Updated 5:38 p.m. | President Donald Trump heard powerful testimonials Wednesday from survivors and family members of teenagers killed in last week’s Florida high school shooting massacre. But he signaled his focus is on related issues, not gun control.
The president started an emotional “listening session” at the White House vowing to be “very strong on background checks” and “very strong” on tackling mental health issues. He initially only vaguely referred to also being strong on “other things,” but later floated ideas such as arming specially trained school workers, setting age restrictions on some guns and opening new mental institutions.
One survivor of last week’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, thanked Trump for his Tuesday announcement about ordering new Justice Department regulations aimed at banning “bump stocks” and other devices that cause semi-automatic firearms to operate like automatic machine guns.
As Trump listened, one parent of a Parkland survivor said she “feels guilty” that her son survived while other students died.
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A 15-year-old Parkland survivor named Justin grew emotional as he spoke, telling the president “there needs to be a significant change in this country.”
“People should feel safe. Parents shouldn’t have to go through losing a child,” said Justin, who did not provide his last name during the event.
He told Trump his father was panicking during last Wednesday’s shooting. His father spoke next and said his son was texting him in a closet inside the high school “until his phone died.”
Justin’s father also pleaded with Trump to bring about policy changes to help prevent future school shootings.
“We cannot have our children die. Please,” he said, his voice cracking as his son’s did a moment earlier.
Another Parkland survivor told the president she is worried “everyone is so stuck on what they believe” that changes will not be possible. Any “solution is not going to be a singular thing. It will be multifaceted,” she told Trump.
“This is not just Parkland anymore,” the girl said. “This is everywhere.”
“These deaths are preventable,” said one parent who lost a six-year-old in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “You have an opportunity to … save lives today. Please don’t waste this.”
Trump shined a light on his own thinking about possible ways to prevent or end school shootings faster, beyond improvements to background check systems.
One would be to arm teachers or other school employees and give them “special training” to combat mass shooters. “Gun-free” zones like schools are “to a maniac … let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets are not coming back,” the president said.
Trump said he supports “concealed carry for teachers,” saying “a lot of people are talking about it.”
“I think a lot of people are going to be opposed to it. I think a lot of people are going to like it,” he said, acknowledging it could be a hard sell to many anti-gun lawmakers whose votes would be needed to pass such a measure.
If a teacher last week at the Parkland high school had been armed, “he would have shot and that would’ve been the end of it,” Trump told the survivors and parents.
But one Sandy Hook parents objected minutes later, saying his wife, a teacher, feels strongly that educators have enough responsibilities already and cannot be expected to stop gunmen. He floated the idea of expanding existing local programs designed to identify possible mass shooters.
Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando chief of police, panned the idea of arming school officials during a press call last Friday on a Democratic bill to incentivize states to adopt “gun violence restraining order” laws.
“The time is now to pass sensible legislation, not ridiculous legislation that is sometimes proposed like arming teachers or principals,” the Florida Democrat said.
Trump pledged to go in “strongly” not just on background check changes for would-be gun purchasers but on “age of purchase” as well, signaling he supports the notion of setting age restrictions on some firearms.
He also floated the idea of reopening mental health institutions, saying “many” closed over the years due to societal stigmas against them.
“When we see there’s trouble, we have to nab them,” he said of deranged individuals who might carry out school and other mass gun massacres. The country once had “a lot of” mental hospitals,” but now “there’s no place to bring them,” Trump said.
“Even if they caught this person — I’m being nice when I use the word person,” he said of the Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, “they probably wouldn’t have known what to do.”
Trump praised those in the room for their strength, and promised them “we’re going to do something about this horrible situation that’s going on.”
“Starting about two minutes after this meeting,” the president said, “We’re going to go to work.”
A man who did not provide his name said he was speaking on behalf of his daughter “because she doesn’t have a voice.”
“She was murdered last week,” he said, before pointing out that Americans cannot take an opened bottle of water into an airport but guns are readily available.
“I’m not going to sleep until it’s fixed,” he said, adding that his sons had to “bury their sister.” He urged everyone in the room to focus on school safety now, saying gun control is a bigger issue for another day.
“It should’ve been one school shooting and we should’ve fixed it,” the man said. “I’m pissed … I’m never, ever going to see my kid again.”
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