By CATHERINE LUCEY and MATTHEW DALY
WASHINGTON (AP) — Spilling out wrenching tales of lost lives and stolen security, students with quavering voices and parents shaking with anger appealed to President Donald Trump on Wednesday to set politics aside and protect American school children from the scourge of gun violence. Trump sat rapt and motionless, listening intently as raw emotions reverberated at the White House.
The administration is seeking to show resolve against gun violence in the wake of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and has prompted a growing call for stronger gun control.
Trump promised to be “very strong on background checks,” adding that “we’re going to do plenty of other things.”
He was faced with grieving families looking for answers. Few had concrete suggestions, but a few spoke in favor of raising age limits for buying assault weapons.
Parkland student Samuel Zeif said he’s heard of 15-year-olds buying rifles. Cary Gruber, father of a Parkland student, implored Trump: “It’s not left and right,” adding: “if you can’t buy a beer, shouldn’t be able to buy a gun.”
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.
Over 40 people assembled in the State Dining Room. Among the group were six students from Parkland, including the student body president, along with their parents. Also present were Darrell and Sandra Scott, whose daughter was killed in the Columbine, Colorado, shooting, and Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, who lost children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Students and parents from the Washington area also were present.
The student body president at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High 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.”
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.
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.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. Trump embraced gun rights on his 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.
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.
Daniel Gelillo, a senior at Richard Montgomery High who helped organize the protest, said students were hoping to pressure lawmakers to act. He said that “up ’til now nothing has quite fazed them.”
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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks authority under current law to ban bump stocks.
“If ATF tries to ban these devices after admitting repeatedly that it lacks the authority to do so, that process could be tied up in court for years, and that would mean bump stocks would continue to be sold,” said Feinstein, of California, calling legislation the only answer.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about how it might implement Trump’s order or how an ongoing bump stock review would be affected. ATF reviewed the devices and approved them in 2010, finding they did not amount to machine guns that are regulated under the National Firearms Act that dates to the 1930s.
As calls for ATF to ban bump stocks mounted after the Las Vegas shooting, the agency initially said it could only reconsider their lawfulness if Congress amended existing laws or passed new legislation. An effort to pass 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,” stressing that 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.
Meanwhile, in Florida, thousands of chanting students, including survivors of the Parkland school shooting, rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday, demanding changes to gun laws and threatening to remove Republicans who refuse to address new gun-control measures.
A week after the massacre that killed 17 people, the students took their message into the gun-friendly halls of power in Tallahassee. The impassioned crowd burst into chants of “Vote them out.”
Florida lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since the GOP took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999.
The students received a warm reception, but politicians did not offer specific answers. The students’ biggest wish — banning assault-type weapons such as the AR-15, the weapon used by suspect Nikolas Cruz — was taken off the table the previous day in the House.
The students also addressed reporters, offering scathing words for lawmakers.
“We’ve spoke to only a few legislators, and, try as they might, the most we’ve gotten out of them is ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You are so strong. You are so powerful,'” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want commonsense gun laws. … We want change.”
She added: “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”
The teens split into several groups to talk with lawmakers and other state leaders about gun control, the legislative process, and mental health issues. Some tearfully asked why civilians should be allowed to have weapons such as the one fired in the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one week ago.
When Florida’s Senate President Joe Negron heard the question, he did not answer directly: “That’s an issue that we’re reviewing.” When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the students broke into applause.
The Florida Senate opened its session by showing pictures of all 17 victims in the attack.
“There are some really harrowing tales here,” said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book of Broward County, who helped organize busloads of students who arrived at the Capitol late Tuesday. She stayed overnight with the students in Tallahassee’s Civic Center and said they stayed up until 5 a.m., researching, writing and preparing to talk with politicians.
“It has been a very, very difficult, tough night. It’s in those quiet moments that the reality of this stuff, without all the noise sets in. In any given moment, there’s tears. It’s raw and it’s there.”
About 100 students from the high school made the 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip on three buses. They told the 500 students and parents waiting for them that they were fighting to protect all students.
“We’re what’s making the change. We’re going to talk to these politicians. … We’re going to keep pushing until something is done because people are dying and this can’t happen anymore,” said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior.
Despite their determination, the students and their supporters are not likely to get what they really want: a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles. Republican lawmakers are talking more seriously about some restrictions, but not a total ban.
Instead, they are discussing treating assault-style rifles more like handguns. That could mean raising the minimum age to purchase the weapon to 21, creating a waiting period and making it more difficult for people who exhibit signs of mental illness to buy weapons even without a diagnosis.
Democrats attempted to get a bill to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor on Tuesday. Republicans, who dominate the chamber, dismissed it.
Scott organized three committees to look at school safety, mental health and gun safety issues. The committees met Tuesday and vowed to make changes. While Scott told reporters several times that “everything is on the table,” he did not answer whether his proposal would include any bans on any type of weapons.
Instead, Scott said he is interested in making it harder for people who are temporarily committed to obtain a gun. He also pledged to increase spending on school safety programs and on mental health treatment.
Authorities said Cruz, 19, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. His lawyers said there were many warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.
Diego Pfeiffer, a senior at the high school, was realistic about achieving changes in the law before the Legislature goes home March 9, but he said anything is a good first step.
“The best-case scenario is we move a step forward and that’s all we’re asking here. We’re asking to help save student lives,” he said. “Whether it’s funding or mental health or gun safety or any of that sort of stuff — I am pro any of that.”
Florida reporting by Brendan Farrington and Gary Fineout. Tamara Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press Writer Sadie Gurman contributed from Washington, Marc Levy from Harrisburg and Alina Hartounian from Phoenix.