By Brian Knowlton, AFP/Washington
US President Donald Trump yesterday signalled support for a bipartisan effort to improve a national system of background checks for gun purchases, as urgent calls for reform swell in the wake of the Florida school shooting.
“While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the Federal background check system,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Trump has come under intensifying pressure to act after a teenage gunman, identified by police as Nikolas Cruz, went on a rampage at a high school in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday, killing 17 people.
Angry students who survived the attack have called for a march on Washington to demand changes in US gun laws, calling out Trump and the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) at rallies.
Sanders said Trump had spoken to Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Republican, the joint sponsors of a bill to fix a national database by requiring states and federal agencies to report more often on offences that would bar an individual from buying a gun.
The legislation amounts to a narrow, technical fix, leaving unaddressed the broader, divisive issue of permissive gun laws under a constitutional amendment that protects the right to bear arms.
Normally on opposite sides of the gun debate, the lawmakers teamed up in November after a gunman stormed a church in Texas, killing 26 people in one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings.
That gunman, Devin Kelly, was able to buy guns despite a domestic violence conviction while serving in the air force that should, by law, have prohibited him from purchasing or possessing firearms.
The conviction was never reported by the air force, however, exposing a major weakness in the background check system.
After earlier mass shootings, Trump has said little about guns, focusing instead on the mental health of shooters.
Following the October 1 attack in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead, he said only that “we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by.”
After the Parkland shooting he emphasised the need to deal with mental-health issues, while castigating the FBI for missing warning signs about the shooter.
He initially made no mention of guns, drawing an angry reaction from Democrats and angry Floridians.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, noted that Trump’s proposed 2019 budget would actually cut spending on the background-check program.
Even one of the most shocking mass shootings of recent years — the 2012 attack on a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 young children and six adults dead — brought little legal change, though Connecticut and a handful of other states toughened their gun laws.
But there are some indications that the limited steps Trump backs might succeed.
The NRA said last fall that it “has long supported the inclusion of all legitimate records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.”
Gun-control advocates also back the Cornyn-Murphy bill.
“This is a real, genuine effort from people who couldn’t be further from each other on the other side of the aisle,” an official with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence told the Atlantic magazine.
And the impassioned calls for change from Parkland shooting survivors — photogenic young people who say they can no longer put up with the inaction of older generations — have kept the issue alive.
“We need to do something,” 17-year-old David Hogg, a shooting survivor, told CNN.
“Congress needs to get over their political bias with each other and work toward saving children’s lives.”
CNN is holding a town hall meeting tomorrow with the victims’ classmates, parents, community members, and some Florida politicians.
The students’ cries for action would appear to enjoy broad support.
A Quinnipiac University opinion survey in November found that backing for universal background checks had reached an all-time high, with 95% of voters favouring such checks.
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