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After Newtown, Will Obama Take Cue From Clinton?

After Newtown, Will Obama Take Cue From Clinton?

By Alexis Simendinger - December 19, 2012

More than 14 years ago, President Clinton told a roomful of interested parties at the White House, “We have to help schools recognize the early warning signs of violence and to respond to violence when it does strike.”

Attracted to the substance and political atmospherics of federal policymaking, Clinton was fond of hosting White House conferences that drew together lawmakers, experts, members of the public, affected constituencies and cabinet officials to tackle issues with cross-cutting dimensions.

In 1998, he convened such a conference on school safety -- one that President Obama and his team, now reckoning with the murders in Newtown, Conn., will no doubt study. Since 2009, Obama has not favored many White House task forces, commissions and conferences as ideal mechanisms for change, but in seeking to reinstate an expired ban on assault weapons, for instance, he is already treading where Clinton once walked.

“Whether he uses task forces or a White House conference, all are ways of clarifying those issues and communicating a message to the public,” said former Connecticut Rep. Jim Maloney, whom Clinton praised at his conference in 1998 for co-sponsoring a bill to expand federal community policing funds to pay for safety officers at schools.

At the time, the concept of “school resource officers” was still controversial. Today at many middle schools and high schools, the notion of “community policing” to protect pupils and faculty is well accepted. With the Oval Office as a backdrop, Clinton at the time announced a “new initiative” to spend $65 million to help schools hire and train 2,000 new community police and security officers.

“I think the [1998] conference had the effect of clarifying the mission,” Maloney added.

Maloney, a Democrat who left Congress in 2003 and who is now the president and CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Communities, told RCP that whatever mechanisms Obama uses to engage America after Newtown, “it is important to pull in the general public and public safety professionals.” Clinton did that, Maloney recalled, which proved important because by enlisting support from the law enforcement community, he sought to counter the clout of the pro-gun-rights lobby in Congress.

Since 1998, America has in some ways “gone backwards,” Maloney lamented, pointing to tighter state and local resources for mental health services and for policing. The expiration in 2004 of the ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons was a significant retreat from safety, he argued. On the bright side, he said, the physical security of schools has improved, although he criticized as “absolute chaos” proposals to arm teachers and principals.

In an interview Tuesday with WTOP radio, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said he wants to discuss allowing teachers and faculty to carry firearms on school grounds.

"If people were armed, not just a police officer but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school," the Republican governor said. "I know there is a knee-jerk reaction against that, but I think we should have a discussion about it."

While fighting mass gun violence with additional protective firepower has become part of the conversation, Obama more assertively declared his intentions Tuesday to promote legislation next year to reinstate the assault weapons ban, close the gun show loophole on required background checks, and is “interested in looking at” legislation to ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, spokesman Jay Carney said.

On Monday, Obama asked Vice President Biden to spearhead a federal effort to address the issue of mass shootings, and the two men met to discuss next steps with Attorney General Eric Holder, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, along with senior White House officials. The Justice Department in 2011 collected ideas but did nothing with its internal report as Obama was seeking re-election. Options included legislation, executive action that would not require approval by Congress, and proposals for federal and state information-sharing designed to help flag potentially violent individuals before they commit mass carnage.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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