WASHINGTON — Spilling out wrenching tales of lost lives and stolen safety, 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 listened intently as raw emotions reverberated at the White House.
Faced with the personal anguish wrought by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead, Trump pledged action, saying: “We don’t want others to go through the kind of pain you’ve been through.”
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.”
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, noted previous school massacres and raged over his loss, saying the moment wasn’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.
Trump solicited suggestions from the group. He promised to be “very strong on background checks,” adding that “we’re going to do plenty of other things.” He also indicated interest in the idea of concealed weapons for trained teachers, saying it was something his administration would be “looking at it very strongly.”
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.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said they will 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. The bill he and Feinstein support would raise the minimum purchase age for non-military buyers from 18 to 21, the same age required to purchase a handgun.
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Sadie Gurman contributed from Washington, Marc Levy from Harrisburg and Alina Hartounian from Phoenix.