President Donald Trump is embracing a controversial response to the latest U.S. school massacre: arming teachers and other staff to fight attackers.
Trump offered his support for giving teachers guns during an extraordinary White House meeting Wednesday with often-tearful, sometimes angry students and parents affected by school shootings — including several from the high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed on Feb. 14.
“If you had a teacher with — who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” Trump suggested, drawing the support of some in the room and the disapproval of others. “We’re going to be looking at that very strongly.”
The president and lawmakers have struggled to respond to public demands for action in the wake of the latest mass shooting mindful of the clout gun-rights enthusiasts hold in the Republican party, which controls the White House and both chambers of Congress. While Trump has stressed mental health and school safety measures, he also has indicated some willingness to alter gun laws.
Trump announced Tuesday he would propose regulations to ban “bump stocks” used to allow semi-automatic rifles to fire like automatic weapons. He signaled support for bipartisan legislation to improve data collection for the federal gun-sale background check system. And he said he would consider supporting new age limits on rifle sales.
The administration will continue to focus on the theme Thursday, as Trump hosts state and local officials at the White House for a discussion of school safety. He also plans a public session with governors when they visit Washington next week.
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His support for arming teachers would eliminate the gun-free zones in and around schools enshrined in a nearly three-decade-old federal law. The idea prompted sharp rebukes from some Democrats and gun control advocates, and misgivings from at least one prominent Republican.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said on CNN that the proposal was “a recipe for disaster,” adding that there was no evidence that it would prevent shootings.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told a town hall meeting on CNN that he opposed arming teachers.
Students across the nation have rallied in support of additional firearm restrictions in the aftermath of the Florida shooting. Hundreds of Maryland students walked out of class on Wednesday and marched toward the U.S. Capitol to promote gun control. On Tuesday, students at a Florida high school marched toward Parkland.
Parents who lost children in the shootings and students who watched classmates die told the president their personal stories in unsparing detail at the White House meeting.
‘A Best Friend’
“I lost a best friend, practically a brother, I’m here to use my voice because I know he can’t,” said Samuel Zeif, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where last week’s killings took place.
Since then, “me and my friends, we get scared when a car drives by” Zeif said. “I don’t understand why I can still go into a store and buy a weapon of war.”
“It should have been one school shooting and we should have fixed it. I’m pissed!” said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the Parkland shooting. “Never ever will I see my kid. I want it to sink in. It’s eternity.”
Trump mostly listened intently without interruption, his hands pressed against each other in front of him, grim-faced, often nodding. He thanked the speakers.
He held a card with notes for him in someone else’s handwriting, including a reminder, captured by photographers, to tell participants, “I hear you.”
“We’re going to do something about this horrible situation,” Trump said. “It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past.”
He offered few specific promises. After listening to stories from around the room, he asked a question.
“Does anybody have an idea to stop it? What is your recommendation to stop it?” he said.
The first suggestion came from Fred Abt, the father of a Parkland student who wasn’t shot, who said school employees who volunteer for it should be trained and armed. Trump nodded vigorously and then ridiculed the idea of making schools gun-free zones.
“A gun-free zone is, ‘let’s go in and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us,”’ he said.
Trump had vehemently denied he would allow guns in schools during the presidential campaign, tweeting out a message that “Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!”
Trump has also signaled support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would strengthen current laws required federal agencies to report information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The House passed a similar bill in December, but added legislation that would require states to recognize concealed carry licenses from other states. House conservatives would likely balk at separating the two issues, while the House version of the bill would likely fail in the Senate.
Trump told the group at the White House that he plans “very strong” actions on background checks for gun purchases and to put “an emphasis” on mental health treatment.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer signaled on Wednesday that Democrats would renew a fight to toughen gun laws, saying the party’s top priority “is going to be universal background checks” for firearms buyers, including ending the exemption for weapons sold at gun shows.
Trump, who campaigned on a promise to protect the rights of gun owners, tweeted Tuesday, “Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!”
Trump was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has routinely touted his support for the organization, and his campaign said Trump opposed expanding the background check system or imposing new restrictions on gun and magazine bans. Trump is expected to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, which NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre is also expected to attend.
A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found 97 percent support for universal background checks, while 67 percent backed a ban on the sale of assault weapons.
Large national marches are planned for the coming months. The National School Walkout, planned by organizers of the Women’s March, is scheduled for March 14, and students and faculty are expected to depart their buildings for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 people slain in the Parkland shooting. Another national walkout is planned for the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine shootings in Colorado. And on March 24, activists from across the country are planning March for Our Lives, a centralized rally to be held on the national mall.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg L.P., also is a donor to Everytown for Gun Safety and serves on its advisory board. Everytown for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures and is helping to promote the March for Our Lives.
— With assistance by Arit John