Republican lawmakers worry that new federal funding rules may imperil school-based archery and hunter safety programs. (Courtesy of Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers are concerned that the Biden administration is interpreting last year’s bipartisan gun safety law to cut funding for school archery and hunting programs, though programs themselves say they haven’t been affected.
A provision in the law – a bipartisan effort to curb gun violence that established new criminal offenses, and expanded background check requirements and the scope of existing restrictions, according to the bill summary – bans education funding for “training in the use of a dangerous weapon.” Republicans in Congress have noted concern that could lead to funding cuts for school programs that encourage gun safety.
The law included a provision that “prohibits the use of elementary and secondary education funds to provide any person with a dangerous weapon or training in the use of a dangerous weapon.”
The Department of Education has interpreted this provision to defund school archery and hunting programs across the country, scores of Republican lawmakers say, which prompted wide disapproval.
However, there is little evidence that any programs have yet been affected.
Patrick O’Connell, director of training and technology at the National Archery in the Schools Program, an organization that coordinates school archery programs across the country and has spoken out in defense of archery and firearm safety education, said he is unaware of any schools that have been affected by a loss of funding.
“Just a large number of schools concerned about that possibility,” he said.
Spokespeople for the Education Department did not return messages seeking comment.
Criticism from lawmakers
Funding for hunting and archery programs generally comes from student fees, organized fundraisers, donations or state funds — with federal money adding relatively little, Michael Bloxom, the NASP Alabama state coordinator, said.
But congressional Republicans have still voiced objections about potential losses in that funding.
In an Aug. 4 letter, 66 House Republicans — including Nebraska’s U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith — pressed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to restore funding for archery and hunting programs.
The representatives praised the long safety records of such programs and the opportunities that they provide for students.
“These scholastic programs are where millions of kids learn safe and responsible firearm handling and storage, and this egregious, irresponsible overreach by your Department will have far-reaching negative consequences,” the representatives wrote.
In an Aug. 11 letter to President Joe Biden, 19 Republican senators — including Nebraska’s U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer — demanded that the administration withdraw Education Department guidance specifying that federal funds cannot be used for firearm training programs. That reversal would allow school archery and hunting programs to continue receiving federal funds, they said.
The senators, led by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP, used the letter to highlight the importance of school archery and hunting programs.
“While the administration claims to be eliminating dangerous activities, this guidance will, in fact, have the opposite effect,” the senators wrote. “These programs provided thousands of students with the opportunity to learn proper instruction for firearm and archery safety.”
The senators, none of whom were among the 14 Senate Republicans who joined the full Democratic caucus in voting for the bill last year, called on the Biden administration to reverse “this misguided decision and ensure funding for these vital programs is not withheld.”
Objections haven’t come only from Republicans. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, also wrote a letter to Cardona to express concern about how the interpretation of the gun law may affect school archery and hunting programs.
“In Montana, our schools have long offered shooting sport and hunter safety classes that play an important role in teaching safety and personal responsibility to students,” Tester said in his letter. “Outdoor recreation is foundational to our western way of life and any reduction of federal support for these educational programs is unacceptable.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, introduced a bill on Aug. 1 meant to ensure federal funding for school archery and hunting programs would continue.
Green said that the Biden administration should not prevent Tennessee schoolchildren from receiving safety and skills training in archery, hunting or other shooting sports.
“The classes President Biden wants to defund aren’t only about hunting and archery, they are about teaching young Americans how to respect nature and to focus on a goal,” Green said. “The Biden administration’s decision to strip funding for these important classes doesn’t just miss the mark, it misses the entire target.”
The Department of Education issued a statement to Fox News last month that it would work to restore federal funding for these programs.
Signs of impact
Officials with state chapters of NASP say they have been unaffected by the recent funding interpretation.
Generally the only cost to the schools may come in the form of teacher salaries, Bloxom, the Alabama NASP coordinator, said.
Still, there has been confusion and concern from people involved in the program.
“There was a lot of concern and discussion among teachers and parents, and a lot of that fear was due to a lack of information,” Bloxom said.
Alabama’s programs have not been interrupted so far, he said.
“We are hopeful a compromise on the interpretation by the US DOE will permanently alleviate the fear that these important programs could be affected in the future,” Bloxom said.
Wyoming NASP coordinator William Poole said the legislation has been misinterpreted and that it is unclear how it would impact schools in his state.
“Our agency and partners are working to understand the intent of the legislation,” Poole said. “We will continue to support and advocate wholeheartedly for hunter education and archery in the schools. These programs play a vital role in fostering conservation ethic in our youngest citizens.”
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