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Fla. school shooting creates urgent push for gun control, bipartisan calls for change

Grieving students, friends and family gathered outside of the Federal District Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to demand stricter gun control laws. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)
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The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has sparked an urgent push for gun control, giving activists cautious hope that politicians might be willing to take some type of bipartisan action — action that has been elusive after previous mass shootings.

Student survivors, some of whom made terrifying videos of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Wednesday as their classmates died, are now forcefully speaking out for gun control, demanding that not another student face a similar fate. They hope to be the catalyst that breaks entrenched positions on guns in U.S. society, and there appears to be some early movement in Washington.

President Trump said Monday that he is open to improving the background check system used to screen those who buy firearms, a measure that has bipartisan support and the backing of the National Rifle Association. Trump spoke about the legislation with one of its co-sponsors, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), on Friday.

Students of the Florida school where 17 people died last week announced nationwide marches for gun control on March 24. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he supports gun violence restraining-order laws, which allow firearms to be seized before a person commits a violent act. The laws have been gaining conservative backers in the wake of the Parkland shooting, which killed 17 people, most of them teenagers.

“Trump’s support for the FixNICS Act, my bill with @JohnCornyn, is another sign the politics of gun violence are shifting rapidly,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted Monday, adding that the bill alone is not an adequate response to mass shootings.

Students are calling out politicians and the NRA on social media, on television and at rallies, demanding laws that will help keep guns out of the hands of people like Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter. Cruz, 19, who was known to be a risk for violence and who state officials knew intended to buy a gun, allegedly carried an assault-style rifle into Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day and opened fire without warning. One student who survived the shooting vowed not to return to class until gun laws change.

The NRA has not responded to requests for comment since the shooting.

Cruz had purchased at least 10 guns, including a variant of an AK-47, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. While authorities are still looking into how he got his weapons, all of the ones they have traced so far were legally purchased by Cruz, according to the official. Cruz legally bought the AR-15 assault-style rifle he allegedly used in the shooting about a year ago, authorities have said.

“At no point was he prohibited from possessing firearms based on his criminal history and background check,” the official said.

John Feinblatt, president of the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, said he is hopeful that the shooting will spur bipartisan momentum on gun safety measures. He said the country expects its leaders to work together.

“But if they don’t, the states are going to take up where Congress lets off, and the American public is going to make sure we see a new Congress,” Feinblatt said. His group has a new campaign called Throw Them Out, with the goal of voting out politicians the group says are beholden to the gun lobby.

Five states — California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut — have passed gun violence restraining-order laws, which allow firearms to temporarily be taken away from people whom a judge deems a threat to themselves or others. Federally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last year urging states to adopt such laws.

Five states allow guns to be seized before someone can commit violence

At least 18 states, including Florida, have similar bills pending in their legislatures. It is unclear if such a law would have stopped Cruz from buying a gun, especially since the Florida Department of Children and Families had determined he was not a risk and Cruz had never been convicted of a crime.

Gov. Rick Scott (R) said that “everything’s on the table” when it comes to considering tighter gun laws in Florida, though he did not give specifics, including whether he supports the restraining-order legislation. Florida has some of the nation’s laxest gun laws and a pro-gun legislature, and has long been seen as a laboratory for gun rights legislation that is later tested in other states.

Students from Douglas High have planned a rally at the Florida capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday. They also announced the creation of March for Our Lives, a gun safety march in Washington on March 24.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said on ABC’s “This Week” that he commends the students for their activism. “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,” Curbelo said, noting that he wants to strengthen the background check system and other measures.

“There are a lot of Republicans who are prepared to support reasonable, common-sense gun safety laws, new laws, stronger laws that protect rights for responsible citizens, people who are responsible gun owners, but will prevent those who want to do harm to innocent people from obtaining these weapons,” he said.

Trump’s proposed budget includes a 16 percent cut to grants that allow states to send records to the background check system. Scott’s office said he has organized meetings with state and local leaders to discuss school safety improvements and ways to keep guns away from people struggling with mental illness.

Many believe that the students from Douglas High are making the difference in the national conversation.

“These kids, these teenagers are inspiring the country and are holding adults accountable in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before,” said Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs at Giffords, a pro-gun-control organization. “I do think that is a paradigm shift from other shootings we’ve seen in the past, and it’s really incredibly brave and courageous for these young people to call for action and be so engaged about it, especially in light of everything they’ve just gone through.”

But there also is skepticism that yet another horrific mass shooting, after which “thoughts and prayers” are again offered by politicians, will do anything to change the deeply partisan gun debate. Curbelo co-sponsored a bill that would ban bump stocks, devices that make a semiautomatic weapon behave as an automatic one, firing shots more rapidly. They were used in October by Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a country music concert in Las Vegas.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress and the NRA almost immediately said the devices should be subject to additional regulations. GOP lawmakers punted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has said it cannot regulate bump stocks unless Congress changes the law; the question is under administrative review. Bills were proposed in the Senate and the House to completely ban bump stocks, but no action was taken, and the NRA opposes the measures.

Facing congressional inaction, states move to ban bump stocks

Murphy and Cornyn’s bill garnered plenty of bipartisan support in the Senate. But a rare across-the-aisle consensus was shattered in the House, where Republicans linked the measure to shore up the background check system to a bill allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines — a measure the NRA called its “highest legislative priority.” The combined bill passed 231 to 198 in December. It has not been taken up by the Senate, where there was little appetite to have the two bills combined.

“There’s always a chance that Congress is going to do something,” Lloyd said. “They’ve proven time and time again they’re not going to act.”

Even if Congress acts, many see the real action happening on the state level. At least 15 states are considering laws banning bump stocks. Massachusetts and New Jersey banned them after the Las Vegas shooting, and they were already illegal in California.

There is now hope that restraining-order laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, will gain momentum in statehouses.

“It is a law that allows for due process, and it gives family members and law enforcement tools to remove guns from a tragedy before a tragedy occurs,” said Andrew Patrick, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Patrick said it is “huge” that Rubio supports the laws and that there was an article in the conservative National Review urging Republicans to support the measures.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) said in an interview on CNN that he would like to see something similar to the restraining-order laws, without specifically endorsing them, and that now is the time for Trump and Congress to pass “common sense” measures such as tightening background checks.

“This is an opportunity,” Kasich said. “And I believe those who are Second Amendment advocates realize that common-sense, real reforms can happen in this country to answer the cries and the anguish of people all across this country who have lost loved ones.”

Mark Berman and Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report.