President Trump expressed support for arming teachers Wednesday during an emotional meeting at the White House with teenagers who survived last week’s massacre at a Florida high school, while thousands of students walked out of schools nationwide and marched on capitols from Washington to Tallahassee to demand more gun control laws.
At the White House, Mr. Trump held a “listening session” with students, parents and teachers who were affected by last week’s shooting, as well as the massacre in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Their voices trembling at times, students who survived the Florida shooting told the president that no other students should have to suffer the horrors that they witnessed.
“As a kid, nothing that horrible should ever have to happen to you. It’s just so tragic,” said student Jonathan Blank.
Student Samuel Zeif, who said he texted his brothers during the shooting that he probably would never see them again, urged the audience, “Let’s never let this happen again — please, please.”
“I lost a best friend who was practically a brother,” Samuel said. “I’m here to use my voice because I know he can’t. I know he’s with me, cheering me on to be strong, but it’s hard. I want to feel safe at school. I don’t know how I’m ever going to set foot in that place again.”
He wondered aloud through tears, “How did we not stop this after Columbine? After Sandy Hook? It’s still happening.”
During the meeting, Mr. Trump expressed support for raising the legal age for purchasing a firearm and for arming educators or other adults at schools with proper training, although he acknowledged that the idea is controversial.
“If you had a teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” Mr. Trump said. “I really believe that if these cowards knew the school was well-guarded, I think they wouldn’t go into the school in the first place. That would solve the problem.”
He asked parents, teachers and educators if they supported arming adults in schools with conceal-carry permits. The room appeared to be closely divided.
The president also suggested that more mental health hospital beds were needed to treat people like Nikolas Cruz, the troubled teenager accused in last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
“He is a sick guy, and he should have been nabbed a number of times, frankly,” Mr. Trump said. “Today, if you catch somebody … there’s no mental institution, there’s no place to bring him.”
Among other suggestions for the president were raising the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, banning assault rifles and requiring schools to conduct active-shooter drills. The president said he intends to go “very strong” on raising the age limit.
“Thank you for pouring out your hearts, because the world is watching and we’re going to come up with a solution,” the president said.
Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, trembled with anger as he stood in the East Room and told the president about his loss.
“We as a country have failed our children,” Mr. Pollack said, his voice rising. “I can’t get on a plane with a bottle of water, but some animal can get into a school and shoot up children? That’s not right.”
He noted with bitter irony that he encountered tight security in Washington when he visited the Department of Education earlier in the day.
“The Department of Education has a security guard in the elevator,” he said. “How do you think that makes me feel? There 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 her again. It’s eternity. My beautiful daughter, I’m never going to see again.”
A White House official said Mr. Pollack, wife Julie Phillips and sons Huck Pollack and Hunter Pollack; and Brandon Schoengrund decided to attend the listening session after first meeting privately with the president.
Mr. Trump, who moved Tuesday to ban bump stocks for semi-automatic rifles, promised that he would take more steps to make schools safer.
“We’re going to be very strong on background checks,” the president said. He noted that he will meet with the nation’s governors next week in Washington and said school safety will be at the top of the agenda.
“There are many ideas that I have, many ideas other people have,” he said. “We’re going to pick out the strongest and get them done.”
Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday night that he “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!!” he said.
Earlier this week, the White House backed a plan to press states and federal agencies to provide more records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used to screen purchases from federal firearms dealers.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called Mr. Trump’s moves to embrace new controls a “welcome shift” but said it’s less than the bare minimum needed after the latest attack. He said Congress needs to pass legislation to ban bump stocks because executive action could end up snared in the courts. He also said background checks must be expanded.
“Our No. 1 priority is going to be universal background checks, which is supported by about 80 percent of the American people, and closing the gun show loophole,” he said.
The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety said arming teachers is a bad idea.
“If the president is truly listening to survivors of gun violence, then he will support legislation requiring criminal background checks on every gun sale — supported by 97 percent of American voters, and reject dangerous NRA priorities like ‘concealed carry reciprocity’ and guns in schools,” said John Feinblatt, the group’s president. “Until then, any talk from this administration about protecting Americans from gun violence is just talk.”
Across the country Wednesday, from snowy Iowa City, Iowa, to balmy Boca Raton, Florida, to the gates of the White House, students protested a long series of school shootings in the U.S. and voiced anger at what they called the government’s failure to protect them. Cable news gave the demonstrations round-the-clock coverage.
The largest rally targeted the Florida state Legislature in Tallahassee, where students railed against Republican legislators who voted a day earlier against consideration of a ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.
“Many would like to blame this event on the FBI’s lack of action or the Trump administration,” high school junior Lorenzo Prado said of last week’s shooting in Florida. “But the simple fact is that the laws of our beloved country allowed for the deranged gunman to purchase a gun legally. The law has failed us.”
Said Stoneman Douglas senior Delaney Tarr, “We have nothing to lose. We are not here to be patted on the back. We know what we want. We want common-sense gun laws. We want change.”
Democratic Florida legislators, who have failed in their efforts to enact tougher gun laws since the terrorist attack at an Orlando nightclub two years ago, embraced the students’ message.
“You are the cavalry we’ve been waiting for,” state Rep. Kionne McGhee told the students. “There will be those who say we are trying to take guns from the American people. But we are here to tell the same people that there’s also an Eighth Amendment, which says it is cruel and unusual punishment to allow our people, and our kids and our teachers to be gunned down at schools, on the streets.”
Some students criticized the media for exploiting the high school massacre to promote a gun control agenda.
“I wholeheartedly believe that the media is politicizing this tragedy,” Brandon Minoff, an 18-year-old student at Stoneman Douglas, told Fox News. “It seems that gun control laws is the major topic of conversation rather than focusing on the bigger issue of 17 innocent lives being taken at the hands of another human.”
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