WASHINGTON — President Trump promised tougher background checks and mental health screens for gun buyers in an emotional forum at the White House on Wednesday with students and parents who were personally affected by mass school shootings in the U.S., including the massacre at a Florida high school last week.
"It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past. It’s been going on too long. Too many instances, and we're going to get it done," Trump said.
The 70-minute televised meeting, billed as a "listening session," was not expected to produce any immediate policies or regulations but rather lay the groundwork for possible changes in the future.
Yet Trump appeared open to a wide range of ideas, including raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21, conducting more active shooter drills, and toughening background checks with mental health screenings.
"We're going to be very strong on background checks," he said. "...We’re going to go strong on age of purchase and the mental aspect.”
Trump spoke to six students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a former student with a history of mental illness used an assault weapon last week to kill 17 people and wound another 15. They were accompanied at the White House by their parents.
"This was a person who was sick, very sick," Trump said of Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who used an AR-15 style assault rifle as he gunned down teachers and students in Parkland. "And people knew he was sick."
Trump also seemed to endorse changes in state concealed-carry laws to allow teachers to be armed.
"You can't have 100 security guards in Marjory Stoneman Douglas," he said. "It would be teachers and coaches. If the coach had a firearm in his locker.... He wouldn't have had to run. He would have shot and that would have been the end of it."
Some of these proposals drew immediate pushback.
Richard Myers, executive director of a law enforcement group Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the idea of arming teachers "is an emotional response that we have heard before.
“I don’t know of any police chief who believes this is a good idea," continued Myers, who did not attend the session. "Police officers receive months of firearms training; they get instruction on decision-making and de-escalation. Even with all of that, police have been criticized that they have been too quick to use deadly force."
And the National Rifle Association pushed back on raising the age on assault rifle purchases, saying it would deprive young people of "their constitutional right to self-protection."
Also participating in the session were parents of victims from the 1999 Columbine High shooting in Colorado and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, as well as students and parents from three Washington, D.C.-area schools.
"Tell us your stories. America is looking on," Vice President Pence told them. "We want to hear your hearts today. I encourage you to be candid and be vulnerable."
What followed was an often emotional session as participants shared deeply personal tales: a father who lost his daughter, a student who just turned 18 and lost his best friend at Parkland, a father who lost a daughter at Columbine.
"We as a country failed our children. I can't get on a plane with a bottle of water. But some animal can walk into a school and kill our children," said Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, who was killed last week in the Parkland shooting.
"How many schools, how many children have to get shot? It stops here," Pollack continued. "I'm not going to sleep until it gets stopped. My boys have to go through this. I'm pissed. My daughter,I'm not going to see again. She's not here. It's not about gun laws right now. Let's fix the schools first."
Trump listened, nodded, and at one point handed a tissue to a girl sitting to his right.
"I was born into a world where I never got to know safety and peace," said Justin Gruber, a 15-year-old sophomore from Parkland who told of texting his father while he hid in a closet during last week's shooting. "There needs to be a change.”
The exchanges were respectful and ran counter to the acrimony that's permeated the gun debate.
The president is scheduled to meet with state and local officials on school safety at the White House Thursday — and with governors on Friday — as part of an ongoing dialogue following the tragedy in Parkland.
As Trump meets with advocates in the State Dining Room, students from Parkland and other activists descended on the Florida state capital in Tallahassee to press their case for tighter gun control measures, including a a ban on many semiautomatic rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
In addition, protesters from the Washington, D.C. area, gathered outside the White House Wednesday afternoon to call for more gun restrictions and chanting slogans such as, “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!” and “Hey hey! Ho ho! The NRA has got to go!”
rump's meeting Wednesday came a day after he announced the signing of a memorandum instructing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to regulate the use of bump stocks, effectively banning the use of the devices that can enable rifles to mimic automatic weapons.
Bump stocks were found among the weapons used in the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people Oct. 1, but were not used by Cruz in Parkland.
Those actions may test Trump's close relationship with the NRA, which took the rare step of endorsing him for president in 2016 before he had officially captured the GOP nomination for president.
"The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end," Trump told the annual NRA convention in May. "You have a true friend and champion in the White House."
Now, Trump is suggesting he's open to several modest steps that can be taken which could draw support from both sides.
One idea that's gained bipartisan approval is a proposal to raise the minimum age required to buy a semi-automatic rifle like the one Cruz, 19, was able to purchase legally last year at a Broward County gun shop.
Gun control groups have blasted Trump and the GOP-led Congress for doing little to address gun violence.
Since Jan. 1, firearms have been used to kill 2,073 people in the U.S. and wound 3,551, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks incidents of gun violence from media, law enforcement, government and commercial sources.
Gun rights advocates argue that the massacre should never have happened if law enforcement officials had simply done their job and investigated numerous leads suggesting Cruz had mental illness issues.
As recently as January, the FBI received a tip about Cruz and his "desire to kill people," but the information was never forwarded for investigation, the bureau confirmed Friday.
In a written statement, the FBI said a person close to Cruz contacted the agency's tip line Jan. 5 to report concerns about "Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting." The informant was not identified in the FBI's statement.
"Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life," the FBI said.