Trump's Plan To Secure Schools Calls For Arming Teachers, Improving Background Checks

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 7:46 am

In his first formal policy response to the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month, President Trump is setting up a federal commission to explore school safety. He's also endorsing legislation to improve background checks, and urging states to pass laws temporarily keeping guns out of the hands of people judged to be dangerous to themselves or others.

A policy proposal unveiled Sunday evening has Trump renewing his support for arming teachers and other school employees on a volunteer basis. He stopped short of endorsing a higher age limit for would-be gun buyers.

Last week, Florida's legislature raised the age limit for buying long guns in that state from 18 to 21. The measure drew an immediate legal challenge from the National Rifle Association.

Nikolas Cruz, the gunman accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, is 19 years old.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who will chair the new commission, praised students at the school for making safety a top priority for policymakers.

"There's been a lot of talk in the past but very little action," DeVos said in a conference call with reporters. "I have to give credit to the students in their courage and consistent call for action."

The agenda outlined by the White House falls short of what many of the students have been calling for. And it leaves much of the heavy lifting to states. The president is not planning a speech or other public event to promote his plan.

Trump endorsed a bill sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that's designed to improve the database used to check the backgrounds of would-be gun buyers. But he did not endorse a separate proposal from Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-WV, that would extend background checks to gun purchases made online and at gun shows.

The president will encourage states to authorize "risk protection orders," which allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from people whom a court has determined to be dangerous. Such orders currently are allowed in only a handful of states. Florida joined their ranks last week.

Trump's agenda is generally consistent with policy positions of the NRA, which supports arming teachers and other school staffers, as well as improved background checks. Although the president initially supported a higher age limit for gun purchases, the White House left that out of its recommendation to states. The NRA opposes higher age limits. Administration officials say the president's commission will explore the idea.

On Saturday, Trump appeared to mock the idea of federal commissions — a trusty standby for politicians who want to give the appearance of action without the risk of actually doing anything.

"We can't just keep setting up blue ribbon committees with your wife and your wife and your husband, and they meet and they have a meal and they talk," Trump told a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

Although the school safety commission has no timetable to produce recommendations, DeVos insists it's not simply a stalling tactic.

"There's no time to waste," DeVos said. "No student, no family, no teacher, and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland, or Sandy Hook or Columbine again."

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Almost one month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed, the White House is setting up a commission to study school safety. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be the commission chair. Here she is speaking in a conference call with reporters.


BETSY DEVOS: We've had to talk about this topic way too much over the years, and there's been a lot of talk in the past but very little action.

MARTIN: So what kind of action is likely? Let's get details from NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do we know about the administration's plans on this topic?

HORSLEY: Not a lot of action actually - don't be on the lookout for a speech from President Trump or any other sort of public event. That conference call last evening was kind of the extent of the White House rollout. And the plan leaves most of the heavy lifting to the states. Now, Trump is endorsing two pieces of federal legislation. One of those would improve background checks for gun sales, although it would not extend background checks to sales at gun shows or on the Internet. The other bill's designed to help schools spot and intervene with young people who show signs of violence early on.

Neither of those bills is controversial. The background check bill already has 62 co-sponsors in the Senate. So the president's not exactly going out on a limb here. In fact, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer dismissed this as baby steps designed to curry favor with the NRA. And then there's this commission that the White House is setting up. Ironically, announcement of the commission came just one day after the president at a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania seemed to dismiss presidential commissions as sort of an excuse for policymakers who don't want to take action.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can't just keep setting up blue-ribbon committees with your wife and your wife and your husband, and they meet, and they have a meal, and they talk, talk, talk, talk.

MARTIN: Almost like he didn't know that his own White House was about to set up a commission on gun violence. And he's done these before. I mean, this administration has set up commissions on voter fraud, opioid epidemic. I mean, other administrations do this, but is there any sign that this particular commission is going to make more of a difference?

HORSLEY: There doesn't seem to be, you know, a real mandate for action here. The commission has no timetable to even produce a recommendation, although Education Secretary DeVos does say she is impatient to get something done, and she says there's no time to waste. Most of what the president is talking about here is just action at the state level. He has renewed his call to arm some teachers and other school staffers to act as volunteer marshals. And he's also endorsing the idea that states should adopt what's called risk protection orders. There are only a handful of states that do this now. Florida just joined their ranks.

Risk protection orders allow law enforcement to take guns away temporarily and bar the purchase of new weapons by people who are judged to be a danger to themselves or others. The White House did stress this would take place with some due process in contrast to something the president talked about a few weeks ago.

MARTIN: I mean, the president had also talked about raising the age requirement for people to buy some guns. Is he not talking about that anymore? I mean, is that off the table for the White House?

HORSLEY: That is the one initiative where Trump seemed to be willing to buck the NRA. But in the end, he backed down. Florida lawmakers did adopt legislation last week that raised the minimum age for buying long guns in that state from 18 to 21. The accused killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was 19 years old. That Florida legislation drew an immediate legal challenge from the NRA. The gun lobby opposes a higher age limit. At one time, the president seemed to express sympathy for the idea of raising the age limit, and in fact, he joked that lawmakers who didn't do so were simply kowtowing to the NRA. In the end, though, he is not proposing that, although the White House does say this presidential commission will consider the idea of a higher age limit.

MARTIN: All right. We'll see. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.