Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content

Trump listens to pleas

Profile image for Jenna Johnson and John Wagner
Jenna Johnson and John Wagner, The Washington Post

Students, parents, teachers discuss shootings, ideas

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump leaned forward and listened intently for nearly an hour Wednesday afternoon as students, parents and teachers begged him to do something, anything, to prevent another mass shooting from happening at another school.

The group offered a wide variety of suggestions -- bolster school security, drill students on what to do during a shooting and raise the age at which someone can buy an assault-style rifle -- but in the end, the president remained focused on the solution he often proposes after a mass shooting: Increasing the number of people with guns so they can quickly stop shooters with lethal force.

"If the coach had a firearm in his locker, when he ran at this guy -- that coach was very brave, saved a lot of lives, I suspect -- but if he had a firearm, he wouldn't have had to run," Trump said, referring to Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach and security guard who was one of 17 people killed by a gunmen last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida. "He would have shot, and that would have been the end of it."

The 70-minute listening session with students, parents and teachers at the White House was a remarkable event with participants' raw emotions often on display -- at one point, a student openly sobbed after he spoke, his head down as he wiped away tears and those around him rubbed his back.

By hosting the event, Trump signaled he wants to take ownership of addressing the vexing problem of gun violence at American schools. As one parent after another, one student after another, publicly pleaded with Trump to find a solution, the pressure mounted on the president to show that he can move Washington to act on an issue it has failed to confront despite the frequency of mass shootings in recent years.

"We're going to do something about this horrible situation that's going on," Trump said. "And we're going to all figure it out together."

But it will be a difficult promise to fulfill with Trump's Republican Party long opposed to making it more difficult to buy a gun and Democrats and gun-control advocates calling anything short of limiting access to firearms a failure. It will require him to use the bipartisan dealmaking skills he promised to bring to his presidency but has yet to show.

The event at the White House, held a week after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly opened fire at his former high school, was part of the administration's effort to show it is determined to listen and then act.

Vice President Mike Pence urged participants to be open, candid and vulnerable -- an unusual request on behalf of a president who has tried to minimize his exposure to people who don't agree with him.

Trump sat quietly for most of the event, often nodding his head as if in agreement. He held notes that told him to ask the participants about their experiences and what the White House could do, along with a reminder to say, "I hear you."

Trump heard from students who attend Stoneman Douglas and parents-turned-activists whose children were killed in shootings in Colorado in 1999 and Connecticut in 2012. He also heard from teachers and students at public charter schools in southeast Washington that have instituted airport-like security checkpoints at their buildings.

Missing from the listening session were the teenage survivors of last week's mass shooting who have become outspoken leaders of a movement focused on banning assault rifles such as the one allegedly used by the gunman. Those students were in Florida on Wednesday to lobby state lawmakers in Tallahassee and participate in a town hall event hosted by CNN in south Florida.

David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting who has passionately argued for stricter gun control measures, declined an invitation extended by the White House, according to his mother, Rebecca Boldrick.

"He needed to be in Tallahassee today," she said in a telephone interview.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter was killed last week, said it made him angry to visit the Education Department on Wednesday and see armed security guards everywhere.

"Fix it," said Pollack, who was wearing a red "Trump 2020" T-shirt as he searched for his daughter last week. "It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it. And I'm pissed, because my daughter, I'm not going to see again. She's not here. She's not here. She's at -- in North Lauderdale, at whatever it is -- King David Cemetery. That's where I go to see my kid now."

FEATURED PHOTO: Samuel Zeif, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, left, weeps after recounting his story of last week's shooting incident in Parkland, Fla., as other students and teachers listen along with President Trump on Wednesday at the White House. (Ricky Carioti/AP)