseeing, McClurg said. They were blogging about their trip for their local paper, the Mohave Daily News.

A must-see before they went home, McClurg said, was a stop at the National Archives to view the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

National Mall

“We came all the way to Washington to watch TV?” asked 13-year-old India Hicks, looking at the giant screen in the distance that showed images of the Obamas at the inauguration ceremony. Hicks had boarded a bus from Philadelphia in the wee morning hours on Monday, getting to D.C. at 6.30 a.m. with her mother and cousins, Meyona Johnson, 12, and Madison Goodwin, 9. They’d been standing in the cold since, waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

About 150 family and community members had packed into three buses for the trip. “Everybody loves the president,” Hicks said.

Johnson nodded. “He says no guns, no violence,” she said. “And he wants to help the homeless.”

National Mall

Nine-year-old Ayana Pulliam straddled her stepfather’s shoulders, straining to get a better view down the Mall. She’d had an early morning, leaving Camden, N.J. before 5 a.m. on a bus with her parents and about 50 other people associated with her elementary school. They got to Washington before 8 a.m.

“I’m excited to see Barack Obama in person!” she said.

National Mall

Caitlin Christian, 16 (above, second from left), hosted a sleepover at her parents’ home in Chevy Chase, Md., the night before the inauguration. Eight teenagers stayed over, some of whom she’d only met a week earlier. They rose at 4.30 a.m. and took the Metrorail to downtown D.C. together, eager to take part in a historic event.

The nine attend schools all over the D.C. metro area and recently joined Operation Understanding D.C., an organization that promotes dialogue between African American and Jewish teens. They’ll be old enough to vote in the next presidential election, but they still wanted a piece of this one.

“I didn’t get to vote for our first black president,” said Mia Hammonds, 17, who lives in northeast D.C. “So I thought I’d come to the inauguration.”

Daryn Robinson, 16 (above, fifth from left), of Upper Marlboro, Md., attended Obama’s inauguration four years ago, but it’s more special this time, she said. “Last time, my family dragged me. I was 12,” she said. “This time, I set the alarm to wake everyone up. There’s a sense of independence in that.”

Their program supervisor, Aaron Jenkins, encouraged them to attend this “super historic” day, Robinson said. When Martin Luther King Jr. addressed crowds on the National Mall to call for racial equality, he was speaking to future generations like Obama, Jenkins told the group, Robinson said.

And on this day, she said, Obama would speak back.

12 Street NW and Constitution Avenue NW

Cierra Waller, 26, spent 15 hours on a bus to get to D.C. from Bowling Green, Ky., traveling with a group of undergraduate and graduate students and staff members from Western Kentucky University.

In the hours after the inauguration ceremony, Waller found herself jammed between hundreds of other people, including Noelle Johnson, 22, and Abbey Oldham, 21, also from the university, trying to get into the Federal Triangle metro station to take the train back to her Alexandria hotel.

But none of the inconvenience mattered.

“It just gives you hope to be here,” Waller said. “As an African American growing up, you never had hope that you could do anything, but just being here makes you believe that you can.”

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Anti-Bullying Programs Pushed Aside by Federal Budget Woes

Teachers, counselors and administrators brainstorm during anti-bullying workshop at the Cobb County School District. Photo credit: Ken Edelstein

On March 10, President Obama turned up the spotlight on school bullying. For a couple of years, a handful of high-profile tragedies — often having to do with the rising problem of students picking on other students via social media — had brought unprecedented attention to the issue.

Now, the White House was holding its first ever “Conference on Bullying Prevention.” And the president and the First Lady welcomed an audience of parents, educators, advocates and government officials by expressing how seriously they took the issue -- both as leaders and as parents.

“We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help,that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them,” Obama said. “We also have to make sure we’re doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place.”

Here’s the irony: At the same time that educators, parents and politicians decry bullying and other school violence, the Obama administration has presided over the elimination of all funding for the chief federal program designed to prevent school violence — a program that had been the backbone for anti-school-violence efforts across the country.

From 1987 through 2009, Congress sent hundreds of millions of dollars a year in Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities grants to the states. That money funded violence prevention programs in almost every school district in the country.

But those programs have been running on fumes for the last two years. Faced with federal budget problems, Congress opted in 2009 to eliminate Safe and Drug Free Schools grants entirely. Because districts were allowed to spend Safe and Drug Free School grants they received in 2009 over the course of 27 months, the funding shortfall is slowing rippling to the local level.

In Utah, despite a healthy dose of state money that supports its violence prevention programs, one of the largest school districts was forced this year to lay off 12 people who were showing teachers and kids how to avoid violence at the school level. And in Cobb County, Georgia, the administrator of an anti-bullying program that’s held out as a state-wide model expects he’ll be dismantling that program by next fall.

“Right now, there won’t be money for this in September,” says Jeff Inman, Cobb’s coordinator for violence and prevention programs.

Together with two highly-qualified staff specialists -- whom he refers to as his “bully professionals” -- Inman runs a multilevel anti-bullying program. In addition to dealing with the problem at the high-school level, the program is designed to teach elementary and middle-school students what bullying is, how to help stop it, and how to avoid it. The theory is that it’s a lot less costly — both for the kids and from a budget standpoint — to prevent bullying from ever occurring than to have to deal with the outfall from it later.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama talk with parents Sirdeaner Walker and Kirk Smalley in the Blue Room of the White House before the start of the Conference on Bullying Prevention, March 10, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But, if the federal money isn’t reinstated, Inman doesn’t know how the district will be able to pay his “bully professionals,” or for that matter how the district can continue to help schools teach their students how to avoid bullying,

In 2010, Kevin Jennings, a U.S. Department of Education official, did manage to put two much smaller funding sources in place as a partial replacement for Safe and Drug Free Schools. But the first of those, Safe and Supportive Schools grants, are being provided to only 11 states that had to compete for the money; in most cases even those states are receiving less than what they’d been getting through Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Jennings also worked to obtain “bridge grants” — ostensibly to help programs make the transition to other funding sources. In most cases, however, those funding sources haven’t been available, leading advocates to refer to the bridge grants as “bridge-to-nowhere grants.”

The cutbacks stunned the counselors and school administrators closest to the programs — not just because they believe the programs have been well-worth the investment, but also because they thought, that after years of declining budgets, Obama administration officials were sure to be allies.

“We were really surprised,” one state official said. “We thought we would get more support. We were fighting off Republican plans to make all these cutbacks for years. But then Obama came in, and just like that it’s all gone."

Those involved in violence prevention at the local level say the Safe and Drug Free Schools cuts are dismantling an entire infrastructure of professionals, programs and relationships that has served as the backbone for efforts to combat bullying, drugs and other social problems in the schools.

“Some of those people are just disappearing,” says Verne Larsen, a Utah education official who chairs the National Network of Safe & Drug Free Schools and Communities. “You take the people away and the program really fails. ... It kinds of rips at our heart strings when we see something like this happening.”

Larsen expresses some hope that Congress and the Obama Administration will find the money to support violence prevention programs. He notes that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, earlier this month unveiled his Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act, which would bundle a wide variety of “conditions-for-learning” programs into one umbrella grant program.

For the last few years, conditions for learning were grouped under Title IV of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, but they were funded as a variety of programs, ranging from Safe and Drug Free Schools to smaller nutrition and physical education programs. Harken is hoping to incorporate his bill into an updated education authorization bill that Congress is working on this year.

“I think they’re beginning to realize at the federal level that they just did away with the structure that was running these programs,” Larsen says.

Even if that’s the case, however, funding the programs will be an uphill battle. On May 13, House Republicans unveiled a list of 43 more Title IV programs that they would like to see eliminated; the House seems to be in no mood to revive a program that’s already been killed off.

Then, on May 19, anti-violence advocates received another blow: Jennings, the deputy assistant secretary of education who was perceived as the advocates’ chief ally in the administration announced that plans to leave his post to run a nonprofit organization.


Administration’s Turn-About on Juvenile Justice

In the Good News Department it seems the Obama administration has come to the conclusion that cutting juvenile justice programs and making them competitive isn’t such a good idea after all.

A few days ago, the administration announced it had altered it original proposal maintaining and adding certain crucial programs.

See the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention press release for more details.