A somber President Donald Trump tried to reassure the nation’s children Thursday, a day after a mass shooting in Florida. But he did not mention specific policy changes he would support, including those on gun regulations or laws, which could possibly prevent a school shooting.
“I want you to know that you are never alone and you never will be,” Trump said. “You have people who care about you, who love you and who will do anything at all to protect you.”
In his first public address about the shooting, Trump singled out mental health as a security concern. But he steered clear of the contentious debate over gun control that has raged in Washington for years with little action.
“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference,” he said. The president added he would meet with the nation’s governors and attorneys general this month to talk about how to make schools safer.
But what exactly the president would do to offer more protection for the nation’s schools remained unclear.
On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” He was immediately accused by some on social media of blaming the teenage victims.
Once again, we see the urgency for Congress to take true common-sense action to prevent gun violence
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
And Democratic members of Congress immediately called on Trump and Republican leaders in the House and Senate to pass laws that would keep dangerous guns out of the hands of would-be criminals.
“Let’s have the conversation about this right now — not just about mental illness, and that’s part of it, not just about protection at our schools, and that’s part of it — let’s get to the root cause … let’s get these assault weapons off our streets,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. said.
“We cannot as citizens accept this as some new normal,” Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said.
Trump’s singling out mental illness as a public safety issue Thursday came a year after he undid an Obama-era rule to ban one group of individuals with mental health histories from legally obtaining guns.
Trump last year signed a bill behind closed doors that killed an Obama-era regulation that required the government to add to the no-buy list people whom the Social Security Administration has deemed eligible for mental disability payments. It added about 75,000 to the list of those subject to FBI background checks before buying a gun.
It’s unlikely the rule that was put into force in December would have prevented alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz from purchasing the semi-automatic rifle he allegedly used, but its rollback demonstrates how difficult it has been for politicians to reach consensus on how to keep troubled individuals from acquiring weapons.
Obama proposed the regulation shortly after 26 people, most first-graders, were gunned down in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December 2012. The rule barred people receiving Social Security checks for mental illnesses, as well as those flagged as unable to handle their financial affairs, from buying guns.
Gun rights advocates vehemently opposed the rule on grounds it violated the Second Amendment, citing studies showing that the percentage of mentally ill people with violent tendencies is no higher than in the general population. Gun control backers called it a step toward ensuring that the background check system was linked to a complete database of those afflicted with mental health problems.
Washington has not been able to reach consensus on other gun regulations, either.
Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, President Barack Obama pushed Congress to vote for a series of changes to the nation’s gun laws but lawmakers defeated the proposals. Five months ago, after 58 people were killed in Las Vegas, members of both parties agreed to further regulate bump stocks, devices that allow a semiautomatic firearm to mimic a fully automatic one, but no action has been taken.
Our calls for hearings and for action on gun violence prevention legislation have been met with silence. Congress did nothing after Columbine 20 years ago, and nothing after Sandy Hook five years ago
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler, R-NY
“Ultimately if we could find a way forward to fix this or address this, you can’t do it without high level presidential leadership,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. said. “Whether he’ll be the one that initiates it or not, obviously that doesn’t excuse us from moving forward and doing what we can. If the issue is gun violence, we can focus on the gun part, but we have to focus on the violence part too.”
But under the Trump administration, the trend has been to limit regulations on weapons, not on rules to limit the proliferation of guns.
Since he was sworn into office last year, his administration has quietly loosened firearms restrictions in the United States and backed a pair of National Rifle Association-supported bills in Congress that would allow Americans to carry concealed firearms from state to state — bypassing a confusing patchwork of laws — and making it easier and cheaper to purchase silencers.
To every parent, teacher, and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain. We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden also
President Donald Trump
Last year, Trump became the first president to address the NRA annual meeting in more than three decades, pledging to repay gun owners for helping to win the White House.
The NRA was a strong backer of Trump from the start, unlike most traditional conservative organizations, many of which were leery of the brash businessman-turned-reality-TV-host and political novice. It endorsed him earlier than it had other candidates in previous years and became one of his top donors, with $30 million in contributions and TV ads that targeted his opponent.
In his brief statement, Trump addressed what he called a “nation in grief” from the Diplomatic Room at the White House. Vice President Mike Pence, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino accompanied him and stood in the doorway as he read from a teleprompter.
“Today, we mourn for all of those who lost their lives,” he said. “We comfort the grieving and the wounded. And we hurt for the entire community of Parkland, Florida that is now in shock, in pain, and searching for answers.”
A 19-year-old former student has been charged with killing 17 at the school just as students were being dismissed at the end of the school day Wednesday. At least 15 others were injured.
Trump announced he would travel to Parkland, Fla., to comfort the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School community but did not provide a date. He plans to visit his club in nearby Palm Beach this weekend. He had already spoken with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to offer federal resources.
Trump has also ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff at public buildings and grounds and signed a proclamation in honor of the victims.
“Our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones in the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,” the proclamation states.
Trump is scheduled to spend the President’s Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, less than an hour from Parkland. He canceled a speech about infrastructure planned for Friday near Orlando and a campaign rally planned for Pennsylvania Wednesday.
For now, the president said the focus should be on grieving and healing.
“Always, but especially today, let us hold our loved ones close, let us pray for healing and for peace, and let us come together as one nation to wipe away the tears and strive for a much better tomorrow,” he said.
Alex Daugherty and Greg Gordon contributed.