Spurred on by students, lawmakers seek action on guns, school safety

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., speaks to WTVC from Capitol Hill on Feb. 28, 2018. (SBG)

As students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School two weeks after a massacre that left 17 people dead Wednesday, Congress continued making tentative steps toward policies that members hope will prevent future tragedies.

Lawmakers say talks on the controversial gun control issue are progressing, but emotions are still running high and consensus so far remains out of reach.

“I believe that the climate really is changing,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., point to the announcement Wednesday by Dick’s Sporting Goods that it will no longer sell assault weapons.

The facts surrounding the shooting have thrust several questions front-and-center regarding who should be allowed to have guns, what guns should be available, and when they can be taken away. It is undisputed that some tips about the shooting suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, were mishandled by local authorities and the FBI, but it is unclear what action they would have been empowered to take against him under current laws.

“The school was scared to death of him, the students were scared to death of him,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “There’s no way he shouldn’t have been charged with terroristic threatening or something of that nature so he would have been a felon at that point and not entitled to owning a gun.”

Deputies had responded to dozens of service calls at Cruz’s home, often about his erratic behavior, but no arrests were made and no charges were ever filed. He had been expelled from the high school, his social media accounts featured guns and violent images, and he appears to have commented on YouTube that he wanted to be a school shooter. The FBI failed to investigate a tip a month before the shooting that specifically warned he might do something like this.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, members of both parties were optimistic that something will happen soon on guns, but nobody was sure exactly what that will be.

“I think you’re going to see a coming together,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “I don’t know exactly what that is today, but I know this is a very different type of discussion than you had in the past.”

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said he was encouraged by President Trump’s recent directive to the Justice Department to work toward banning the bump stock devices used in the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October. However, Democrats say legislation explicitly prohibiting their sale would be more effective and less likely to become entangled in lawsuits.

LaHood listed several priorities he hopes will be addressed in the weeks and months ahead, either by Congress, the president, or state legislatures.

“We need to figure out from a public policy standpoint what needs to be done, and also balancing the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said.

Some, including the president, have suggested the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon be increased to 21, like it already is for handguns. According to LaHood, that is a question worth discussing but it is one better left to individual states.

“Every state is different,” he said. “Montana is different from Illinois, Utah is different from New York.”

He also believes the government should have more power to act against dangerous people with mental illnesses when they refuse to seek treatment voluntarily.

“When we know that people suffer from mental illness, if they’re 18 or 19 or 20, we have to admit them to a hospital,” he said. “Right now under HIPPA laws, we can’t do that.”

LaHood wants to reassess the background check system as well to ensure that mental health information is included in the database.

Corker also expressed concerns about background checks.

“I mean, you look at the individuals that have been a part of these mass shootings and, let’s face it, there were so many reasons for us to keep them from having arms,” he said.

Corker and LaHood both pointed to legislation introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, aimed at fixing some of the loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Cornyn’s bill, co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has stalled in Congress in the past. A bill that makes similar changes to the NICS has passed in the House, but it includes provisions to make concealed carry permits reciprocal between states that Democrats see as a poison pill.

The Cornyn-Murphy bill would offer financial incentives for state and local authorities to input all criminal history information in the system. Since the Florida shooting, Murphy and other Democrats have pushed to amend the bill to strenghten and expand background check as well, but some Republicans say more expansive legislation would face insurmountable opposition in the House.

Wyden is among those who are still pushing for universal background checks, and constituents he spoke to at town halls last week agreed.

“People feel very strongly about several steps, and clearly they want a loophole-free, airtight system of background checks,” he said. “They want that for every single sale of a gun because they want to keep guns out of the hands of people who might have been involved in domestic violence or have mental health challenges.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers met with President Donald Trump at the White House Wednesday to discuss ways to make America’s schools safer. Trump and NRA officials have spoken often since the shooting of the need to make schools harder targets, and Corker seemed to concur with that general sentiment.

“Here we are in the Capitol and we have security checks, the same thing happens at the Nashville capitol, it probably happens to an extent at city hall,” he said, “and yet we have students going in and out of buildings that are not hardened in that way.”

Corker did not directly address Trump’s preferred solution: arming well-trained teachers. Boozman suggested that local law enforcement or private contractors could provide security, but he also noted that some programs allowing teachers to carry weapons have been successful.

“As we’re seeing in Arkansas, you can actually arm individuals at the schools,” he said.

In one district there, more than 20 faculty members and staff have undergone training and have been carrying guns in schools for five years.

Democrats say a stronger police presence around campus may be part of a viable solution, but many do not support turning the faculty into an armed security force.

“I am not for arming teachers,” Wyden said. “I think teachers ought to teach. I do believe that there ought to be support for law enforcement in and around schools to provide an added measure of safety for young people.”

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., cautioned against reading too much into a lack of shootings at some schools with armed teachers, observing that the vast majority of gun-free schools have also not had any shootings.

“Simply because there hasn’t been an incident doesn’t necessary mean it works very well,” he said.

Jones does believe, however, that school security measures do need to be overhauled.

“We need to have a deterrent effect out there as well as securing the schools, but the jury is out on whether putting more guns in schools is the right answer,” he said.

With many of the Stoneman Douglas survivors taking the reins of the gun control debate themselves on cable news and social media, the pressure for Congress to implement some new legal restrictions on firearms has not faded and it might not fade anytime soon. Students are already organizing a March for Our Lives in Washington for March 24.

“There’s a lot of talk about young people coming to Washington, young people speaking out, organizing all kinds of marches and ways to show how strongly they feel,” Wyden said. “Young people really understand what’s at stake.”

After this latest attack, many in Congress agree that inaction no longer seems to be an option.

“So often in the past few years, it’s almost as if these killings have been normalized, that people just somehow say that’s terrible but that’s the way it is,” said Wyden. “I think the young people are making sure now that that’s not the way it’s going to be anymore.”

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