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Bush Speaks Out and Stays Silent

His responses to the Schiavo case and the school rampage track with the preferences of two core constituencies.

March 24, 2005|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Does the "culture of life" extend to the victims of gun violence?

That's the question critics are asking after President Bush's contrasting responses to the two events dominating national attention this week.

Although Bush made a special trip back to Washington from vacation to sign legislation offering a new federal right of appeal to Terri Schiavo's parents, the president and his aides have said almost nothing about the mass shooting in Red Lake, Minn. -- the deadliest outbreak of school violence since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.

The Minnesota tragedy has increased alarm among some school safety professionals about Bush's efforts to eliminate funding for two major programs meant to prevent classroom violence, including a Clinton administration initiative to help schools hire more police officers.

"It makes absolutely no sense that at a time when we are talking about better protecting bridges, monuments, dams and even the hallways of Congress, that we are going backward in protecting the hallways of our schools," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm.

Bush's responses to the Schiavo case and the school shootings track with the preferences of two of his core constituencies.

Conservative Christians pressed Bush to intervene for Schiavo, while the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner groups generally look to minimize the relevance of political responses to mass shootings.

"It seems callous to talk about politics or to try to push a legislative agenda on the back of this heart-rending crime," the NRA's chief spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, said in response to the Minnesota shootings.

Asked why the president had not commented on the shootings, which occurred Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush's priority was to ensure that the FBI and Department of Justice provided support to the community.

"The president's focus is on making sure the federal government is responding" effectively, McClellan said.

But Bush's aggressive response to Schiavo and virtual silence on the shootings has led critics to accuse him of political opportunism.

"The bottom line is the gun lobby is too important a constituency to the Republican Party for them to do anything," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, a group that advocates gun control. "The sad reality is if Terri Schiavo had been shot, the administration would not have lifted a finger to help her."

Added Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: "I believe that the president is sincere when he talks about a culture of life. I just wish he was more consistent."

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also has not issued a statement on the Minnesota rampage, in which authorities say a 16-year-old boy on the Red Lake Indian Reservation killed his grandfather and his grandfather's female companion before fatally shooting five students, a teacher and an unarmed security guard at his high school. The boy then killed himself.

The White House's only apparent mention came Tuesday; in an informal meeting with reporters, McClellan said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were killed."

Other administration officials rejected the charge that the shootings showed it was dangerous to cut school safety spending, as Bush had proposed.

"There is absolutely no research whatsoever that funding is tied to an increase or decrease in school crime," said William Modzeleski, an official in the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

The administration's low-key response contrasts with President Clinton's response to the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999. In that tragedy, two students killed 13 others before taking their own lives.

Clinton spoke to reporters on the night of the shootings. Although he primarily expressed condolences to the families, he also said that "after a little time has passed, we need to have a candid assessment about what more we can do to try to prevent these things from happening."

Four days later, in his weekly radio address, Clinton called for new gun control initiatives, more federal funding for school safety and efforts by the entertainment industry to reduce the marketing of violent video games and movies to young people.

Within weeks, he summoned a broad array of interests to a White House summit on the shooting. The effort ultimately produced more school safety funding and voluntary agreements with the entertainment industry. But the Republican-controlled Congress rejected his gun control proposals.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee urged its chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), to convene hearings on the Minnesota shooting. Among the issues they said the hearings should explore were a series of gun control measures.

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