As Parkland Students Return to Class, Washington Grapples With Guns

WASHINGTON (CN) – Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida returned to class Wednesday and began their day by holding a moment of silence for the 16 students and one teacher killed two weeks ago in a hail of gunfire near the end of what had otherwise been a normal school day.

The tragedy in Parkland was the 18th school shooting this year. Over the past 17 years, there have been more than 185 shootings at schools and universities, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune.

But this time, the response has been different. In the 14 days since Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly set off a school fire alarm and gunned down victims as they left their classrooms, their fellow students and scores of others around the country have staged walkouts and other protests demanding that lawmakers and the Trump administration do something to curb the epidemic of violence.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump responded by convening lawmakers at the White House and pushed for tougher background checks, better school safety and more mental health resources to prevent shootings.

“We can’t wait and play games and nothing gets done,” Trump said as he opened the session with 17 House and Senate lawmakers. “We want to stop the problems.”

Trump particularly cited the need for stronger background checks, which have been resisted by Republicans in Congress and the National Rifle Association. But the president said he told NRA officials over lunch recently that changes in gun culture are needed.

“Hey, I’m the biggest fan of the Second Amendment,” Trump said.

“It’s time,” he said he told the NRA officials. “We have to stop this nonsense.”

Among those joining the president Wednesday were Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein, of California, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota.

All are lead sponsors of the Fix NICS Act, legislation that would both strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System’s verification process for gun purchases, and put pressure on state and federal agencies to improve their recordkeeping or face stiff penalties.

Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who also attended the summit, introduced similar legislation following the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary  School shooting that left 20 students and six adults dead.

Their bill failed after it was introduced in 2013, and failed again after it was reintroduced two years later.

The fate of proposed Fix NICS Act is hard to predict.

House Speaker Paul Ryan did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Courthouse News, but it is widely reported he is resistant to the idea of an assault weapon ban or stricter rules for gun owners.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press while the summit “showed some progress toward dealing with one element of the problem,” background check restrictions would not be a “panacea.”

Judging from his public statements, the lukewarm response of congressional leaders likely won’t sit well with the president.

“We have to have action,” Trump told the National Governor’s Association earlier this week. “We don’t have any action.

“A week goes by, ‘let’s keep talking.’ Another week goes by and we keep talking,” the president said. “Two months go by — all of the sudden, everybody is off to the next subject. Then when it happens again, everybody is angry and it’s ‘let’s start talking again.”

“We got to stop,” he said.

But how to “stop” is another matter.

Immediately after the Parkland school shooting, Trump advocated raising the age limit to purchase guns from 18 to 21. The proposal inspired blowback from the National Rifle Association, which issued a statement saying such a policy would be “unconstitutional.”

Three days later, at the governors’ association meeting, the president made no mention of gun-purchase age limit.

Trump has also proposed arming a small, trained group of teachers as a deterrent to future school shootings, but that proposal was roundly criticized by parents, educators and gun-safety advocates.

The president has also repeatedly talked of the need to reopen “mental institutions,” but hasn’t moved beyond making statements, evidently expecting the cost of such of move to be borne primarily by the individual states.

At no point has Trump talked about an outright ban on assault weapons, but he has vowed to ban bump stocks — devices which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons — by executive order.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Trump ordered the Justice Department to draft regulations banning bump stocks, but the department has been reviewing the product since December.

That review was started after Stephen Paddock killed 58 and injured 851 with a gun fitted with bump stocks at an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas.

Before Wednesday’s summit, Trump reiterated this position, saying he  “didn’t care if Congress [agrees to ban them] or not.”

“You put it into the machine gun category, which is what it is; it becomes, essentially, a machine gun and nobody is going to be able to – it’s going to be very hard to get them,” the president said Monday.

The premise of outlawing bump stocks did not sit well with Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition, who slammed Trump’s comments Wednesday.

“While we would prefer to block any executive action or rulemaking that would ban currently-legal firearms parts before it becomes law,” Combs said. “We would not hesitate to file a federal lawsuit to protect the rights and legal personal property of gun owners if that’s what it takes.”

Combs even warned the administration that “ to act on new gun control over the pro-gun rights legislation that the American people were promised in 2016” would force his organization to develop a new constitutional amendment.

In an interview with Courthouse News, Combs said the proposed amendment would include “strong, comprehensive language” to “make sure people can access and exercise their rights throughout the nation.”

But Laurence Tribe, professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, told Courthouse News that a legal challenge to an order banning bump stocks wouldn’t fly.

“Nor do I think any new constitutional amendment dealing with guns makes the slightest bit of sense,” he said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may agree.

During a meeting Tuesday with state attorneys general, Sessions said his “top people in the Department of Justice have believed for some time that we can, through regulatory process, now allow the bump stock to convert a weapon from semiautomatic to fully automatic.”

But the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has previously said it was unable to restrict devices like bump stocks without congressional action and Combs stands by that.

“The statutes are crystal clear on what a ‘machine gun’ is,” Combs said. “Bump stocks are not machine guns … This is so obvious that even the ATF under President Obama said so. The executive branch cannot just make up the law as it goes.”

When it comes to the debate between gun-rights activists and those who want to see greater restrictions on firearms, it’s “difficult to see any middle ground policy” emerging, Combs said.

“[Particularly] when the only proposals on the table by gun control advocates is more gun control that affects law-abiding people,” he said. “They are just as unwilling and unserious about addressing the real problems.”

Combs also rejects the suggestion in some quarters that “gun free zones” be established around schools.

“[The zones] are nothing but fake, feel-good policies,” he said. “Evil and violent people don’t just change their minds about hurting or killing people because they hit some invisible line 1,000 feet away from a school.”

Andrew Patrick, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said Combs’ opinions don’t reflect the wishes of most Americans.

“The compromise on background checks has already been reached – 97 percent [of those surveyed in a Quinnipiac University poll] are in support of tougher checks. You don’t get puppies to poll at 97 percent,” Patrick told Courthouse News.

Regulations like removing a gun from a person who has a history of domestic violence, for instance, doesn’t threaten the Second Amendment as some may believe, he noted.

“It’s not a Constitutional violation, there’s due process. As was said in [the Supreme Court’s] Heller opinion, the rights of second amendment is not unlimited,” he said. “If you can’t get on board with that, you’re not going to get on board with anything in the seriousness of saving lives.”

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