The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We have to harden our schools’: Trump makes arming teachers his top safety goal

"We need to harden our schools," President Trump said at a school safety meeting on Feb. 22, saying gun-free zones are like "ice cream" for attackers. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump aligned ­himself with gun rights advocates on Thursday, signaling that his top priority would be arming hundreds of thousands of teachers across the nation in response to last week’s deadly school shooting in South Florida.

On Twitter and at a White House event, Trump argued that allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons would deter future shooters and “solve the problem instantly.”

“We have to harden our schools, not soften them,” the president said, asserting that for potential shooters, schools that advertise their status as gun-free zones are “like going in for the ice cream. That’s like, ‘Here I am, take me.’ ”

More than a week after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., it remains unclear whether the impassioned calls from students and other gun-control advocates will lead Washington to restrict firearm sales or whether the focus of the debate will fall on other proposed responses to mass shootings.

A day after promising a room full of students, teachers and parents that “we’re going to do something about this horrible situation,” Trump further embraced arming some teachers — a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association, whose leaders he called “Great American Patriots.”

Trump continued to pledge to “take action” Thursday, with aides describing the president as being in a “listening phase” that is ­expected to result in legislative proposals and suggestions for policy changes at the state level. He met with attorneys general and other state and local leaders Thursday after an emotionally raw meeting Wednesday that included family members of those killed in Parkland.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said Trump remains open to a range of actions, but one step long sought by gun-control advocates — a ban on semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15 used by the shooter in Parkland — is not under active consideration.

President Trump suggested some gun proposals that aren't exactly in step with the NRA, but he has repeated some of their statements - sometimes word for word. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

“We don’t think that the immediate policy response would be to ban an entire class of firearms,” said Shah, who added that the Florida shooting involved “a troubled individual” who had numerous interactions with law enforcement and school officials.

The strategy of arming teachers and other school personnel that animated Trump on Thursday has many critics, including some law enforcement officers and the country’s largest teachers lobby. It was also undercut somewhat Thursday by news that the sheriff’s deputy who was on-site and assigned to protect students at Stoneman Douglas took a defensive position outside the school and did not enter the building where the shooter was killing students and teachers.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said he suspended School Resource Deputy Scot Peterson, who later resigned, on Thursday after seeing a video that showed Peterson’s inaction.

Besides calling for an influx of concealed weapons at schools, Trump continued to float the ideas of improving a federal database used for background checks and raising the minimum age for purchasing semiautomatic weapons to 21 from 18.

The latter proposal has drawn opposition from the NRA, a group that spent more than $30 million in support of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. On Thursday, the president predicted that the NRA would come on board.

“I don’t think I’ll be going up against them. . . . They’re good people,” said Trump, who spoke to a top NRA official over the weekend, according to Shah.

His assessment came amid an aggressive push by the NRA to blunt an emotionally charged wave of calls for new gun restrictions with speeches and videos that included a claim that news media outlets “love mass shootings” because they boost ratings.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused the NRA of “spewing pathetic, out of touch ideas” and challenged Trump and other Republicans to “finally buck the NRA and get something done.”

Later in the day, Schumer accused Trump of already giving in to the gun lobby.

“Not surprised the NRA reeled President Trump back in,” he said in a statement. “Just amazed at how fast it happened.”

Republican congressional leaders remained largely silent Thursday about Trump’s public deliberations, but some GOP members were recalibrating their positions amid the heightened scrutiny.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters at the Kansas statehouse that he would support raising the age to 21 to obtain an AR-15.

That came the day after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed raising the age requirement for buying a rifle and said he is “reconsidering” his opposition to enacting new limits on high-capacity magazines. On Thursday, however, Rubio took to social media to reiterate that he remains opposed to banning assault weapons.

In a Thursday interview, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who hails from a rural state where gun rights are a central issue, praised Trump for meeting with people affected by the shooting.

“Anytime the president speaks on [guns], in either party, they will be part of the national conversation,” said Lankford, who is a co-sponsor of a bill to tighten background checks.

Lankford said he would be fine with moving ahead on that bill when lawmakers return to town next week, but he cautioned that the Senate has other pressing matters to work on, most notably immigration. Senior Senate aides also declined to say whether the bill would get a vote next week.

As he promised this week to take action in the wake of the Parkland shooting, Trump directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose regulations to ban “bump stocks” and other devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into “machine guns.”

A bump stock was used by the man who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas in October, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds of others. That massacre immediately prompted calls for lawmakers or the administration to ban such devices through legislation or regulations, but efforts stalled in Congress.

Trump also pressed the idea Thursday of taking additional steps to prevent mentally ill or troubled people from obtaining guns. But he seemed most focused on the idea of arming teachers, at one point suggesting that those willing to carry firearms could receive bonuses.

In several morning tweets, Trump said he envisioned about 20 percent of teachers having concealed weapons and said they would have “military or special training experience.” Later Thursday, he suggested the figure could be as high as 40 percent.

“If a potential ‘sicko shooter’ knows that a school has a large number of very weapons talented teachers (and others) who will be instantly shooting, the sicko will NEVER attack that school,” Trump said in one tweet. “Cowards won’t go there . . . problem solved. Must be offensive, defense alone won’t work!”

Some criminologists have questioned that reasoning, pointing out that some people who plan to commit mass shootings are prepared to die in the process.

Trump has offered few details on how a program of arming teachers would work, how much it would cost and how school districts already strapped for cash would fund it.

The Education Department estimates that there are 3.1 million public school teachers and 400,000 private schoolteachers. Arming 20 percent of teachers would mean arming more than 700,000 people.

During his “listening session” on Thursday, Trump said he wants “my schools protected just like I want my banks protected.”

He also called his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, a “tough cookie” and told participants that if Kelly were his teacher, he would want Kelly to have a gun.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), one of the participants, said there is a need for more protection of students in schools.

“If teachers are armed . . . they must be highly trained, highly qualified or acting like air marshals, in a capacity like that,” Bondi said. “Not just giving every teacher in school a handgun to carry. I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.”

A Washington Post-ABC poll published this week found that 51 percent of Americans said the school shooting in Parkland “could not have been prevented” by allowing teachers to carry guns, while 42 percent said it could have been prevented.

A larger majority, 58 percent, said stricter gun-control laws could have prevented the event, and 77 percent said better mental health screening and treatment could have thwarted it.

Under federal law, the minimum age for buying or possessing handguns is 21, but the limit is 18 for rifles, including the AR-15.

In a statement this week, NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker ­noted the discrepancy in arguing against changing the lower age for rifles.

“Legislative proposals that prevent law-abiding adults aged 18-20 years old from acquiring rifles and shotguns effectively prohibits them for purchasing any firearm, thus depriving them of their ­constitutional right to self-protection,” Baker said.

Trump predicted Thursday that both the NRA and Congress would support an age increase.

Trump also projected optimism more broadly in one of his morning tweets.

“Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue — I hope!” the president wrote.

Sean Sullivan, Ed O’Keefe, Mark Berman and Scott Clement contributed to this report.