Last year, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act showed where there was agreement among the parties over gun policy. This year, backlash to part of its implementation is doing the same thing.
On Tuesday, a group of senators shot off a pair of letters in hopes of reviving funding for hunter safety training programs at schools across the country. It is the only gun policy effort to see significant support from both sides of the aisle. All said, 21 senators who backed the BSCA joined in the effort to undo its effect on hunting programs–including the two who negotiated the bill. A dozen of them are Democrats.
Many involved either play a prominent role on firearms policy for their respective parties, such as John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), or they represent key swing states. The entire Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Arizona delegations were on board. As were Senators from New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Carolina.
That level of cooperation on any gun policy provides a strong signal of the political calculations at play. Here, that signal is clear: the federally funded school programs providing hunter safety and archery training enjoyed by millions of students nationwide are quite popular. Cutting off their funding is not.
The ordeal began in April when the Department of Education (DOE) published a guide to the funding changes made by the BSCA. In it, the agency said new language amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) made it impossible to fund any program that provides “to any person a dangerous weapon or training in the use of a dangerous weapon.” Under federal law, dangerous weapons are basically anything that can be used to kill somebody (except, for whatever reason, pocket knives with blades shorter than two inches.)
The bipartisan group of senators argued the DOE was off in its reading of the language.
“The intent of section 13401 of BSCA was to preclude these funds from being used to purchase dangerous weapons or train individuals in the use of dangerous weapons, with the recognition that ESEA funds should support student achievement, educational enrichment programs, and student well-being,” they wrote in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leadership. “Other federal funds appropriated in BSCA were intended to support evidence-based school safety and protective measures.”
DOE has yet to respond to the letters. However, the language itself doesn’t make any such distinction. Instead, it simply reads that ESEA funds can’t be used “for the provision to any person of a dangerous weapon, as defined in section 930(g)(2) of title 18, or training in the use of a dangerous weapon.”
Regardless, the senators who backed the bill said the DOE has “misinterpreted” their intent with the provision. And they warn the consequences could be far-reaching–even hitting home ec classes.
“Additionally, the language could be used to prohibit schools from providing kitchen knives that are larger than 2 ½ inches long in culinary classes,” they wrote. “There are a number of such programs in our states and local communities that support student engagement and enrichment. The National Archery in Schools Program (“NASP”) is one example of a program that provides students from all backgrounds the opportunity to learn a new sport and compete. More than 1.3 million students across nearly 9,000 schools in 49 states participate in NASP’s archery programs. Additionally, many school districts and local partners, particularly in rural communities, use ESEA funds to support hunter education safety programs and classes. These courses can play an important role in teaching firearm safety, wildlife conservation, and personal responsibility. The intent of BSCA was not to preclude students from participating in these kinds of opportunities.”
They’ve asked the DOE to restore the funding. Barring that, they’ve also requested the Senate Appropriations Committee address the issue by amending an upcoming spending bill. Their proposal would add language that protects funds for programs “that provide students with educational enrichment activities and instruction, such as archery, hunter safety education, outdoor education, or culinary arts.”
Whatever happens, and it seems likely a fix will get done given the pressure, the most telling thing about the situation is how much crossover appeal it has.
There have been numerous gun policy pushes from either side of the aisle since the BSCA enshrined extended background checks for 18-to-20-year-old gun buyers, added boyfriends to the domestic violence misdemeanor prohibition, and expanded funding for state mental health programs back in June 2022. Democrats got a so-called assault weapons ban through the House last year with practically no buy-in from the other party. It never got a vote in the Senate due to the total lack of bipartisan support. Republicans recently experienced a similar fate while attempting to undo President Joe Biden’s pistol-brace ban. It made it through the House on party lines and then failed in the Senate without a single Democrat or Independent voting for it.
Ironically, the only gun policy effort to see any semblance of bipartisan backing is the one to undo an unintended consequence of the last bipartisan push.