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Trump and congressional Republicans split over arming teachers, but unite in blocking gun limits

Trump and congressional Republicans split over arming teachers, but unite in blocking gun limits
Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan and other Republican House leaders answer reporters' questions at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Less than two weeks after the latest mass shooting had President Trump promising action, his two main proposals have fallen flat among already divided congressional Republicans, leaving their party united on one thing: blocking further restrictions on gun ownership.

House Republican leaders on Tuesday dismissed Trump's idea of arming some teachers nationwide, calling that a local matter, while the president has all but shelved his other proposal to set a federal minimum age of 21 for purchasing long guns.

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The day's events suggested an election-year struggle for congressional Republicans just as party primaries are looming — how to confront rising national support for gun restrictions and the powerfully emotional testimony of the high school victims and their classmates without reversing the GOP's longtime support for expansive gun rights.

They also reflected the difference between lawmakers' political imperatives and those of Trump, who is better able to stand up to gun rights groups and is not facing voters anytime soon.

In Congress, House and Senate Republicans just returning from a week's break are split over a pending measure to improve background checks. On a related gun issue, both they and Trump have indicated that any limits or ban on so-called bump stocks — devices like those a Las Vegas shooter used in October to turn legal semiautomatic rifles into virtual machine guns — probably wouldn't be done by law but by regulation, as the National Rifle Assn. prefers.

At the White House on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump still supports setting an age limit for gun purchases, an idea he advocated in the early days after the Feb. 14 killing of 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school — by an assailant identified as a 19-year-old armed with an AR-15 rifle he bought legally. Trump has not raised the issue, however, since meeting last weekend with NRA executives who are against the proposal.

Sanders pushed forward by several days the debate over where the president stands on measures to prevent a recurrence of the Florida attack, saying Trump will propose specific "school safety" measures on Friday. She refused to answer definitively when asked by reporters whether the president favors a ban on gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list.

In the Senate, Republicans were fighting among themselves over what had seemed the most likely early response, a measure in the works for months that would require government agencies to be more rigorous about reporting matters to the national background check registry in order to prevent troubled individuals from purchasing weapons.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's refusal to sign onto the president's most prominent proposal — arming teachers — suggested the depth of the concerns about how best to respond to the national moment without alienating some of the GOP's most loyal voters.

"That is really a question for local governments, local school boards," the Wisconsin Republican said of the proposal to arm educators.

"As a parent myself and as a citizen, I think it's a good idea. But as speaker of the House, we should respect federalism and respect local jurisdictions."

Ryan instead cited "system failures" and mental health issues as "the kinds of things we are going to be discussing with our members, with the Senate and with the president." He did not include gun restrictions in that list.

Teenage survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have led a dramatic public fight to expand background checks before guns can be purchased and to limit the availability of semiautomatic weapons, such as the one police say former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz used. But Ryan and other leaders made clear that congressional Republicans consider local law officials' handling of warnings about Cruz to be their prime focus.

"There was a colossal breakdown in the system locally," Ryan said, citing Cruz's run-ins with law enforcement and the FBI's failure to investigate after its tip line received detailed allegations that he might be planning a mass shooting.

"Of course we want to listen to these kids, but we also want to make sure that we protect people's due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don't get them."

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The president has persisted in pushing for legislation encouraging the arming of teachers, which the NRA supports, despite opposition from teachers, law enforcement officials and politicians of both parties.

Trump said that while teachers should not be forced to carry weapons, those who are "adept" at shooting should — and should be eligible for bonuses if they do. Addressing wary governors this week, he said the federal government could help pay for bonuses.

Without a firm template from Trump as to his priorities, Republicans controlling both houses were locked in disagreement over how to proceed.

Ryan reiterated Tuesday that the Senate should act on the House-passed measure to tighten agencies' reporting to the federal background check registry.

That measure also would allow people with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns across state lines, an expansion of gun rights that is opposed by Democrats and officials from states that do not sanction concealed-gun permits. A pending Senate version of the background check bill does not include the concealed-weapons component.

A leading gun rights advocate said Monday that Republican House leaders had promised not to take up the Senate bill if it is passed without the concealed-weapons provision. Ryan on Tuesday would not say whether he would allow a vote on a stand-alone background check measure.

"We'll discuss and cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

Neither the House nor the Senate plan would expand the background check system to cover the full range of gun sales, including those over the internet or at gun shows that currently are exempt from checks. Closing that sales loophole has been among the most urgent demands from the Florida survivors.

In the Senate, the gun registry measure fate was complicated on two fronts. Its coauthor, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, blistered Democrats for not forcefully supporting the bill.

"If our attitude is, 'I want everything on my list or nothing,' we're going to end up with nothing. I would implore our Democratic colleagues to change course," he said.

Yet it was a fellow Republican, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who placed a hold on the measure over concerns that it would too broadly expand the list of Americans who might find themselves barred from purchasing weapons. Among Lee's concerns, an aide said, was that government agencies would be allowed to define for themselves when to consider someone "mentally defective."

"He is looking for language that would make sure all Americans are protected from due process, not just veterans," said Lee's communications director, Conn Carroll.

In the House, meantime, leaders made clear that they were far more intent on crafting preventive measures that had nothing to do with weapons. At their news conference, one GOP House leader after another followed Ryan to the podium to criticize the actions — and inaction — of local Florida officials before the shooting and after it, and to contend that mental health difficulties and a violent national culture were culprits as well.

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"We are learning more and more about the failures and inaction and ignored warnings that ultimately gave way" to the shooting, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). He said that was key in making "sure that nobody like this deranged Mr. Cruz person can get their hands on a firearm."

Neither McCarthy nor the other leaders explained how they would have denied Cruz his legally purchased weapon without abridging the due process rights and 2nd Amendment rights they also pledged to uphold.

At one point Tuesday, the House Republican leaders turned to an emotional witness of their own — third-ranking leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was gravely injured last year when a gunman fired on a congressional baseball practice. That shooter was killed by security agents.

Scalise angrily condemned the failures of the FBI and local officials, singling out the armed Broward County sheriff's deputy who was stationed at the school but did not go after the shooter.

"I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for law enforcement confronting the shooter in my case," he said.

Scalise said that he had met with survivors of the Florida attack to discuss their "shared experiences." And he called for prayers for the students as they returned to class this week.

"It's a difficult time," he said.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details, context and quotes from Sarah Huckabee Sanders and lawmakers.

This article was originally published at 11:30 a.m.

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