Student survivors make case for change as Trump weighs gun control measures
Survivors of last week’s mass shooting at a Florida high school gathered at the state capitol Wednesday, demanding action from lawmakers that they believe will prevent others from suffering as they have, but it is not yet clear if their emotional appeals can sway the nation’s top gun rights defender, President Donald Trump.
One week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 of their classmates and three teachers dead, students led a protest in Tallahassee Wednesday, threatening the careers of legislators who ignore their calls for reform and continue to accept the support of the National Rifle Association.
“We are coming after every single one of you demanding that you take action, demanding that you make a change,” shooting survivor Delaney Tarr said at a news conference.
“We are not afraid of you,” said another student, addressing the NRA and its Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer. “We will not be silenced by anything you have to say.”
The students had traveled 400 miles to the capitol Tuesday in a failed effort to spur the legislature to consider a ban on AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons. On Wednesday, they were joined by thousands of protesters, and students at schools elsewhere in Florida and around the country walked out of their classrooms in solidarity.
“The country and the world is really following them,” said Andrew Patrick, media director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “They are leading this grassroots effort against those who take money from the NRA.”
One of those politicians supported by the NRA is President Trump, who earned the organization’s emphatic endorsement in 2016 and spoke at its annual convention last year.
“The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end,” Trump told the group, which spent $30 million supporting his candidacy. “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”
In the days since the shooting, Trump has signaled some support for new restrictions on gun rights, but they fall far short of the demands of the students and their allies. Gun control advocates hold no illusions that a president who has vociferously defended a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment will suddenly embrace their agenda, but they do see some opportunity for progress.
“My own view is that this is a rather disingenuous move on his part,” said Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign, who attended the rally in Tallahassee, “although we will certainly work with him.”
Students addressed reporters at the Florida capitol hours before President Trump met with students, teachers, and parents impacted by mass shootings at the White House Wednesday.
“We’re going to be very strong on background checks, we’re doing very strong background checks, very strong emphasis on the mental health…and we’re going to do many other things,” Trump said.
He suggested the issue will be addressed in upcoming meetings with governors, and he seemed particularly amenable to arming and training some teachers.
“It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past,” he added. “It has been going on too long, too many instances. And we are going to get it done.”
Sources close to the president have told reporters he has been deeply affected by the images of the survivors he has seen on TV and he wants to do something about it.
On Tuesday, Trump signed a memo directing the Department of Justice to propose new rules banning bump stocks, devices used in the Las Vegas mass shooting in October that enable a semiautomatic weapon to fire like an automatic.
Democrats and gun control groups say Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulations are insufficient and will end up mired in lawsuits. They continue to push for legislation banning bump stocks, which the NRA opposes.
In a tweet earlier this week, Trump vaguely called on Republicans and Democrats to “focus on strengthening background checks.”
He has expressed interest in a bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), but he has not backed specific legislative language. Similar legislation passed in the House, but it paired strengthening background checks with interstate concealed carry permit reciprocity, something the NRA has long fought for but Democrats will not support.
Several media outlets have reported that Trump is weighing an idea presented to him by Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera of raising the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic weapon from 18 to 21, the same age required to purchase a handgun. The suspect in the Florida school shooting, Nikolas Cruz, is 19.
Gun rights organizations have bristled at that suggestion.
“Other constitutional rights such as free speech do not have an age limit,” said Jordan Stein, director of communications for Gun Owners of America, “and the Constitution allows voting at 18. Bearing arms, another constitutional right, is no different.”
Gun control activists are unsure what delaying someone’s access to an AR-15 until they are three years older will accomplish.
“People do not just stop being dangerous at 21,” Patrick said.
Advocates on both sides of the debate emphasize that the president has not yet publicly endorsed any measures that the NRA opposes.
“The firearms industry and a lot of the gun organizations have been pushing for improving the NICS [background check] system for quite some time,” said Dave Workman, senior editor of TheGunMag.com, which is published by the Second Amendment Foundation.
That is not to say all firearms groups are comfortable with the president’s stance.
“We hope that President Trump will remain true to the Second Amendment,” Stein said. “However, if Trump’s goal is to ban bump stocks, then that is a gross infringement of Second Amendment rights.”
Gun Owners of America is urging Congress to pass legislation making it easier for teachers and administrators to carry firearms. “No form of gun control will help prevent these tragedies,” the group said in a statement last week.
Eric Friday, general counsel for Florida Carry, sees no need for additional background check measures, but he does want the existing ones to work better. He is calling for an investigation to determine why tips to the FBI, dozens of police calls to Cruz’s house, and Department of Children and Families investigations did not lead to him being adjudicated mentally unqualified to purchase a firearm.
“If we can identify why this failure occurred here, why this person was not properly identified to be added to the no purchase list, that’s a change we can talk about,” he said.
However personally the president claims to be touched by the tragedy, his critics see plenty of reason to remain skeptical so far.
“Signing a memo is just thoughts and prayers in a different form,” Patrick said of the bump stock order.
The president’s recent statements and Wednesday’s listening session are encouraging signs, but Patrick is reserving judgment until he sees how Trump responds to what he hears.
“They’re modest, they’re small steps, but just the fact that he’s listening and trying to make an effort in this is a promising development,” he said.
The Brady Campaign is seeking three policy remedies, none of which Trump has supported: ensuring that every gun sale is subject to a background check, implementing laws that allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to suspend a dangerous person’s access to firearms, and banning assault weapons.
“One of these things is not enough in our view,” Brown said.
If Trump wants to ban bump stocks or tighten background checks, nothing is stopping him and a Republican-controlled Congress from doing it.
“I question why, if he actually wants to solve this issue, he isn’t advancing very clear ones that are pending in Congress that he could sign tomorrow if he wanted to,” Brown said.
Still, she stressed that the Brady Campaign is open to working with Trump on any sensible gun control measures he will support.
“We will work cooperatively to make change where we can, but we are not taking our eyes off of the prize,” she said.
On Wednesday night, survivors of the Parkland shooting are scheduled to participate in a CNN town hall with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and an NRA spokesperson, cementing their role at the forefront of the gun control debate, at least for the moment.
“It is notable that teens are the loudest voices in this movement,” said Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University. “Their message wouldn't resonate as much if it was coming from someone removed from the experience of a school shooting like a politician or community organizer. It also wouldn't be so motivating.”
Brown said she has not seen this many people this upset and this focused on political change after other mass shootings.
“What I heard again and again and again from these kids is either the change happens or we will vote them out,” she said.
The survivors are also active on social media, challenging Trump and his allies with direct and emotional responses to their tweets.
“Their raw and authentic expressions on social media have been amplified by mainstream media, resulting in even greater attention to their cause,” Cohen said. “This public attention puts a lot of pressure on stakeholders in gun control debates to respond.”
Brown doubts that pressure will let up because the students are committed to the fight for safer schools.
“No one should think this is a group that will just go away…. They’re not going to accept breadcrumbs anymore in terms of policy change,” she said. “They want things that are actually meaningful and save lives.”
In another sign of their growing political potency, students have come under attack from conservative blogs and social media accounts, accusing them of being actors or being coached and manipulated by anti-Trump forces.
Most who disagree with the students do not question their right to speak or the sincerity of their beliefs, though, and they encourage lawmakers to hear them out.
“Right now, they’re doing what they think is taking an active role in school safety…. The firearms community will be looking at that and saying, ‘No, kids, you’re wrong here. Your proposals are not going to prevent a future tragedy,’” Workman said.
Though the spotlight is on these survivors now, Stein observed that some survivors of past shootings and law enforcement officers have similar first-hand experience but different policy views.
“We live in a free society and everyone's voice should be heard,” he said. “But so should police officers -- 81 percent of them support arming teachers and principals.”
“Nobody that I know, nobody wants to see children killed in school, or anywhere else for that matter,” Friday said.
His organization believes the key to that is eliminating gun-free zones at schools. Others who oppose allowing more guns in schools point out that Marjory Stoneman Douglas already had an armed resource officer but they did not encounter the shooter.
“What we have is a difference of opinion on how to accomplish what everybody agrees the goal should be: protecting our kids,” Friday said.