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News Brief: Boulder Shooting, Gun Bills, Pandemic Survey Of Schools

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Of the people shot at a Boulder, Colo., supermarket, the youngest was 20, the oldest 65.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They included a police officer who was the father of seven. Another man who was killed walked his daughter down the aisle last summer. She remembers playing with her dad for hours as a child. Ten people were killed in the attack that authorities naturally want to understand, though a mass shooting, by definition, will never make any sense. Authorities have charged a 21-year-old man from suburban Denver.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kirk Siegler is on the line from Boulder, Colo. Kirk, good morning.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are police and reporters like you going about trying to learn about the suspect?

SIEGLER: We'll start with the police. You know, they initially cautioned that this investigation could take five days or maybe more. And authorities here are basically pleading with the public and the news media saying, let us do our work, and be patient. That's difficult. You know, a lot of people, after tragedies like this, are sad. They're puzzled. And for now, it appears that there's no obvious connection between this gunman and this grocery store here in Boulder. You know, his family lived 20 miles away from here near Denver. I spent much of yesterday outside their house there hoping someone would come out and at least give a statement. That didn't happen.

But according to the AP, a law enforcement official says now that the suspect's family told investigators that he'd suffered from delusions, but it's too early to have any idea what his motives might have been. The suspect was born in Syria but has lived here in the U.S. most his life. Steve, he went to high school in the Denver suburbs, and he was a high school wrestler.

INSKEEP: OK, some of the spare facts that are emerging. And are more facts emerging about how the shooting itself evolved?

SIEGLER: Some. Here's what we know. Authorities believe the gunman started shooting outside the store and made his way in, of course, and also there was a lot of gunfire inside. There was a standoff with the veteran Boulder police officer Eric Talley, who was killed. We do know now from investigators that the suspect bought an assault rifle last week. We don't know where. We don't know if it was purchased legally yet. But we do know it occurred - that he bought it on March 16, according to investigators. That's the same day as the Atlanta shooting. Steve, we have no indication to think at this point that that's anything more than a coincidence. But investigators, you know, are looking at everything as they try to figure out why he went into the store and killed so many people.

INSKEEP: OK, so a few bits of information that authorities are working with. What are you hearing from people in and around Boulder as that investigation continues?

SIEGLER: Well, as you can imagine, people are shocked. They're angry. They're grieving. This is a city that is traumatized. You know, I've covered all too many of these mass shootings, including here in Colorado. And their aftermaths follows this same grim script. Outside the makeshift memorial by the grocery store, I met Jason Woods. He shops at the King Soopers all the time, and he told me he's sad and confused.

JASON WOODS: I think everyone that goes through this is like, why here? You know, why now? My mom was actually in the store 45 minutes before the shooting happened. So it's - it's been really hard to process.

SIEGLER: And this is, you know, a lot of frustration. This is a liberal college town within a state that has passed stricter gun laws after so many mass shootings, Steve. And people want more action now.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a point to pick up the next voice in our conversation. NPR's Kirk Siegler, thanks so much.

SIEGLER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And the president spoke yesterday at the White House about the possibility of changing the nation's gun laws.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.

MARTIN: Is that going to happen, though? With Democrats narrowly in control of Congress, it's still unclear whether significant action on gun control is really a possibility, even after two mass shootings in less than a week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juana Summers is following this. Juana, good morning.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: When the president says I don't need to wait another minute, what is he specifically calling on Congress to do?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So Steve, he's been calling on Congress to pass two bills that have already passed the House and that are actually broadly popular with the public. Both of those bills are aimed at addressing gaps in the nation's existing gun laws, making sure that people who shouldn't have guns can't purchase them. One of those bills would close what's called the Charleston loophole. It was first proposed in the wake of another mass shooting back in 2015 in Charleston, S.C. The white supremacist in that church shooting killed nine people. And he should have been barred from buying a handgun, but he was ultimately able to do so. The bill would extend the amount of time the FBI has to complete a background check from the current three days. The second bill would require people from buying guns, whether it's a public purchase or from a private seller, to undergo a background check.

INSKEEP: So we should be clear on this - this is not a measure to ban any particular weapon, I guess makes them a little bit harder to get in that there'd be stricter background checks. Some people would not necessarily get a gun in the end, but relatively minor measures that are popular across the board, even including among a lot of Republicans. But will the Senate likely pass them?

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. And I think that's why some Democrats on Capitol Hill are really frustrated. So Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that the Senate will vote on these bills. But at least right now, it does not seem like they have the votes to pass. With a 50-50 Senate, Democrats need the support of at least 10 Republicans to move most major bills. And I think it's important to note that this is an area that Democrats are not totally unified on. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has signaled that he does not support this legislation. And when he was explaining this, he said he opposes the idea of universal background checks because that would require a background check even if you're, say, buying a gun from another private citizen that you know.

And as we know, Manchin is someone who has in the past backed compromise gun legislation with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. There's been some talk of reviving that bill. But keep in mind, this is a bill that even failed after that horrific 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And to your point, Steve, a note on President Biden here - this is an area that he has yet to take any significant action on on his own. The White House yesterday said that they're discussing a number of options for what might happen next, but they wouldn't get into specifics.

INSKEEP: You mentioned past mass shootings that seemed to build some momentum for something to happen, and then nothing did. Could this moment be any different?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So we've heard generally a lot of anger from Democrats, especially because they feel that the gun lobby still has a lot of power over Republicans, despite the fact that the National Rifle Association has been really weakened and Democrats have proved that they can win elections in competitive states running on a gun control platform. That was a big part of the message in 2018 when they retook control of the House. And this is also something that President Biden ran on. But among the Republican base, there is still sort of a fear of the slippery slope, this idea that even modest gun control could lead to reforms that they feel would infringe on their Second Amendment rights. And these things are just really still potent cultural issues on the right.

Despite the fact that a lot of conservative orthodoxy was upended during the Trump era, former President Trump repeatedly pressed the false message that his Democratic opponents wanted to take people's guns away. And we know from polling that despite all of this, support for stricter gun laws did drop among Republicans in the last four years. One dynamic that we should note is that every time one of these horrific shootings happens, there's a big reaction from elected leaders, the idea that something must be done when it comes to mass shootings. We have not, though, so far seen a proportional response when it comes to the everyday gun violence that plagues Black and brown communities. That's something that Biden talked a lot about as a candidate and that he vowed to address if he was elected as president.

INSKEEP: NPR's Juana Summers, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

SUMMERS: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: The pandemic completely disrupted school for students of all ages and has done so for more than a year.

MARTIN: And until today, we haven't known exactly how those disruptions have played out across the country. The Department of Education, though, has released the first in a series of national surveys intended to fill in the blanks this morning.

INSKEEP: Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team has the details. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the surveys tell us that we didn't know?

KAMENETZ: So President Biden actually ordered the Department of Ed to do this survey on his first full day in office. It covers about 7,000 schools. And as of January and early February, 3 out of 4 of them were offering some in-person learning with full time actually being more common than the part-time or hybrid schedule. However, just under half of students in this survey were still attending fully remote. And there are some very large differences by race and ethnicity. So 7 out of 10 Asian fourth-graders were at home learning remotely full time, so were 58% of Black students and 57% of Hispanic students, but just 27% of all white students.

INSKEEP: Any idea why the vast majority of students of color would be learning remotely when white students, it's the opposite?

KAMENETZ: Well, some part of that may be family preference because even in districts that offer some in-person, there are students who choose to stay remote. It also may be partly driven by where students live. So city schools in the survey, as well as in the west and northeast of the country, are less likely to offer any full-time in-person classes than rural schools and schools in the South and Midwest. In any case, Steve, this gap is something to watch because there are lots of ongoing concerns about student participation in remote, their progress, even access to computers and Internet.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, there's the key is how good is the remote learning, and how good is it as a substitute for in-person classes? What do you learn about the quality of remote learning here?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So as a rough way of getting at that, this pilot survey asked about how many hours of live video instruction remote students are getting. And the majority of schools are offering more than three hours of real-time video teaching per day. That's one approach to, you know, high-quality remote learning. But 10% of eighth-graders and 5% of fourth-graders are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely. They may be working on homework package or software, watching prerecorded lessons on videos.

INSKEEP: Wow, that doesn't sound good. What other equity issues did this survey reveal?

KAMENETZ: Well, students with disabilities have been an ongoing concern. Many families say, you know, they really struggle to connect with virtual learning. And more than 4 in 10 districts said on this survey, yes, we are prioritizing these students with disabilities for in-person learning. However, when you look at the numbers, they found 4 in 10 students with disabilities remained remote - so not a lot of evidence that they are actually being prioritized.

INSKEEP: Anya, you said that the president ordered this survey on his first full day in office. Was the Department of Education not gathering this kind of information during the Trump administration or at least not gathering it all in one place?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So for all their push for school reopening, this is something they did not take point on, this kind of centralized data collection. And the data here is intended to be used to understand the progress toward school reopening, to identify these gaps in access. And it's going to repeat monthly through July, so we'll continue to learn more.

INSKEEP: So we've got a baseline to work from. Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.