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Amid student anger, Trump hosts a live White House special on gun violence

President Donald Trump speaks as he hosts a listening session with high school students, teachers and parents in the State Dining Room of the White House on Wednesday. | Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

A week after the Parkland shooting, the president found a way to respond, letting students and families express raw emotions and divergent views on guns.

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President Donald Trump has spent a week grappling with the school shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida, and Wednesday, he finally found his own way to respond, playing host on live television to dozens of grieving parents and students directly affected by a spate of shootings that have rocked the country.

For about an hour, the president moderated a frank and wide-ranging discussion among families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School and local Washington schools. On policy matters, the participants represented a range of views, with two participants sharply disagreeing over whether to impose greater restrictions on gun purchases and whether school staff should be armed.

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Since the shooting, the president has been looking for a way to take action on guns in response to cries from gun-control advocates and emotional students, whose images have been plastered across television screens around the clock, without alienating his pro-gun base, which he courted with promises to support the Second Amendment.

In response to remarks by the families at the listening session, he floated some new ideas, surprising some White House aides, including reopening some of the mental institutions shuttered in the 1970s to house worrisome teens who have not committed any crimes, and arming teachers or other school officials — controversial views that he would have difficulty garnering support for on Capitol Hill.

The conversation also provided a forum for grieving parents to air raw emotions and confront some of the leaders they say have failed them.

“It should have been one school shooting and we should have fixed it. I’m pissed. Because my daughter, I’m not going to see again,” said Andrew Pollack, who was pictured last week looking for his daughter Meadow wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt. “It’s enough. Let’s get together, work with the president and fix the schools.”

The White House said that Pollack, who was accompanied by his wife and two sons, decided to participate in the listening session after meeting privately with the president.

On Wednesday evening, Trump posted a tweet summing up the event that stood in marked contrast to a series of angry missives he sent over the weekend appearing to blame the FBI and Democrats for the carnage:
“I will always remember the time I spent today with courageous students, teachers and families. So much love in the midst of so much pain. We must not let them down. We must keep our children safe!!”

During the meeting, Trump sat clutching a page of notes that included questions for the distraught families — “What would you most want me to know about your experience? What can we do to help you feel safe?” — and let attendees have their say before jumping in to offer his views.

The president spotlighted the death of a Stoneman Douglas sports coach who died protecting students from gunfire to illustrate his view that introducing concealed-carry into America’s schools would reduce casualties in school shootings.

“If he had a firearm he wouldn’t have had to run, he would’ve shot and that would’ve been the end of it,” the president said.

Trump did not name the victim, but appeared to reference assistant football coach Aaron Feis, who died while shielding students during the shooting spree at the Parkland, Florida, school last week.

The president said his administration would “certainly” discuss the option, which he acknowledged was “controversial,” along with a series of other initiatives. For the measure to be enacted, the president cautioned, school officials would need to be skilled in handling rifles and be trained on deploy them on campus.

As a presidential candidate, Trump pledged to “get rid of gun-free zones on schools” as well as on military bases, a proposal he said he’d enact his first day in office. But he later wavered on the proposal, heavily opposed by gun-control advocates, telling CNN he’d only support removing gun-free zones in schools “in some cases.”

The proposal was met by pushback from some attendees, who argued gun-wielding teachers would not protect students.

“School teachers have more than enough responsibilities right now than to have to have the awesome responsibility of lethal force to take a life,” said Mark Barden, a member of Sandy Hook Promise. Barden’s wife is an education official and his child died at the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Trump opened the event vowing to take action, decrying the lack of response to past mass shootings.

“It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past,” the president said at the White House event alongside Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other administration officials. “It’s been going on too long, too many instances, and we’re going to get it done.”

Trump said the administration would be “very strong” on background checks for gun purchases and on mental health, though he declined to provide specific details on policy proposals. The president added their approach was “very strong” on “age of purchase,” a potential reference to the push to limit who can purchase assault weapons like the one used by Nikolas Cruz in Parkland.

The White House event came as Parkland students, joined by survivors of other shootings — including the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando — lobbied at Florida’s state Capitol in Tallahassee in favor of tougher gun laws. On Tuesday, Florida legislators voted down a measure that would have banned assault rifles and large capacity magazines. Images of teary-eyed students standing distraught in the halls of the state Capitol appeared on news broadcasts across the country.

Trump this week urged the Justice Department to finish reviewing a possible ban on a weapons accessory used in last year’s Las Vegas shooting, though it remains unclear whether — constitutionally speaking — that sort of ban can be handed down through an executive action or whether Congress needs to pass legislation outlawing the accessories.

The White House, which billed the listening statement as an opportunity for the president to “hear from students, parents and educators who have directly experienced these horrific tragedies,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the administration is seriously considering a move to reopen mental institutions or push to implement concealed-carry in schools.

The list of participants included members of Rachel’s Challenge and Sandy Hook Promise, two groups founded by the families of students lost during school shootings in Colorado and Connecticut.

“How is that easy to buy this type of weapon? How do we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy?” said Stoneman Douglas student Samuel Zeif. “We need to do something. That’s why we’re here.”

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