WASHINGTON — Spilling out wrenching tales of lost lives and stolen security, students and parents appealed to President Donald Trump to set politics aside and protect America's school children from the scourge of gun violence. Trump listened intently to the raw emotion and pledged action, including the possibility of arming teachers.
“I turned 18 the day after” the shooting, said a tearful Samuel Zeif, a student at the Florida high school where a former student's assault left 17 dead last week. “Woke up to the news that my best friend was gone. And I don't understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war. An AR. How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon? How do we not stop this after Columbine? After Sandy Hook?”
Trump promised to be “very strong on background checks.” And he suggested he supported allowing some teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons to be ready for intruders. But largely he listened Wednesday, holding handwritten notes bearing his message to the families. “I hear you” was written in black marker.
The president had invited the teen survivors of school violence and parents of murdered children in a show of his resolve against gun violence in the wake of last week's shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and in past years at schools in Connecticut and Colorado. The latest episode has prompted a renewed and growing call for stronger gun control.
Trump asked his guests to suggest solutions and solicited feedback. He did not fully endorse any specific policy solution, but pledged to take action and expressed interest in widely differing approaches.
Besides considering concealed carrying of weapons by trained school employees, a concept he has endorsed in the past, he said he planned to go “very strongly into age, age of purchase.” And he said he was committed to improving background checks and working on mental health.
Most in the group were emotional but quiet and polite.
But Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed last week, noted the previous school massacres and raged over his loss, saying this moment isn't about gun laws but about fixing the schools.
“It should have been one school shooting and we should have fixed it and I'm pissed. Because my daughter, I'm not going to see again,” said Pollack. “King David Cemetery, that is where I go to see my kid now.”
A strong supporter of gun rights, Trump has nonetheless indicated in recent days that he is willing to consider ideas not in keeping with National Rifle Association orthodoxy, including age restrictions for buying assault-type weapons. Still, gun owners are a key part of his base of supporters.
The NRA quickly rejected any talk of raising the age for buying long guns to 21.
“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18-20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them for purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their constitutional right to self-protection,” the group said in a statement.
Several dozen people assembled in the White House State Dining Room. Among them were students from Parkland along with their parents. Also present were parents of students killed in massacres at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Students and parents from the Washington area also were present.
The student body president at the Parkland school, Julia Cordover, tearfully told Trump that she “was lucky enough to come home from school.”
She added, “I am confident you will do the right thing.”
Trump later tweeted that he would “always remember” the meeting. “So much love in the midst of so much pain. We must not let them down. We must keep our children safe!!”
Not all the students impacted by the shooting came to the White House.
David Hogg, who has been one of the students actively calling for gun control was invited but declined, said his mother Rebecca Boldrick.
“His point was (Trump needs) to come to Parkland, we're not going there,” she said.
Throughout the day Wednesday, television news showed footage of student survivors of the violence marching on the Florida state Capitol, calling for tougher laws. The protests came closer to Trump, too, with hundreds of students from suburban Maryland attending a rally at the Capitol and then marching to the White House.
Inside the executive mansion, Trump said at the end of an hour listening to tales of pain and anguish, “Thank you for pouring out your hearts because the world is watching and we're going to come up with a solution.”
Television personality Geraldo Rivera had dinner with Trump at his private Palm Beach club over the weekend and described Trump as “deeply affected” by his visit Friday with Parkland survivors. In an email, Rivera said he and Trump discussed the idea of raising the minimum age to purchase assault-type weapons.
Trump “suggested strongly that he was going to act to strengthen background checks,” Rivera said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Wednesday they would introduce a bill to raise the minimum age required to purchase rifles from gun dealers, including assault weapons such as the AR-15.
“A kid too young buy a handgun should be too young to buy an #AR15,” Flake said on Twitter. A buyer must be 21 to purchase a handgun from a licensed gun dealer.
Trump embraced gun rights during his presidential campaign, though he supported some gun control before he became a candidate, backing an assault weapons ban and a longer waiting period to purchase a gun in a 2000 book.
On Tuesday, Trump directed the Justice Department to move to ban devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year's Las Vegas massacre. The White House has also said Trump was looking at a bill that would strengthen federal gun background checks.
But those moves have drawn criticism as being inadequate, with Democrats questioning whether the Justice Department even has authority to regulate bump stocks and arguing that the background check legislation would not go far enough.
The department said its review of whether bump stocks are federally prohibited is ongoing but did not say how Trump's order would affect that.
An effort to pass bump stock legislation last year fizzled out.
On background checks, Trump has suggested he is open to a bipartisan bill developed in response to a mass shooting at a Texas church. It would penalize federal agencies that don't properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the bill is “a small step,” but said Democrats want to see universal background check legislation.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said Wednesday that he'll probably reintroduce bipartisan legislation that would require background checks for all gun purchases online and at gun shows. He said he planned to discuss the idea with Trump.
That bill first emerged with backing from Toomey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia following the 2012 slaying of 26 children and adults in Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School. It failed then and at least one more time since.
But Darrell Scott, the father of Columbine High School victim Rachel Scott, said he felt the president had been moved by the group's words.
“I feel like there's a different tone in the air,” he said, “than there has been before.”
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