Duncan was one of the top advisers to the White House’s sweeping, $500 million gun-control package, the most comprehensive effort to tighten gun laws in almost two decades. The effort faces an uncertain future in Congress, where many Republicans are rejecting his proposals and some fellow Democrats are stopping well short of pledging immediate action. The country’s most powerful gun group has promised the “fight of the century.”

Duncan, a former Chicago public schools chief, said he saw violence firsthand and urged both parties to avoid politics.

“We are not all going to agree on every issue, but I think the common goal of having fewer dead children, fewer children living in fear—we have to do everything to break through,” he said. “If we don’t do it now, I don’t know when we’re going to do it.”

He called youth violence a personal issue; as a child, he knew friends killed on the South Side of Chicago, and as an adult who led Chicago’s schools for seven years, he said he averaged a student’s funeral every two weeks.

“By far, the toughest part of my job was going to those funerals, going to those homes, and going to those classrooms,” he told a conference of the nation’s mayors who met with Duncan earlier in the day to discuss education.

He said that fear prevents students from making the most of their time in the classroom.

“If our children aren’t sure if they’re going to grow up, what that does to their mentality, psychology is very, very deep. They’re trying to survive day to day, wondering if they’re going to make it past 16, 17, and 18. … Our whole mantra about working hard sounds a little ludicrous to them. So we have a little work to do.”

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Reaction mixed about NRA’s proposal for more guns in schools

Duncan said security officers at schools didn’t translate to reduced violence in the schools he led.

“I had schools who used to have nine security folks there, and I put all that money into nine social workers. I saw huge reductions in violence,” he said.

That same approach could be replicated across the nation, he said, although he was careful to echo Obama’s call to let local school districts decide how to spend their money.

“Some schools may want a school resource officer or a social worker or psychologists. It’s really important for us to listen to local communities and to empower them,” Duncan said.

Yet he strongly urged leaders to listen to teachers.

“If you ask the vast majority of teachers, the vast majority of teachers don’t want guns in the schools,” Duncan said. “They want more social workers, counselors, mental-health services, after-school programs.”