WASHINGTON — A year after a landmark gun safety bill was signed into law, Alaska’s congressional delegation wants to preserve funding for school archery and hunting programs that lawmakers say is threatened by the implementation of the legislation.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski supported, included policies intended to prevent violence in schools and boost mental health support programs. The law included language that blocks funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the principal source of federal aid for elementary and secondary education — from providing any person a dangerous weapon or training in the use of a dangerous weapon.
The Department of Education issued guidance in April drawing on language from the 2022 gun law that the legislation prohibits using Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds to provide or train with dangerous weapons, defined as a “weapon, device, instrument, material, or substance, animate or inanimate, that is used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury,” with the exception of pocket knives with a blade 2 1/2 inches or less.
The guidance specifies that the funds “may not be used, for example, to purchase a firearm or to train teachers to use a firearm.”
An Education Department spokesperson said the department “has not withheld any Federal funds from any State, school district, or any other grantee or subgrantee as a result of the statutory language in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA).”
However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — including those who supported the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last year — are speaking out with concerns about restrictions to funding for school archery and hunting programs and have called on the Biden administration to support the programs.
Murkowski was one of 15 Republican senators to vote for the gun law in June 2022, describing the bill as responsible and “targeted.” Her spokesman, Joe Plesha, said the senator has been working to convince Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that “withholding federal funds for schools with archery and hunting programs was absolutely not the intent of the law.”
“In Alaska, we all know that things like hunting, archery, and ulu knives are a normal part of everyday life,” Plesha said in a statement. “If this isn’t fixed at the administrative level, she plans to introduce legislation with her colleagues to address this misinterpretation as soon as the Senate reconvenes in September.”
Other lawmakers who supported the law, like Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester, have been critical of the Education Department and said the bill was not intended to restrict funding for archery or hunting programs.
Republicans in the House and Senate who opposed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, like Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, have blasted the administration’s guidance in letters.
“It is now clearer than ever that the Biden administration will use the bill to attack the constitutional rights of Americans,” the letter signed by 19 Republican senators said.
Sullivan did not vote for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act out of concern for “lack of oversight for issues like these,” Sullivan spokeswoman Amanda Coyne said in a statement.
While the bill included important mental health provisions, she said, “too much was left to interpretation that could result in important programs being cut from schools, like archery and hunting education — as well as gun control measures that infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners in Alaska and nationwide.”
Sullivan plans to cosponsor a bill led by Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso that protects archery and hunter education programs when the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., Coyne said.
An Education Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement the department has “a responsibility to administer the bipartisan law as written by Congress and has offered to provide technical assistance to help Congress address this issue.”
“The Department will continue to offer technical assistance to help Congress address this statutory language issue,” the spokesperson said.
Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola in August signed onto legislation that would preserve federal funding for school hunting and archery programs earlier. The two-page Protecting Hunting Heritage and Education Act has 43 House Republican cosponsors. Peltola is the only Democrat to sign on, though she said she plans to raise awareness about the issue with her colleagues.
“In Alaska, hunting and firearms are more than just a way to provide food for our families, they are key to our way of life. Learning how to safely use firearms and develop outdoor skills should be an option for our students,” Peltola said in a statement, adding the legislation would “protect federal funding for school archery and hunting programs, and ensure that they are not defunded in the future.”
This year in Alaska, at least two grants provided Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding for programs like shooting sports or archery, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. For example, three school districts provide such programming through a grant for educational opportunities for migrant youths.
“We do not know if any of those programs have been cancelled or put on hold due to the changes in guidance,” state education spokesperson Caroline Hamp said in a statement.
Referring to dangerous weapons, the Department of Education spokesperson said the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act “does not limit the use of other federal funding, State, or local funding for these purposes — use of other funding for these items or related training does not impact a school’s eligibility for ESEA funding in any way.”
Members of the Alaska Legislature have also weighed in on the issue. In an August letter, fifteen Republican lawmakers and Democratic Sen. Jesse Kiehl called on the Alaska delegation to protect archery and hunting education programs.
The legislators urged the delegation “to exercise your authority to defend our states’ rights of our youth to freely access shooting sports and hunter safety education courses in our schools without fear of losing critical funding.”