White House accused of backpedalling on firearms curbs to appease powerful gun lobby

Students protesting against gun violence in front of the White House in Washington, US, on Feb 21, 2018.
Students protesting against gun violence in front of the White House in Washington, US, on Feb 21, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The White House has unveiled proposals to curb firearms use and improve school safety, but student survivors of a deadly mass shooting in Florida say the measures were watered down to appease the powerful gun lobby.

The 19-year-old Florida shooter had used a legally purchased semi-automatic assault rifle in the attack that left 17 dead last month.

President Donald Trump, after initially suggesting raising the minimum age for buying a "long gun" or rifle from 18 to 21, apparently baulked.

But he pushed back against criticism on Monday (March 12), blaming political opposition. He said on Twitter: "Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House. Legislation moving forward. Bump Stocks will soon be out. Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!" Bump stocks are devices used to enable a semi-automatic to fire like an automatic.

He added that court rulings were being watched before acting on changing the age limit from 18 to 21. States were making decisions on this, he said, but added : "Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly)."

The proposals announced by the White House on Sunday (March 11) included "encouragement" to states to pass laws enabling the authorities to seize guns from people deemed to be a risk; and funds to train and arm school teachers and staff.

The Department of Justice would help schools to partner state and local law enforcement authorities to provide "rigorous firearm training to qualified personnel" on a voluntary basis, said an official, as part of efforts to "harden" US schools.

The new proposals appear to reflect the clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which champions Americans' constitutional right to bear arms. It is also a powerful lobby for an industry which, according to the Firearms Industry Trade Association, employs as many as 141,500 people and generates an additional 159,623 jobs in supplier and ancillary sectors.

Student David Hogg, a senior who survived the shooting at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hit out at both the NRA and Mr Trump

"People at the top at the NRA like to hide behind the Second Amendment and say this is our constitutional right," he told CNN.

"What they're really trying to do is… sell you more guns, put more people at risk, scare more people, cause more violence, kill more people, and sell more guns."

He added: "President Trump… is no better than other politicians. He called out other Republicans and said, essentially you are owned by the NRA and that's why you don't want to take action. But then he stepped back down from where he was."

 
 

The proposals kick the can down the road, Ms Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said, adding that bringing guns into schools was dangerous.

"This is a time when any President must lead," she wrote on Twitter. "Instead, he's leaving the real action to a Congress that's shown it will not act on its own."

The NRA is a generous funder of politicians, mostly Republicans, and was an enthusiastic supporter of President Trump's candidacy.

The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Policies has calculated that in 2016, 232 out of 435 members of the House of Representatives received money from gun rights groups like the NRA and Gun Owners of America. The money went disproportionately to Republicans, with only nine Democrats receiving campaign contributions from those groups.

When Florida raised the minimum age for buying firearms last week from 18 to 21, the NRA immediately sued the state for infringing constitutional rights.

"The NRA got what they wanted," an analyst who asked not to be named told The Straits Times. "Whether that turns out to be good for President Trump or not is an open question."

Advocates remain determined to maintain the pressure on lawmakers. A nationwide march is scheduled for March 24.

"The President and Congress refuse to address the real cause of gun violence in our country and instead try to distract the American people with NRA talking points, the most obvious of which is arming teachers and other personnel in our schools," Ms Margot Bennett, executive director of Women Against Gun Violence," told The Straits Times.

"But just as more alcohol doesn't solve drunk driving and more cigarettes doesn't combat cancer … more guns does not prevent gun violence."