Introduction and summary
Less than two weeks after the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, the third-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history claimed the lives of 21 people in Uvalde, Texas, including 19 children.1 Following decades of inaction, these horrific events spurred action in Congress. Responding to calls from victims’ families and gun violence prevention activists, President Joe Biden and Democratic senators, including Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and Republican senators such as Texas Sen. John Cornyn and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis reached across the aisle to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA)2—the most significant gun violence reduction legislation in 30 years.
The BSCA saves lives by:
- Improving the background check system by broadening the definition of licensed gun dealers.
- Establishing enhanced background checks for buyers under age 21.
- Establishing federal criminal offenses for straw purchasing and trafficking.
- Addressing dating violence by partially closing the dating partner loophole.
- Supporting implementation of extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs) and other crisis intervention services.
- Expanding community violence intervention programs.
- Supporting and expanding positive learning environments and safe schools.
- Funding a 21st century pipeline of mental health professionals.
- Expanding access to mental health services.
The BSCA will save countless lives by putting into place commonsense gun laws that activists have been demanding for years to hold more gun dealers and traffickers accountable and keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are at higher risk of committing violence. The law does so by making it harder for domestic abusers to access guns, establishing enhanced background checks for individuals under age 21, requiring individuals who sell guns commercially for a profit to register as licensed dealers, and making gun trafficking a federal offense.
In addition to closing legal loopholes to keep guns out of the hands of people who want to commit violence and giving communities and local law enforcement the necessary tools to reduce gun crime, the BSCA invests more than $13 billion in addressing the root causes of gun violence and expanding access to mental health services.3 Recognizing that gun violence is the leading cause of death for children,4 the vast majority of this money is allocated for schools and students to get the support they need, including increasing access to mental health services, addressing social-emotional needs, expanding after-school programs, and building the pipeline of mental health professionals.
The bill also includes $750 million to support crisis intervention services, including the implementation of state ERPO laws that give families, neighbors, and local law enforcement the necessary tools to prevent violence by temporarily removing firearms from individuals in crisis. The BSCA invests $250 million over five years in community violence intervention programs that use a public health approach to reduce gun violence by focusing on partnerships with those most affected by it, especially individuals from Black and Hispanic communities.
The BSCA demonstrates that it is possible for Congress to come together and pass legislation to curb gun violence. It is an important first step to addressing gun violence as the nation witnesses its devastating toll in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Now, however, progress must breed progress. By passing the BSCA, Congress laid the foundation for what must be a relentless campaign to combat America’s gun violence epidemic with robust measures, including reinstating the federal ban on assault weapons, requiring a permit to purchase a firearm, instituting safe storage requirements, and making targeted efforts to address the epidemic’s root causes. In order to build upon the success of the BSCA and effectively make the case for additional federal legislation, policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels must ensure that the BSCA’s policies are properly implemented and that its billions of dollars in investments are successfully leveraged to reduce violence in U.S. communities.
Increasing the number of background checks
A key provision of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act addresses a loophole in federal law that allows gun sellers to sell guns without conducting a background check or keeping appropriate records. By clarifying who is presumed to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms and who must therefore register as a federally licensed firearms dealer, this provision, if properly implemented, can reduce the number of guns sold without a background check.
A firearm background check allows a gun seller to determine if a prospective buyer is legally prohibited from purchasing a firearm.5 Federal and state laws determine who is barred from purchasing and possessing a firearm, such as individuals with violent felony convictions or a history of domestic violence. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires licensed gun dealers to conduct a background check on potential firearm purchasers.6 However, federal law allows private individuals who are not federal firearms licensees to sell firearms without verifying that prospective buyers are legally eligible to purchase a gun.
The lack of universal background checks undermines the effectiveness of nearly every other gun safety law.
The lack of universal background checks undermines the effectiveness of nearly every other gun safety law. The private sale loophole allows individuals who are prohibited by law from possessing firearms to buy as many guns as they want at places such as gun shows, strip mall parking lots, or online, with no questions asked or records left behind. This gap in the law fuels gun trafficking and impedes law enforcement efforts to trace guns used in crimes—a crucial investigative tool to solve violent crimes.
A May 8, 2023, letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was signed by 91 U.S. senators and representatives7 and explained that it was Congress’ intent in the BSCA to address this loophole and require more firearms dealers to become licensed.8 The letter explains that “with more licensed firearms dealers, there will be more firearms sales that require a background check. And with more firearms sales requiring background checks, there will be fewer firearms that end up in the hands of gun traffickers and prohibited persons, trafficked in our communities and across state lines, and used in violent crime.”
On March 14, 2023, at the site of the Monterey Park mass shooting on January 21, 2023, that killed 11 people and injured 9 others,9 President Joe Biden signed an executive order10 with a “goal of increasing the number of background checks conducted before firearm sales, moving the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.”11 Specifically, the executive order directed the attorney general to develop and implement a plan to “clarify the definition of who is engaged in the business of dealing in firearms, and thus required to become Federal firearms licensees (FFLs), in order to increase compliance with the Federal background check requirement for firearm sales.”12 The order also directs the plan to include regulations to “prevent former federally licensed firearms dealers, whose licenses have been revoked or surrendered, from continuing to engage in the business of dealing in firearms.”13
This new provision is already showing promising results. Prosecutions for engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license increased 52 percent from fiscal year 2021 to fiscal year 2022 and are on track to maintain or exceed those levels in FY 2023.14
ATF and the U.S. Department of Justice should swiftly engage in substantive rulemaking around this provision and provide guidance to hold more unlicensed dealers accountable. In addition to the direction of the executive order, the May 2023 congressional letter advised:
We believe that the Department and ATF should both issue guidance and complete a rulemaking that makes clear who is “engaged in the business” of dealing in firearms under BSCA. We also believe that this guidance and rulemaking should include a presumption that individuals making commercial sales—whether at a gun show or an online marketplace—are “engaged in the business” and required to become licensed. In addition, we urge the Department and ATF to further define the “occasional sales,” “personal collection,” and “hobby” exceptions to the “engaged in the business” rule. These exceptions should now be read pursuant to how BSCA narrowed the definition.15
If an individual is selling firearms through commercial marketplaces such as gun shows or is advertising gun sales online, they should be required to conduct background checks to keep guns out of the hands of those who want to commit violence. They should also be required to maintain records to give law enforcement the necessary tools to solve gun crimes.
If ATF issues strong and comprehensive enforcement guidance and clarifies requirements to gun sellers through substantive rulemaking, fewer people prohibited by law from possessing a gun will be able to buy one without a background check. To truly achieve the universal background checks that 90 percent of Americans support,16 Congress must finish the job by passing legislation that fully closes the private sale loophole and requires that all gun purchasers have a permit to purchase a firearm and undergo a background check.
Enhanced background checks for buyers under age 21
The BSCA includes a novel policy of enhanced background checks for buyers under age 21 because both the Uvalde and Buffalo mass shootings were carried out by 18-year-old gunmen.17 Before a firearm can be sold to a buyer under age 21, the BSCA requires enhanced background checks that include juvenile criminal history and mental health records. If an initial background check finds a potentially disqualifying record, the new law provides the FBI with additional time to complete the enhanced check, an important provision since the drastic surge in gun purchasing during the COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented strain on an already underresourced background check system.18
The FBI operates the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to conduct background checks, and federal law requires background checks to be completed within three days.19 If after three days, the FBI, or state officials in “point of contact” states,20 has not concluded the investigation, the gun seller has the discretion to proceed with the sale, despite the lack of an affirmative finding that the individual is eligible to buy a firearm.21 This weakness in the federal background check system is known as the “Charleston loophole” because it enabled the Emanuel AME Church shooter to obtain his firearm and commit the horrific 2015 hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina.22
For purchasers ages 18, 19, and 20, the BSCA requires background checks to include reaching out to local law enforcement and checking state databases of juvenile and mental health records.23 If the initial search conducted within three business days finds a potentially disqualifying record, the BSCA gives the FBI seven additional business days to determine if the potential buyer is legally prohibited from purchasing a firearm. This additional time is important to prevent prohibited purchasers from obtaining guns through default proceeds. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety found that an estimated 35,000 potential default-proceed sales occurred in March 2020 alone, with at least 523 of these guns going to prohibited people and nearly 25 percent going to individuals with domestic violence prohibitors.24
In October 2022, NICS started to phase in the implementation of enhanced background checks. By January 2, 2023, NICS was conducting background checks in all 37 states for which it is responsible, plus American Samoa; Guam; the Northern Mariana Islands; Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. The FBI has provided ongoing guidance and support to the 13 point-of-contact states that conduct their own checks by electronically accessing NICS. As of June 2023, 10 of the 13 states had fully implemented the enhanced checks.25 The FBI has hosted webinars to educate more than 500 law enforcement agencies about how to support the success of these enhanced background checks.26
According to an April 5, 2023, Department of Justice webinar on the implementation of the BSCA, under the new law, NICS has conducted more than 77,000 enhanced background checks for buyers under age 21.27 It denied more than 650 of these transactions, and 19 percent of those denials were based solely upon the BSCA’s enhanced background checks.28
The number of enhanced background checks of buyers under age 21 grew to more than 89,000 by May 14, 2023.29 From November 2022 to May 2023, NICS denied more than 160 purchases based solely upon the BSCA’s enhanced requirements.30 By June 14, 2023, the FBI had conducted more than 100,000 enhanced background checks and denied nearly 1,000 firearms—more than 200 of which were denied solely because of BSCA requirements.31 As of July 11, 2023, NICS had completed 116,349 enhanced background checks, with 1,110 checks resulting in a denial.32 It blocked 253 purchases because of the enhanced checks, accounting for 23 percent of total denials.33
In June 2023, Attorney General Garland said that the Department of Justice was “putting important new tools to use thanks to the passage last year of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act” and highlighted that “more than 200 firearms have been kept out of the hands of young people who should not have had access to them” because of the enhanced background checks.34 During a March 2023 Senate committee hearing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said this provision focused on “that age cohort, that was disproportionately represented in some of the mass shootings that we’ve seen around the country, and it seems to be working.”35
The FBI and NICS should be commended for moving quickly to implement this new provision. Increased education and outreach are necessary to ensure effective and equitable implementation. On May 14, 2023, President Biden announced that the White House, in partnership with the Department of Justice, will convene state legislators and governors’ offices to “increas[e] state and local law enforcement agencies’ response rates to enhanced background check inquiries when someone under age 21 tries to purchase a gun” and to “urg[e] them to enact laws allowing the federal background check system to access all records that could prohibit someone under age 21 from purchasing a firearm.”36
In the wake of the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, which both involved assault weapons, advocates were pushing for reinstating the assault weapons ban.37 Although there were not 60 votes in the Senate for such a ban, there were 60 votes38 for a new idea to address the fact that both shooters bought their weapons at age 18.39 And unlike the other policies in the BSCA that had been debated for years or even decades, enhanced background checks for 18- to 20-year-olds were a new idea. Yet of all the BSCA’s provisions, this one raised the most questions and concerns, especially from disability rights and criminal justice reform advocates.
In practice, the FBI has to call local police departments to gain information about potential disqualifications, such as criminal convictions. If a police department knows there is a disqualification, it can help NICS find any necessary records. If a buyer is not disqualified by law from purchasing a firearm but law enforcement officers know them and believe they may be in temporary crisis, they may visit the individual, do a wellness check, and/or offer services if they know the individual is buying a lot of guns and ammunition.
This proactive approach provides an opportunity for law enforcement to prevent violence before it starts. However, when it comes to interactions with the justice system in this country, it is important to recognize how any policy can have disproportionate and deleterious effects on communities of color. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Department of Justice, youth of color are more likely to be arrested than their white peers and to go deeper into the criminal legal system.40 As a result, the impact of overpolicing in communities of color could lead to the disproportionate denial of legal access to firearms under the BSCA’s enhanced background check system. Furthermore, increased contact between law enforcement and communities of color could have negative, and even deadly, unintended consequences.
Moreover, while it is important to identify and intervene when a person is at increased risk of causing harm to themselves or others, connecting the review of mental health records to the enhanced background check system may lead to further stigmatization of people with mental health disabilities, who are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.41 As the Autistic Self Advocacy Network wrote in response to the passage of the BSCA, “Increased police access to the mental health records of gun buyers also raise concerns about the civil rights of people with disabilities.”42 For this reason, it is incumbent on the Department of Justice to guide federal investigators and local law enforcement agencies in developing a deeper understanding of what conduct—not what diagnoses—may be disqualifying through the enhanced background check system so as not to discriminate and further stigmatize individuals with disabilities.
While the BSCA gives law enforcement agencies more time to process background checks before default proceeds, without accurate and full reporting of disqualifying conduct, individuals intending to do harm can still legally purchase firearms when they turn 18. An implementation challenge of this law will be finding the right balance between faithfully utilizing the new system and protecting the privacy of young people. Records from juvenile courts and mental health providers or facilities are often kept private and not reported to NICS to prevent a youthful mistake from permanently closing doors to necessities such as housing and employment as an adult. State laws or gaps in their guidance that do not allow mental health providers or juvenile courts to report to NICS can make the extra time the BSCA provides moot.
A 2009 Texas law requires courts to send mental health records to the FBI to be included in NICS.43 As a result, Texas consistently sends both adult mental health records and juvenile criminal records to NICS. But the juvenile mental health records are rarely included in NICS because the state law does not address existing protections for juvenile records, technological limitations, or unclear guidance from state agencies. ProPublica found that five of the six largest counties in Texas did not report juvenile mental health commitments, including Uvalde County.44 Uvalde’s chief juvenile probation officer told ProPublica that “there’s no specific way for us to report” juvenile mental health commitments because of limitations of electronic reporting tools.45
Because background checks are only as effective as the records submitted to NICS, states and localities should work toward a goal of 100 percent reporting of disqualifying records. Timely reporting of records is vital, as the risk for violence is highest following a prohibiting event.46
Holding gun traffickers accountable
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act creates new federal penalties that reflect the seriousness of illegal gun trafficking and the devastating impact these activities have on individual victims and entire communities. Law enforcement overemphasizes arresting and prosecuting individuals for gun possession instead of focusing limited enforcement resources upstream on the sources of illegal guns. In addition to more effectively reducing the firearm access of individuals at higher risk of committing violence, upstream enforcement is more likely to advance racial equity in the criminal legal system.
Gun trafficking is the movement of guns from legal to illegal streams of commerce and is a major driver of violent crime.47 Firearms trafficked from states with weaker gun laws to states with stricter gun laws are increasingly turning up at crime scenes. From 2016 to 2020, 74 percent of crime guns recovered across state lines originated in states with no background check laws.48 Crime guns recovered in cities with strong state laws that require background checks on all gun sales often originate out of state. For example, 93 percent of crime guns recovered in New York City from 2017 to 2021 were last sold from a licensed dealer in another state. During that period, 61 percent of guns recovered in Baltimore and 56 percent of guns recovered in Chicago originated out of state.49
Straw purchasing is one of three major gun trafficking channels, along with gun theft and private sales without a background check. A straw purchase occurs when a prohibited purchaser, such as a person with a felony conviction record, uses individuals with clean criminal records who can pass a background check to purchase firearms on their behalf. Straw purchasing and gun trafficking undermine both federal and state gun laws, yet there was no specific crime of gun trafficking under U.S. federal law until 2022. The BSCA created the first federal straw purchasing and trafficking criminal offenses, giving police and prosecutors the ability to hold gun traffickers accountable.
The law establishes a maximum prison sentence of 15 years for both its straw purchasing and unlawfully trafficking in firearms provisions. On the one hand, increased penalties incentivize law enforcement to prioritize these cases; if local and state law enforcement believe that after putting considerable resources into these time-consuming investigations, the trafficker will be granted probation or a relatively lenient sentence, they will focus their enforcement efforts elsewhere. However, severe penalties may disproportionately vulnerable groups, particularly women, who are often coerced into making straw purchases.50
A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed medical journal Injury Prevention found that prosecutions for violating Pennsylvania’s straw purchase law increased by nearly 16 times after a 2012 law strengthened penalties.51 According to the study’s author, “Prosecutors’ decisions to bring charges against law violators are going to be influenced by the magnitude of the penalty or the ease of getting a conviction.”52
Law enforcement leaders across the country have repeatedly called for strengthening penalties for straw purchases and illegal trafficking. This policy is supported by leading law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Police Executive Research Forum, and the Police Foundation.53
Research shows that swift, consistent, and proportionate sanctions are more effective at deterring illegal behavior than long sentences.54 In order to deter illegal gun trafficking and reduce recidivism, federal law enforcement agencies should focus on swift and certain punishments. Longer sentences should be reserved for those who contribute the most to violence, as severity is incompatible with swiftness and certainty.55 Defendants often more fiercely resist severe sentences, undermining swiftness, and are less likely to accept a plea deal and more likely to try their chances before a jury if potential sentences are severe, undermining certainty. This means that federal law enforcement resources must be concentrated on the worst traffickers and that resources must be allocated away from reactive efforts that are largely duplicative of the work done by local and state police agencies.
Rather than directing resources toward targeting individual gun offenders, the ATF should hire more inspectors to identify problematic firearm dealers and increase investments in robust national systems of crime gun tracing and ballistics imaging to provide the data and intelligence necessary to identify illegal gun trafficking networks and solve gun-related violent crimes. To discourage gun traffickers, federal law enforcement should directly communicate deterred threats and publicize successful prosecutions under the new law.
In the year since the BSCA’s passage, law enforcement and prosecutors around the country have used these provisions to address gun trafficking, but there is still work to be done to implement these laws fully. The Department of Justice has conducted multiple training sessions for law enforcement and federal prosecutors on these new provisions.56 As of June 2023, more than 100 defendants had been charged federally with illegal firearms trafficking and straw purchasing.57 During a June 14, 2023, meeting with all 93 U.S. attorneys and leaders of federal law enforcement agencies, Attorney General Garland reiterated his February 2022 directive to federal prosecutors to increase resources to investigations against unlawful firearm dealing and trafficking pipelines.58
A review of indictments and case files by Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence identified 18 cases filed between August 2, 2022, and February 10, 2023, using the new gun trafficking and straw purchasing statutes.59 Three of the 35 defendants were charged with straw purchasing, while most of the cases involved individuals facing gun trafficking charges. Giffords found that 10 defendants had pleaded guilty to the charges as of May 1, 2023.60 This is an encouraging start, but more must be done to hold accountable sophisticated trafficking operations that traffic a large volume of firearms.
As a lead federal agency on firearms and explosives enforcement and the sole federal agency responsible for overseeing the lawful commerce of firearms and explosives, ATF plays a crucial role in preventing gun trafficking and holding violators accountable. An August 2022 coalition letter to ATF Director Dettelbach, led by the Center for American Progress in partnership with gun violence prevention and allied organizations, provided more than 30 recommendations, including faithfully implementing the BSCA and focusing investigative resources on identifying where illegal trafficking networks exist, how guns move across state and international lines, and how to intervene in and prevent gun trafficking.61 Specifically, the letter advised ATF to “[a]llocate more resources to conducting sufficient compliance inspections of gun dealers and hold violators accountable” and “[e]xpand interagency collaborations like Crime Gun Intelligence Centers (CGICs), which focus resources on proactively identifying the sources of crime guns.”62 In order to accomplish these recommendations, ATF needs additional funding to inspect gun dealers, conduct gun trafficking investigations, and partner with U.S. attorneys’ offices to prosecute gun traffickers who bring firearms from states with weaker laws into states with stronger laws.
In order to reduce the likelihood that the new federal penalties for straw purchasing and gun trafficking have a disproportionate impact on communities of color, Congress should allow sentencing amendments to go into effect. Included in the BSCA is language directing the U.S. Sentencing Commission to take into account culpability and criminal history when reviewing and amending its guidelines. The law says the commission should consider “an appropriate amendment to reflect the intent of Congress that straw purchasers without significant criminal histories receive sentences that are sufficient to deter participation in such activities and reflect the defendant’s role and culpability, and any coercion, domestic violence survivor history, or other mitigating factors.”63
On February 5, 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its amendments, which include sentencing reductions for mitigating factors and enhancements for traffickers who are gang affiliated or trafficking multiple firearms.64 As Giffords Law Center explains, “These amendments have the potential to both minimize the disproportionate burden of these laws on communities of color and other marginalized groups, as well as focus enforcement on individuals most responsible for creating the conditions that allow gun violence to flourish.”65 The amendments are subject to congressional review and will go into effect on November 1, 2023, if Congress does not object.
Addressing dating violence through the BSCA
Domestic violence, defined as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner,”66 negatively affects millions of Americans each year. This form of violence includes physical, emotional, sexual, economic, psychological, and technological actions, as well as other patterns of coercive behavior that harm, intimidate, force, manipulate, or control a partner.67 Uniquely devastating for survivors, families, and communities, domestic violence is associated with significant individual and societal costs, as well as other forms of violence, health complications, and economic consequences.68 Domestic violence covers abuse at the hands of parents, guardians, spouses, co-parents, cohabitants, or individuals similarly situated to these categories. While the terms “domestic violence” and “intimate partner violence” are frequently used interchangeably, the latter specifically pertains to abuse committed by current and former spouses and dating partners.69 Every minute, nearly 20 people in the United States are physically abused by an intimate partner,70 and guns only make this violence more deadly. When a gun is introduced to a domestic violence situation, the risk of death increases by 500 percent.71
The research is clear: Intimate partner violence and easily accessible firearms are a dangerous combination.72 With an estimated 433.9 million firearms currently in circulation, the United States is uniquely deadly for victims of abuse.73 On average, 50 people in the United States are shot and killed every month by a current or former intimate partner with a gun, translating to roughly 596 deaths per year.74 While intimate partner violence affects people of all genders, races, and ethnicities, some individuals and communities experience inequities in violence due to preexisting social and structural conditions. Women, particularly women of color, people in the LGBTQ community,75 pregnant women,76 and women with disabilities77 experience the brunt of this violence. Moreover, the risk of this violence turning deadly increases significantly when a woman attempts to leave an abusive relationship.78 Women in the United States are killed by abusive partners with alarming frequency, representing more than 70 percent of all yearly intimate partner homicide deaths.79 While most countries experience deadly incidents of domestic and gender-based violence, high rates of gun ownership and limited regulations as to who is able to access these dangerous weapons have made the United States exceedingly dangerous for women. Compared with other high-income countries, the United States is the deadliest country for women, reporting a gun homicide rate 28 times that of peer nations.80
These sobering statistics provide only a glimpse into the deadly intersection between guns and intimate partner violence. For each bullet fired, children, families, and communities are changed forever. The scope of this violence extends far beyond fatal encounters, with evidence showing that even when firearms are not used to kill, abusers use them as tools to control, terrorize, and threaten their victims, including children and family members, often leaving lasting physical, emotional, and financial damage.81 In 2016, researchers found that nearly 1 million women in the United States had been shot by a current or former partner and estimated that 4.5 million women have been threatened with a firearm in their lifetime.82 More recent analysis examining the nexus between intimate partner violence and children revealed that from 2017 to 2022, at least 866 children were non-fatally wounded and 621 children were killed during domestic violence incidents by an abuser with a gun.83 An abuser’s access to a firearm also puts those outside the home at risk: Researchers at Everytown for Gun Safety found that in nearly half of all mass shooting incidents, the shooter also killed an intimate partner with a gun.84
In 1996, lawmakers took a first step toward protecting survivors of domestic violence at the federal level by passing an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968.85 The amendment prohibited people convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime and abusers subject to permanent protective orders from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Under this provision, a misdemeanor conviction or protective order only results in a firearm possession prohibition if the underlying offense includes the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon, and the offender is a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian; current or former cohabitant; the parent of a shared child; or an individual similarly situated to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim. While this amendment has protected some victims and survivors, it has left victims outside these categories, particularly victims of dating violence, vulnerable. Often referred to as the “boyfriend loophole” or the “dating partner loophole,” the absence of federal protections for unmarried individuals in dating relationships has increasingly deadly consequences, with the share of homicides committed by dating partners steadily rising over the past three decades.86 This is in part because Americans are waiting longer to get married or opting out of marriage altogether in long-term relationships.87 Rather than evolving alongside modern relationships, federal law has failed to reflect the full scope of domestic violence by excluding abusive dating partners for more than 20 years.
Partially closing the ‘dating partner loophole’
Today, more than half of all domestic violence homicides are committed by a former or current dating partner,88 with firearms as the weapon of choice.89 In the absence of federal protections for victims of abusive dating relationships, 28 states and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation addressing the boyfriend loophole within their jurisdictions.90 This has worked: States that prevent abusive dating partners from accessing firearms have 16 percent fewer intimate partner gun homicides.91
In a critical first step to closing the dating partner loophole at the federal level, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act expands federal prohibitors barring people convicted of certain domestic violence crimes from gun possession to include dating partners with a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. In addition to partially closing this loophole, the BSCA adds and defines the term “dating relationship” as “a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.”92 The bill does not, however, extend these restrictions to dating partners subject to final domestic violence protective orders, allowing these abusive dating partners to legally possess firearms.93 This is a dangerous shortcoming. Final protective orders are granted when a court is presented with evidence that an individual poses a significant threat to the lives and safety of their victims and/or the children of their victims.94 Moreover, research indicates that the period following the issuance of a protective order is often one of the most dangerous times for women in abusive relationships.95 Given the gravity of these orders, dating partners subject to final protective orders should be subject to the same firearm restrictions as spousal abusers with a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. Additionally, unlike marriage partners, co-parents, or cohabitants who, under federal law, are subject to lifetime firearm restrictions with limited exceptions, the dating partner provision in the BSCA allows dating partners convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to have their gun rights restored if their record remains clean for five years.96 Congress should fix this oversight and ensure that abusive dating partners are subject to the same restrictions as abusive spouses.
Initial implementation of this provision has been encouraging, with early FBI NICS data indicating that the new prohibitor has been effective in preventing some abusive dating partners from accessing firearms. However, increased cooperation and training between agencies at the federal, state, local, and Tribal levels will be paramount to ensuring the provision is fully implemented to save as many lives as possible.
Federal protections are vital to the safety of unmarried individuals in dating partnerships, and by expanding federal domestic violence firearm prohibitors to include abusive dating partners with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, the BSCA takes a significant step forward in protecting all victims of domestic abuse from deadly gun violence. Congress should continue updating legislation to reflect a modern understanding of domestic violence by expanding the category of dating partners prohibited from firearm possession to include those subject to final domestic violence protective orders.
To fully close the dating loophole in federal firearms law, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the bipartisan Strengthening Protections for Domestic Violence and Stalking Survivors Act of 2023. If passed, this legislation would prevent abusive dating partners subject to final protective orders from legally possessing firearms and update the definition of “dating relationship” to include “individuals who have or have had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature,” regardless of when the relationship occurred.97 This would address a shortcoming in the BSCA’s definition of a “dating relationship,” which excludes abusers convicted of domestic violence against partners from a nonrecent prior relationship.
This legislation would also close the “stalking loophole” at the federal level by preventing individuals convicted of certain stalking offenses from purchasing firearms.98 Additionally, given evidence that dating partners experience domestic violence at similar, and in some cases, greater rates than those in spousal relationships,99 Congress should remove special provisions granted to dating partners that allow their firearm rights to be restored after a five-year period.
Extreme Risk Protection Order funding in the BSCA
An extreme risk protection order is a civil order that, depending on the state, enables law enforcement, family members, or mental health providers to petition a judge for a court order to temporarily remove firearms when there is clear evidence an individual is experiencing a temporary crisis, poses an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others, and has a firearm.100 For the duration of the order, the individual is also prohibited from purchasing firearms. Depending on state law, ERPO petitioners may include family, including someone related by blood, marriage, or adoption; dating partners; co-parents; people who are living together; legal guardians; law enforcement; health care professionals; and school administrators.101 Also known as “red flag” laws, ERPOs are proven strategies for preventing gun suicide and for intervening in response to credible mass shooting threats.102
With a growing body of research indicating that ERPOs, when properly implemented, provide families, communities, and law enforcement with a powerful tool for saving lives and preventing future tragedies,103 ERPO laws have increased in popularity among state legislatures. In fact, 16 of the 21 states and Washington, D.C., that have passed an ERPO law have done so in the past five years.104 However, it is not enough for states to simply pass this legislation, as evidence indicates that inconsistency in implementation and use can seriously affect the efficacy of this lifesaving intervention. Recently, numerous instances have occurred in which law enforcement in states with ERPO laws was aware that an individual posed a significant risk for harm, had the ability to petition a court to temporarily remove that individual’s firearms, and chose not to do so, with the individual in question going on to commit a deadly mass shooting.105 Additionally, while some states, such as Maryland and California, have seen significant success in establishing ERPOs as part of existing crisis intervention infrastructure, other states, including Florida and New Mexico, have seen limited and inconsistent use of ERPOs with little to no infrastructure developed to support the ERPO process.106
ERPO laws include rigorous due process protections and often carry penalties for false petitions. Contrary to gun lobby claims, ERPOs place temporary restrictions on an individual’s ability to possess firearms in extreme cases narrowly tailored to a specific risk imposed only after a judicial finding; therefore, they do not violate the Second Amendment.
The BSCA issued guidance for states enacting ERPO laws to ensure these laws are constitutionally implemented and granted unprecedented funding through the Byrne State Crisis Intervention Program (SCIP), which, among many things, works to develop and implement statewide ERPO laws.107 Specifically, the BSCA authorized $750 million over five years in federal funds to support state implementation and establishment of crisis intervention court proceedings and related programs or initiatives including state-level ERPO laws.108 Funding from this program is made available through two different solicitations, which award 60 percent of the allocated funding to states and 40 percent to local governments.109 Subrecipients of these awards may include courts (state, county, local, and Tribal), institutions of higher learning, law enforcement agencies, supervisory agencies, public defenders, emergency communications, prosecutors, and behavioral health organizations. Additional funding granted to states or local governments annually through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) can also now be tapped to support the implementation and evaluation of ERPO laws.
The funding granted through the BSCA provides states with significant flexibility in determining where dollars are directed. In addition to using federal funds to support ERPO infrastructure, states can access federal funds through SCIP to provide training; support law enforcement efforts to store firearms safely; and fund specialized programs including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and behavioral health crisis intervention programs.110 While states can invest this funding in a variety of crisis intervention programs, extreme risk protection orders are particularly effective at reducing gun violence and therefore should be the target of federal funds in states with existing ERPO laws.
To maximize the lifesaving benefits of ERPO laws, it is paramount for states to support and facilitate the development of a strong extreme risk protection order infrastructure.
To maximize the lifesaving benefits of ERPO laws, it is paramount for states to support and facilitate the development of a strong extreme risk protection order infrastructure. This requires that adequate resources be provided during each step of the ERPO process, including petitioning, processing, and serving orders; firearm removal; court appearances and preparation; and coordination with other behavioral health and social services as needed. For additional guidance on effectively implementing a statewide ERPO law, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions and Everytown for Gun Safety recommend the following actions:111
- Coordinate training and outreach for key groups including law enforcement, prosecutors, city/county attorneys, judges, social services, and health care providers.
- Direct that ERPO laws be used alongside other potential crisis intervention tools, such as domestic violence protective orders or treatment for substance use disorders, and connections to social support systems and appropriate resources.
- Make available clear information about court processes and materials, including directions on how to file and complete forms. Translated versions of forms and materials that provide information on filing ERPOs should be available in at least five of the languages most commonly spoken by non-English speakers.
- Work with implementers, including law enforcement, to develop a comprehensive safety plan that facilitates the safe recovery of firearms from individuals following a court-issued ERPO and connects respondents in crisis with social support services as necessary.
- Expand petitioners to include families, partners, health care providers, school administrators, and co-workers.
- Conduct regular systematic reviews of ERPO processes and case outcomes to identify any potential inequities in the implementation of an ERPO law.
These steps will help program administrators institute comprehensive training, raise awareness, and evaluate the impact of ERPO laws. Additionally, states should prioritize funding toward the following recommendations from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy:112
- Provide de-escalation and crisis intervention training for law enforcement petitioners, as well as specialized training on managing, petitioning, and serving ERPOs.
- Provide tailored training for licensed health care providers about ERPOs and the petitioning process, as well as for clinical coordinators in health care facilities and public health departments where eligible petitioners work.
- Establish a state-designated entity whose staff will enter ERPO information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to ensure that gun sales are denied at points of purchase.
- Require that all ERPO case data be entered into a centralized state database to support research and policy development.
States will also need to tailor ERPO programs to suit the specific needs of their communities. Implementation will vary across states, rural and urban areas, and diverse populations. To overcome barriers to use across communities and ensure equitable implementation, communities affected by gun violence should be involved in each step of the implementation process, and policy impact assessments should be regularly conducted to detect unintended consequences for marginalized groups.113
President Biden, Sen. Chris Murphy, and the gun safety majorities in the House and Senate should be applauded for providing states with this landmark funding to successfully implement ERPO laws, ensuring that when someone exhibits warning signs, legal avenues can be pursued to protect public safety or prevent self-harm. This funding empowers states with existing ERPO laws to strengthen implementation practices and establish essential training for petitioners and encourages localities in these states to tap federal funds for program support. The funding also incentivizes states without ERPO laws to consider passing legislation—and fortunately, many states have seized this significant funding opportunity. At least 18 states with existing laws have been awarded funds to support building the infrastructure, operational protocols, and judicial processes necessary to ensure ERPOs are being used equitably and consistently in all communities.114 Among these awardees are Colorado, New Mexico, and Maryland, which received a combined $12,542,337 in BSCA funds to support ERPO implementation.115 States, such as Michigan and Minnesota, that passed an ERPO law in the last year are also now eligible to receive additional funding through the BSCA.116
State leaders have been instrumental in securing BSCA funding for ERPO implementation. For example, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) helped the state secure $5.1 million in Byrne SCIP dollars to support the expansion of ERPO programs, the creation of specialized crisis intervention court programs, and performance management and evaluation support for funded sites.117
This funding also encourages states to pass new ERPO laws so they can access this unprecedented investment in state crisis intervention programming. Earlier this year, Michigan and Minnesota passed ERPO laws that make additional money available through Byrne SCIP.118 Minnesota, with support from Gov. Tim Walz (D), was able to access another $3.7 million in funding to support the implementation of ERPO programs, state crisis intervention court proceedings, and other related gun violence reduction initiatives. While states should be applauded for leveraging this historic funding, it’s important to ensure that extreme risk programs and other state crisis intervention efforts are implemented evenly across states. To implement these programs equitably, states and cities should follow the practices outlined in this report.
In addition to significant state funding, local organizations have been successful in tapping BSCA dollars to support ERPO implementation. In February 2023, Johns Hopkins University, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the National Criminal Justice Association received a combined $4 million to support training and technical assistance to Byrne SCIP grantees.119 To date, more than $200 million in funding has been awarded to 51 recipients to assist with the implementation of state crisis programming.120 While states and localities should focus on leveraging these funds to effectively implement existing ERPO laws and incentivize the passage of new state laws, Congress must establish a federal ERPO law to give families and law enforcement the tools necessary to prevent gun violence before it happens. Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Rep. Lucy McBath’s (D-GA) Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2022, but the Senate failed to advance a similar piece of bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).121 By establishing nationwide access to ERPOs through federal courts, Congress can prevent the alarming rates of mass shootings and firearm suicides in the United States.
Community violence intervention funding
Community violence takes place in public spaces between unrelated people who may or may not know each other. While individual violent acts often involve only a few people, the long-term and devastating consequences122 of community violence can affect the entire community and put those with the most exposure to violence at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence in the future.123 Community violence intervention (CVI)124 is an evidence-based, community-centered, and multidisciplinary approach that engages individuals at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence and provides them with the supports and resources necessary to disrupt cycles of violence and present alternative choices. In practice, CVI programs empower communities to take an active role in stopping violence before it happens by acting as a catalyst for violence-connected people who want to make a positive change. These approaches often rely on outreach conducted by credible messengers125—workers who, often from their own lived experience, have the hyperlocal knowledge, sensitivity, and cultural understanding to reach some of the individuals who are most disconnected. Where CVI strategies are faithfully implemented, they have proved highly successful in engaging high-risk individuals and have reduced gun homicides by as much as 60 percent.126 Yet despite their proven track record, historically, CVI programs have been undervalued and underfunded in comparison to how much money violence intervention can save cities and taxpayers.127
Thankfully, the BSCA signals a major next step in fully investing in these solutions. In 2022, the Community Based Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (CVIPI) was created to “prevent and reduce violent crime in communities by supporting comprehensive, evidence-based violence intervention and prevention programs.”128 Through this initiative, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA),129 part of the U.S. Department of Justice, awards grants to nonprofit organizations and local and state governments to implement CVI-based strategies. Originally, this program was only funded up to $50 million in FY 2022,130 but with the passage of the BSCA, the CVIPI’s FY 2022 funding was doubled to $100 million,131 with $50 million additional each year for five years going toward the initiative.
Roca Inc. was one of the 53 grantees132 to receive CVIPI awards in FY 2022. Founded in 1988 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Roca now operates in seven locations and connects with young people “at the center of violence” and offers workforce development training and cognitive behavioral therapy interventions to help individuals “identify negative patterns, pause, and make a choice before they act.”133 This has led to 83 percent of participants showing improvements in their behavioral health after 18 months in the program.134
In Harris County, Texas, nearly $2 million through CVIPI will be leveraged to expand the services provided by Harris County Public Health’s Community Health and Violence Prevention Services and its Accessing Coordinated Care and Empowering Self-Sufficiency (ACCESS) Harris County initiative. Together, these initiatives take a “no-wrong door approach” to connecting individuals experiencing hardships with the services they need, including financial services, housing, substance abuse remediation, and more.135 In doing so, Harris County seeks to offer strategic personalized interventions that proactively address the root causes of violence and increase public safety through a public health model. With CVIPI funding, Harris County intends to hire additional community and hospital program staff and perform targeted risk assessments to develop more coordinated care plans through ACCESS Harris.136
CVI programs such as Roca are an effective approach to combating gun violence.137 By preventing gun violence before it happens, CVI programs can also reduce burdens on cities’ justice and emergency medical services systems by as much as $1.5 million annually,138 making them a cost-effective solution. While the BSCA’s investments are vital to helping support and grow these essential programs, they are not enough. On July 27, 2023, Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) reintroduced the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which would create the Office of Community Violence Intervention under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to administer $5 billion in grants over five years to CVI programs nationwide, among other provisions. If passed, the federal funding included in this bill would help ensure that violence intervention work is done faithfully in the nation’s most violence-impacted communities and that those working on the front lines of violence intervention are being compensated adequately.
Keeping children safe
All students deserve to feel safe in their schools and communities. In the wake of horrific school shootings, families rightfully have fears about sending their children to school139—one place where children should feel safest. At the behest of the $3 billion140 school security industry, a growing list of states are pursuing “school hardening” policies,141 including adding metal detectors and other visible security measures or arming teachers and guards, that bring more guns into schools. This is despite the fact that school hardening policies have not been proved142 to keep students safer; in fact, they can cause more harm to Black students, who already are disproportionately targeted by profiling.143
Worse, calls to “harden” schools against acts of gun violence are disingenuous answers to the true, systemic problem of gun violence that is threatening the safety and security of school students. At the June 2023 National Safer Communities Summit in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona summarized the issue succinctly:
… These are the same politicians who don’t trust teachers to choose the right books for our classrooms and now they want to … put guns in their hands? School safety is about more than metal detectors and security cameras. Students need to feel safe enough to share what’s going on in their lives.144
In the face of the gun violence epidemic that is disproportionately affecting communities and youth of color, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act addresses school and community safety by investing directly in the nation’s youth. Instead of punitive or reactionary policies shown to harm and traumatize students,145 the BSCA makes students safer by directing more than $2 billion in funding146 to support and expand the implementation of evidence-based strategies that foster positive learning environments and holistically nurture student development. The BSCA signals a historic transformation of the nation’s approach to addressing safety in schools. In doing so, the law recognizes how school-based practices and access to robust mental health services can improve student attendance, expose students to protective factors, and reduce risky behaviors—all of which can make schools safer and help students address and heal from trauma related to community gun violence.147
Investing in youth to build safer schools and communities
As the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo tragically do not stand alone in our recent collective memory, at the heart of the BSCA is a commitment to keeping young people safer both in and out of school. Through 2026, state and local agencies will be able to leverage numerous BSCA funding opportunities to support the safety and well-being of young people by:148
- Expanding enriching in-school and out-of-school learning opportunities.
- Creating a positive school culture and climate.
- Hiring and training a diverse mental health workforce.
In doing so, the BSCA closely aligns investments with evidence-based approaches that link better long-term academic and student well-being outcomes with access to mental health services and supportive learning environments. In a February 2023 announcement about the impact of BSCA funding, Secretary Cardona stated:
Mental health and wellness have profound implications for our students, their academic success, and their overall outcomes … The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act represents an unprecedented opportunity to raise the bar for our support of our students, to improve learning conditions in our schools, to expand access to school-based mental health care, and to supercharge efforts across the country to train and hire a pipeline of professionals committed to the wellbeing of our students.149
As the secretary’s statements underscore, the need for an approach that focuses on building students’ sense of safety and belonging is essential to addressing the underlying sources of school violence.
Increasing school safety
The holistic approach to school safety funded by the BSCA stands in stark contrast to the calls to harden schools. School hardening policies, such as installing metal detectors, hiring additional school resource officers (SROs), or arming teachers and school personnel, have not been proved to keep students safer. In fact, these policies can cause more harm to the most vulnerable student populations.150 Increased presence of SROs in schools, for example, can increase the likelihood that students of color are suspended, expelled, or made to interact with the criminal legal system.151 Instead of increasing school safety, these policies only make it harder for students to feel safe and supported. While the BSCA does provide $100 million to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office,152 which grantees can use to increase school coordination with local law enforcement agencies and install deterrent systems such as metal detectors, this is only one part of the comprehensive approach the BSCA takes to school safety.
Contrary to school hardening policies that are not proved to be effective at keeping students safer,153 the BSCA appropriated $300 million through the STOP School Violence Act to more evidence-based school violence prevention efforts.154 Crucially, this funding is explicitly prohibited under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) from being used to train or equip any person with a dangerous weapon in the name of school safety enhancement, including in the hiring of SROs.155 Instead, the STOP Violence Act156 makes funds available for states and local education agencies (LEAs) to develop community-based strategies to reduce gun violence in schools,157 such as anti-bullying and peer-to-peer violence interruption programs. As of May 2023, the Department of Justice has awarded nearly $60 million in BSCA grants through the STOP Violence Act to these efforts.158
Schools can also use STOP Violence Act funding to implement a threat identification and assessment program, which helps school personnel and peers recognize early signs of mental health crises in an individual and get them the help they need.159 As part of a comprehensive strategy to promote school safety, threat assessment programs can prevent credible acts of violence before they happen. One analysis found that in 77 percent of school shootings, at least one person knew of the shooter’s plan or intentions before the act occurred.160
It is important to recognize, however, that while there is evidence to support this practice as part of a comprehensive approach to school safety, it is not without its own concerns.161 In many schools, threat assessment practices are not standardized and can circumvent uniform disciplinary actions that are put in place to prevent discrimination or subjective decision-making. Even when threats of violence are not credible, such practices can lead to already marginalized students experiencing unaddressed disruptions to their education, invasions into their and their family’s privacy, and additional trauma from negative interactions with law enforcement.162 Furthermore, introducing a law enforcement agent into that decision-making process can exacerbate existing issues around the inequitable treatment and profiling of Black and brown students—especially Black and brown students with a disability.163 A March 2023 Texas Appleseed report investigated how threat assessment programs are being used since a 2019 state law mandated their usage.164 The report found inconsistencies in how the program is used across Texas schools:
In short, some school districts are applying a threat assessment process that is incomplete, lacking, and without the needed student support. And while threat assessments are well-intentioned and developed to help schools create a safe environment, problems arise if they are not conducted proactively and comprehensively with a holistic focus on identifying mental health issues and implementing needed supports.
As this practice becomes more widely integrated into schools, it is critical that it is carried out with complete transparency and includes highly trained mental health professionals so as to ensure that all students are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Building positive school climate to foster student social-emotional needs
Importantly, the BSCA recognizes research showing that the most effective forms of social-emotional and mental health interventions require a multitiered system of support (MTSS)165 that can identify communitywide and individual mental health needs. In practice, this means that everyone in a school’s ecosystem is trauma informed and doing their part to foster positive social-emotional development. Instead of asking teachers and school personnel to be highly trained mental health professionals, this approach trains teachers and staff to encourage positive behaviors, implement nonpunitive classroom management structures (such as replacing in-school or out-of-school suspensions with restorative justice approaches), and recognize when a student may need more individualized attention. When teachers and school leaders have increased knowledge of how to foster the well-being and psychological needs of students, schools can reduce the need for additional mental health services,166 thereby increasing the ability of highly trained school psychologists, counselors, and social workers to deliver more effective and targeted support at higher levels of intervention without overburdening the system. By appropriating nearly $1.3 billion to Stronger Connections Grants programs, Project AWARE, and 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school and out-of-school programs, the BSCA can transform the educational landscape and ensure more classrooms foster the social-emotional needs of all students.
Stronger Connections Grants
The BSCA appropriated $1 billion in Stronger Connections Grants for high-need local education agencies to fund positive school climate initiatives and direct school-based mental health services.167 Through Title IV, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Stronger Connections Grants (SCG) will be awarded to LEAs based on proposals to promote safe, inclusive, and healthy learning environments; prevent in-school violence and bullying; and engage parents, families, and community organizations.
The U.S. Department of Education highlights the work of Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota as an example of how LEAs can utilize SCG funding. The school district is already leveraging federal dollars to hire additional mental health professionals, extend mental health coverage by partnering with community organizations, and train school personnel on trauma-informed care approaches.168 Additionally, the Department of Education has provided the following recommendations for high-need LEAs as they complete the application process:169
- Engage educators and staff. LEAs are encouraged to include in their applications how they plan to ensure that direct service staff can “contribute substantively” to the planning process and feel that their voices and insights are valued. This can include plans to use the funds to collect school staff surveys or hold all-staff convenings.
- Engage parents and families. LEAs are encouraged to address the systemic barriers students and families may be facing in their communities, and work directly with parents and community leaders to better understand what those barriers are and how they may interact with the implementation of school policies or strategies. This can include plans to use the funds to hold additional one-on-ones with parents or build information sharing systems. Importantly, LEAs should demonstrate how they plan to use the information and insights gained from implementation of these strategies to incorporate feedback into their decision-making processes.
- Incorporate evidence-based approaches. The Department of Education strongly encourages LEAs, as they are planning their interventions and making their proposals, to incorporate evidence from at least one “well-designed and well-implemented experimental study.” This will allow the department to classify them as having a strong evidence-based approach as defined by the ESEA.
Since the passage of the BSCA, states have engaged in the essential process of defining their own “high-need” areas and priorities.170 As of June 2023, at least 24 states have completed the application phase and have begun awarding grants,171 with more states following closely behind. As an example of how states are leveraging these dollars, Oklahoma announced in May that it will award more than $11 million to 38 LEAs through its Stronger Connections Grant program after receiving more than 120 applications.172
In May 2023, the Biden administration announced additional actions that the departments of Health and Human Services and Education will take to ensure state and local agencies are equipped with the resources, expertise, and technical training necessary to maximize the benefits of these key BSCA funding streams.173 Many states are just now awarding LEAs Stronger Connections Grants. Over the next three years, it will be crucial that state education agencies, LEAs, and community partners work with federal agencies to ensure the proper utilization of these funds and build programs that will be sustainable after BSCA funding sunsets in 2026.174
The BSCA also provided $240 million in additional funding to support Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education),175 which offers noncompetitive grants to state education agencies to increase the mental health awareness, literacy, and responsiveness of all school personnel. Overseen by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Project AWARE had awarded more than $70 million to LEAs as of January 2023.176 In Illinois, Chicago Public Schools is using its award of $3.6 million over four years to create a crisis intervention and prevention infrastructure.177 By creating a care response team, district officials aim to ensure that every high school student referred for crisis intervention receives individualized support and counseling services to help them build resilience in the face of a crisis or emergency.
Utilizing $2.8 million awarded through Project AWARE funding, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) will implement a new multitiered mental health services program called Resilience in School Environments, which seeks to extend the benefits of the already established School Community Partnership for Mental Health (SCPMH) program.178 According to the grant proposal, the SCPMH program has been successful in improving outcomes for students with mental health needs by creating strong collaboration inside and outside the school that includes parents and community mental health providers. Through Project AWARE funding, MPS now hopes to serve the greater student population by expanding the SCPMH service area, equipping school staff with knowledge and resources to support student well-being, increasing the capacity of community mental health services in schools, and improving staff recognition tools to better meet the individual needs of students in a timely fashion.179
21st Century Community Learning Centers
Outside traditional school hours, before-school, after-school, and summer learning programs—collectively referred to as out-of-school time (OST) programs—provide unique opportunities for students to further their learning, develop social-emotional skills, and build positive relationships with caring adults and mentors. While each OST program will look different, these programs often provide more hands-on learning experiences in fields typically not explored in classrooms, such as robotics, botany, sports, or art and performance. Because after-school programs offer young people a chance to find and explore their passions, a majority of parents report that these programs help youth engage with their peers, get excited about school, and stay safe.180 This year, the BSCA helped expand access to these essential programs by providing an additional $50 million to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLCs) that serve middle- and high-school-age students.181 CCLC programs predominantly serve youth from low-income households182 and are associated with a broad array of benefits for participating students.183 Among these are that the Department of Education specifically intends for these programs to help schools reduce chronic absenteeism, something that nearly half of all public schools report being a worsening issue.184
Additional investments in CCLC programs can also be an effective tool in making schools and young people safer by promoting protective factors and providing safe environments at a critical time in a young person’s development. A growing body of childhood development research suggests that experiences during the middle school and high school years are an especially important predictor of long-term health outcomes.185 Despite this, surveys show that adolescents in middle and high school are less connected to after-school opportunities186—emphasizing the importance of the BSCA’s increased investments in CCLC programs, such as Todos Juntos in Clackamas County, Oregon. The Todos Juntos program was started in 2000 as a Latin and soccer club to give gang-involved middle school students an alternative after school and has evolved to include programming focused on social-emotional development and conflict management. It also acts as a hub to connect students and families to mental health services, housing assistance, legal resources, and more.187
Subgrantees seeking additional funding from CCLC programs are encouraged by the Department of Education to leverage resources from the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and other resources to implement best practices for OST programs.188
Connecting young people with school-based mental health services
Collectively, young people today face unprecedented challenges to their mental health and well-being189—and for those who have experienced gun violence in their schools or communities, the long-term effects are beyond measure.190 Addressing this crisis requires that young people have access to highly trained mental health specialists who can respond to their individual needs. Schools can act as a hub to connect young people with mental health services and are an important part of creating a robust mental health infrastructure. However, in 2022, the national student-to-school-psychologist ratio was estimated to be 1 school psychologist for every 1,127 students, compared with the 1-to-500 ratio recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.191 To meet students where they are and eliminate this gap, the BSCA commits more than $1 billion through the School-Based Mental Health Services and the Mental Health Service Professional Demonstration Grant Programs to build a 21st century pipeline of mental health professionals that will go directly toward training, diversifying, and hiring mental health professionals in schools.
Through the School-Based Mental Health Services and the Mental Health Service Professional Development Grant Programs, the Biden administration estimates that the BSCA will add an additional 14,000 school psychologists, counselors, and social workers to the highest-need schools across the country.192 Over the next four years, these programs will help close the student-school psychologist gap.
In May 2023, the Biden administration announced that in the first year since the passage of the BSCA, the Department of Education awarded more than $286 million to 264 grantees through these grant programs.193 To ensure the success of both of these programs, the Biden administration also announced an additional $2.6 million to create the Mental Health Personnel Technical Assistance Center, which will help identify and develop resources to support grantees in addressing the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students and staff from preschool to grade 12.194
Expanding Medicaid-eligible services
To further the impact of mental health professionals in schools, the BSCA also expands and removes obstacles that prohibit school-based mental health services from being eligible for Medicaid reimbursement.195 Building on the progress made by the 2014 reversal of the “free care” rule,196 the BSCA makes eligible specific mental health services that can foster positive school climates, address trauma, and respond to the youth mental health crisis.197 For example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) spotlights the efforts Colorado is making through its “family-focused preventive primary care model,” by which school providers are now able to identify and address early childhood mental health needs by increasing access to behavioral health screenings.198 Another example CMS highlights is the work being done in New Jersey to expand health home eligibility to include behavioral health conditions. Health homes, as defined by the Affordable Care Act, incorporate a “whole-person” philosophy to treat individuals on Medicaid with chronic conditions by integrating “all primary, acute, behavioral health, and long term services and supports.”199 New Jersey’s behavioral health home (BHH) “provides fully integrated enhanced care coordination and wraparound care planning for children and adults with serious emotional disturbance … BHH providers are responsible for facilitating access to a full range of treatment and support services.”200 In doing so, New Jersey includes behavioral health as an eligible condition to extend Medicaid services holistically and ensure that young people with serious need are treated with dignity and have a continuum of support throughout their life.
Currently, however, only 23 states have or are in the process of expanding Medicaid coverage in schools to include these specific mental health services.201 To maximize the efforts of the BSCA to connect students with school-based mental health services, the National Education Association recommends the following:202
- States that have not already done so should submit a state plan amendment to CMS to ensure providers can bill Medicaid directly under this new rule.
- States should ensure that every Medicaid-eligible child is enrolled in either Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) so that qualified mental health services can be billed accordingly. States and LEAs are encouraged to use guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help children enroll if eligible.203
- States should ensure that school-based mental health providers are certified and meet the qualifications to perform Medicaid services.
- States should expand telehealth services to supplement school-based services using the CMS-provided “State Medicaid & CHIP Telehealth Toolkit.”204
Expanding access to mental health services
To address the nation’s growing mental health and substance abuse crisis, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act provides funding for lifesaving community-based mental and behavioral health services that can help community members address, respond to, and heal from trauma associated with gun violence.205 In a May 2023 letter announcing BSCA-funded awards to grantees, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra made clear what these investments will mean for people’s safety: “Everyone experiencing a mental health crisis in America should have access to rapidly responsive, culturally competent care … These grants will further expand America’s crisis response system and get people the help they need.”206
As made clear in Uvalde after the loss of 21 community members in May 2022, a comprehensive mental health strategy based on trust, cultural sensitivity, and trauma-informed care is necessary for communities and individuals to heal and build resilience in the face of gun violence.207 To ensure every American—especially those in violence-impacted communities—is ready to respond to the unique needs and challenges facing their community members, the BSCA provides more than $10 billion to expand access to mental health services nationwide.208
Community Mental Health Services Block Grants
When signed into law in 2022, the BSCA appropriated $250 million for Community Mental Health Services Block Grants (MHBG).209 MHBG funds are designed to help states establish or expand community-based mental health services, such as mental health screenings, outpatient treatments, emergency mental health services, and day treatments. To respond to the unique challenges that communities such as Uvalde and Buffalo face in the wake of gun violence, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is recommending that states leverage the supplemental funding provided by the BSCA to develop a statewide mental health emergency preparedness and response plan.210 Based on SAMHSA guidance, states should include in their proposals plans to coordinate and train statewide crisis response teams that can be rapidly deployed to communities to respond to mental health emergencies such as mass shootings.
Mental health awareness training
The BSCA also provided $120 million in additional funding for the Mental Health Awareness Training Grant program,211 which prepares and trains individuals to respond with evidence-based approaches to individuals experiencing a serious emotional disturbance or mental health challenge and connect them with the resources and care they need. Through the program, the BSCA helps ensure that school personnel, emergency responders, law enforcement, and others are equipped with the knowledge and training necessary to recognize the signs and intervene early through a care-based approach. Since its launch in 2018, the grant program has trained more than 270,000 individuals in mental health promotion and early intervention.212 With the additional BSCA funding, SAMHSA has already awarded more than $57 million213 to more than 300 community organizations, school districts, hospital systems, and other grantees.214
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
Mental health challenges are not uniform, nor is their progression linear—and the reality is that individuals may experience mental health challenges at any time. Recognizing this, the BSCA provides $150 million to assist states and territories in the implementation of the 24/7 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which provides free and confidential support to people in crisis or emotional distress.215 This is an important advancement because suicides account for a majority of firearm deaths, and half of people that die by suicide use a gun.216 Furthering its commitment to mental health support for all Americans, the Biden administration announced in May 2023 more than $200 million in additional funding for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline that will go to states, U.S. territories, and Tribal organizations.217 These critical funds will improve response capacity, language competency, collaboration with other emergency services, and marketing to promote public awareness and destigmatization.218
In 2022, the tireless efforts of advocates, survivors, and gun safety leaders including President Biden and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), culminated in the landmark Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. In addition to making historic investments in school and community safety and building a generational pipeline of highly trained mental health practitioners, the BSCA puts into law lifesaving measures that hold gun sellers accountable and help law enforcement agencies prevent violence before it starts. For those who worry when their kids go to school or outside—and for the voters who have demanded elected officials reach across the aisle to address the gun violence crisis—the passage of the BSCA is a watershed moment worth celebrating. However, it is not the end of the fight. Congress should be able to do more. Until it passes additional commonsense gun laws, such as requiring permits to purchase firearms and instituting an assault weapons ban, needless lives will be lost and communities will be forever changed.
Before President Biden took the stage at the June 2023 Safer Communities Summit219 in Hartford, Connecticut, 18-year-old Lucy Sarkissian shared her advocacy journey since surviving a school shooting four years prior:
Last year, through the leadership of Sen. Murphy and President Biden, we were finally able to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Because of this bill, Colorado, my home state, has received more than $9 million to fund mental health care in our schools and communities, support gun violence survivors, and to implement extreme risk protection orders. These measures could have potentially prevented what happened to me. It is too late to go back and undo what happened to me, but it is not too late to prevent it for the future and for future generations. These are just the first steps of many steps to end gun violence in America. It is something to be celebrated because this funding in this bill has saved lives and will continue to do so.
At the same summit, Sen. Murphy reflected on how he saw the changing momentum to reduce gun violence in America, saying, “BSCA passed with broad bipartisan support, a result that would have been inconceivable a few years ago.” With continued activism and leadership to realize a future free of gun violence, the BSCA will be remembered not as the most significant gun violence legislation in this lifetime but instead as just the first. As Sen. Murphy concluded in the same address, “the next decade is our decade.”