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Trump Supports Improving Background Checks, But Will That Mean Action?

President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, speaks to reporters while visiting medical staff at Broward Health North in Pompano Beach, Fla., on Friday.
Andrew Harnik
President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump and Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, speaks to reporters while visiting medical staff at Broward Health North in Pompano Beach, Fla., on Friday.

Updated at 9:30 a.m. ET

President Trump is facing calls to act in the wake of the latest mass shooting, which killed 17 people Wednesday at a high school in Florida, and the White House is not ignoring them. The president will participate in a pair of listening sessions on school safety this week, and on Monday morning the White House said he supports efforts to improve the federal background check system, something Congress has expressed broad support for without acting on after past shootings.

The cyclical aftermath of the nation's mass shooting has repeated itself several times during Trump's year-old presidency, including with the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history when 59 people were killed on the Las Vegas strip last October, and when 26 people were killed at a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November.

In both instances, Democrats called for a major push for gun control, and even some Republicans said modest changes to the nation's gun laws might be in order.

Yet, no legislation was passed.

That cycle is slightly different this time. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where the shooting took place, have joined the political debate.

"Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call B.S.," student Emma Gonzalez said at a rally Saturday. "They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call B.S."

Students and parents of those killed at Stoneman Douglas High School, even the conservative New York Post, have asked the president directly to take action on gun control. He didn't mention the word "gun" in an address to the nation the morning after the shooting and ignored questions from reporters about acting on guns when he visited the injured in Broward County, Fla., on Friday evening.

The president did take time on Sunday to criticize the FBI for failing to act on a lead about the alleged gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who police say has admitted to conducting the armed rampage with a legally purchased AR-15 rifle. Trump said the bureau has been spending too much time on the Russia probe, an apparently unrelated issue to the failure to pass the tip on Cruz to the FBI's Miami field office.

Survivors of the shooting and friends of victims reacted sadly and angrily to Trump's tweet.

"Oh my god," one wrote in a retweet of the president's tweet. "17 OF MY CLASSMATES AND FRIENDS ARE GONE AND YOU HAVE THE AUDACITY TO MAKE THIS ABOUT RUSSIA???!! HAVE A DAMN HEART. You can keep all of your fake and meaningless 'thoughts and prayers'."

In addition to holding a rally and speaking out in news interviews and on social media since last week's shooting, students are organizing a nationwide walkout of students as a call to action on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The mother of a 14-year-old murdered at the Parkland school went on CNN and spoke directly to the camera, making an impassioned plea to Trump by name, asking him to "do something" to keep guns away from those who would carry out school shootings.

What the president will ultimately do is unclear. Without expanding on what the goal is, the White House has scheduled a listening session for the president with high school students and teachers Wednesday.

On Thursday, Trump will meet "with state and local officials on school safety." The next morning, the president will address the Conservative Political Action Conference, a group for which gun rights are a top issue. Wayne LaPierre, one of the leaders of the NRA, is also scheduled to speak.

Democrats have called for action on gun control once again, as they have after each mass shooting.

After the Las Vegas massacre, some Republicans — and even the NRA — said the regulation of bump stocks was worth revisiting. Those are accessories that are used to allow semiautomatic weapons to fire as if they were automatic; they were used by the shooter in Las Vegas.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked at the time about the president's role in possible action around bump stocks. "We want to be part of that discussion, and we're certainly open to that moving forward," Sanders said, adding that Trump is a "strong supporter of the Second Amendment."

After the November shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, it was discovered that records of the shooter's Air Force court-martial conviction for domestic violence were not properly entered into the national background-check system for gun purchases, and if they had, he would not have been able to legally obtain a gun. Changes to the background-check system were supported by the NRA, as well as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, who introduced a bill with Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who became one of the most visible advocates for gun control after the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn.

In a statement Monday morning, the White House's Sanders said, "The President spoke to Senator Cornyn on Friday about the bi-partisan bill he and Sen. Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background check Legislation. While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system."

Just like the bump stock issue, though, Congress did not take up the background check legislation in the aftermath of the shooting in Texas.

Asked about the lack of action on NBC's Meet the PressSunday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said there may be measures that could be put in place to make it harder to get a gun for someone with the behavioral warning signs people saw in Cruz. He also noted, though, the high bar to limiting gun ownership due to the Second Amendment.

"I have no issue with more extensive background checks," Lankford said. "I have no issue with slowing down purchases for people that show all the basic warning signs. We have determined, as a country, that only a court can actually take away a constitutional right. And the right to keep and bear arms is a constitutional right."

Trump signed a bill passed by Republicans in Congress last year to roll back an Obama administration regulation adding those who receive Social Security checks for mental illness and deemed unable to handle their own financial affairs to the background-check database.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who represents the area where last week's shooting took place, told ABC's This Week on Sunday that he's hopeful the activism of the students at Stoneman Douglas will move the debate forward.

"They're just not going to sit back after what they experienced," Deutch said, "after what they saw, the worst things imaginable; they're not going to just sit back and take it."

Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo responded, in part, by saying, "We've kind of inherited this world of binary choices where we either have to repeal the Second Amendment or have no gun-safety regulations whatsoever, and younger generations of Americans don't see the world that way."

While Trump has not named any measures he would back to address gun violence since the shooting, he did point the finger at Democrats on Sunday for not enacting gun control when they controlled the White House, Senate and House — as Republicans do now.

"Because they didn't want to, and now they just talk!" was the president's response, even though Republicans blocked several Democratic proposals after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. ( Check how your member of Congress has voted.)

Now, as President Trump holds listening sessions with students, teachers and law enforcement, the question will be whether he sees action to take beyond talk.

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Corrected: February 19, 2018 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly the numbers of people killed in Las Vegas and at a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The correct numbers are 59 in Las Vegas and 26 in Texas.
Arnie Seipel
Arnie Seipel is the Deputy Washington Editor for NPR. He oversees daily news coverage of politics and the inner workings of the federal government. Prior to this role, he edited politics coverage for seven years, leading NPR's reporting on the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections. In between campaigns, Seipel edited coverage of Congress and the White House, and he coordinated coverage of major events including State of the Union addresses, Supreme Court confirmations and congressional hearings.