President Trump hosted an extraordinarily emotional debate over guns and schools at the White House on Wednesday, listening for more than an hour as student survivors and grieving parents parried ideas to prevent firearms deaths, their gentle disputes hinting at the nation’s divisions.
The president offered proposals of his own, from stronger background checks for gun buyers to possibly arming teachers and perhaps reviving “mental institutions.” Much of the debate touched on arming schools, far less on gun controls.
“I’m here because my daughter has no voice,” said Andrew Pollack, the father of a student, Meadow Pollack, who was among the 17 people killed in a Parkland, Fla., high school on Valentine’s Day. “She was murdered last week and she was taken from us. Shot nine times on the third floor. We as a country failed our children. This shouldn’t happen.”
A student who survived the shooting, Sam Zeif, noted that he turned 18 the next day and added, “I don't understand why I can still go into a store and buy a weapon of war."
The accused 19-year-old shooter, a former student at the school, had legally bought his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and ammunition magazines.
Zeif, referring to past school massacres, asked, "How have we not stopped this? After Columbine? After Sandy Hook? I'm sitting with a mother that lost her son" — he reached to touch Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, was killed in the Sandy Hook first-grade shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 — "and it's still happening."
He closed by saying, "We need to do something, and that's why we're here."
In the rawness of their grief, a dozen survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wept and searched for answers. And several parents, years after their children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School, served as reluctant experts in the policy options available to the president — and in the disappointments of getting consensus on gun policy.
Attendees took turns making points, often at odds with one another over whether to arm teachers or lock up the mentally ill, or on whether it was time to set an age minimum for gun purchases or ban assault weapons.
In a soft voice, Hockley, a veteran of the gun debates, took issue with the idea of arming schools. Mark Barden, who also lost a son, Daniel, at Sandy Hook, said his wife and other teachers "have more than enough responsibility than to have the awesome responsibility of lethal force to take a life." But one of Pollack’s three sons demanded, “We need more firearms on campus.”
And Trump disparaged the widespread practice of designating schools as “gun-free zones,” saying it suggests to shooters, “Let’s go in and let’s attack.” The president said that if a coach who was killed at Stoneman Douglas had a firearm in his locker, he would have fired at the shooter and "that would’ve been the end of it."
Trump repeatedly referred to the Florida shooter and other mass killers as deranged and complained, as did a couple parents, about the limitations when dealing with people manifesting mental illness.
"Today if you catch somebody, you don’t know what to do with them,” Trump said. “He hasn’t committed the crime but he may very well. And there’s no mental institution — there’s no place to bring them."
Hockley, along with Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel died at Columbine High School in Colorado 19 years ago, seemed to gently caution the president about speaking in broad, punitive terms about those with mental illness, instead of about supporting programs and treatment that promote wellness.
Hockley at one point appealed to Trump as a parent: "I implore you. Consider your own children. You don't want to be me. No parent does."
Pollack, his voice conveying both anger and sorrow, urged the president to fix security at schools and fight over gun laws later. But the mayor of Parkland, Christine Hunschofsky, pressed for banning assault weapons. The senior class president at Stoneman Douglas High School, Julia Cordover, encouraged Trump to follow through on his promise to ban the so-called bump stocks that turn legal firearms into virtual machine guns. And Cary Gruber, who attended with his son, a sophomore survivor, urged a higher minimum age for purchasing guns.
“If he’s not old enough to go and buy beer,” Gruber said, “he should not be able to buy a gun at 18 years old. Please, Mr. Trump.”
The often restless Trump sat mute through most of the sometimes tearful discussion, listening as the participants tried to make sense of the senseless. The televised session seemed to broadcast the president’s education on gun policy even as it bared the societal differences that have stymied a solution.
"In addition to what we're going to do about background checks, we're going to go very strong into age — age of purchase — and we're also going to go very strong into the mental health aspects of what's going on," Trump said as he wrapped up the meeting.
Some of those proposals would require a significant about-face for the administration, which has proposed cuts in mental health programs, for example. Trump’s suggestion of a new age restriction for gun purchases would depart sharply from previous pledges to gun rights supporters to oppose new federal restrictions on gun sales.
Republicans in Congress and Trump rolled back an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to send records of people receiving benefits for mental illness for inclusion in the background check system.
The gathering came one week after the Parkland massacre, which has sparked a furious response among the teenage survivors and across the country. Other students from Parkland were marching on their state Capitol, calling for the ouster of lawmakers who had just voted down a ban on assault weapons.
Students from South Florida gathered spontaneously at Stoneman Douglas, while students in Maryland, Arizona and Wisconsin staged classroom walkouts in solidarity.
After previous school shootings, surviving parents and teachers have led efforts to ban assault weapons but come up short in effecting much change at the federal level, as Hockley noted — often turning to state and local governments for action. In this case, teenagers are taking the lead.