WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asserted Monday that he would have rushed in to save the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School from a gunman with an assault weapon, even if he was unarmed at the time of the massacre.
Speaking to a meeting of the country’s governors at the White House, Trump conceded that “you don’t know until you test it.” But he said he believed he would have exhibited bravery “even if I didn’t have a weapon, and I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too.”
The president’s remarks came during an hourlong televised conversation with the governors in the State Dining Room, during which Trump continued to grapple publicly with how best to respond to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, discussing such things as arming teachers and reopening mental institutions.
As Trump skipped from one possible solution to another, he mused about the “old days,” when potential criminals could be locked in mental hospitals; he clashed with Washington state’s Democratic governor about the benefits of giving guns to some teachers; and he vowed to ban “bump stocks,” an accessory that can make a semi-automatic weapon fire rapidly, more like an automatic rifle.
The president dropped any mention of raising the age required to purchase a rifle to 21 from 18, something he said last week he supported. Trump said he had lunch Sunday with the leaders of the National Rifle Association, which vigorously opposes raising the age limit for rifles.
But the president continued his dayslong verbal assault on Florida sheriff’s deputies, calling their reported failure to respond to the Parkland school massacre, which killed 17 staff members and students, “disgusting” and “a disgrace.” He said the deputies “weren’t exactly Medal of Honor winners, all right.”
A lawyer for Deputy Scot Peterson of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office said Monday in a statement that Peterson did not run into the school when the shooting began because he thought the shots were coming from the outside. Peterson retired Thursday after Sheriff Scott Israel branded him “a coward” for failing to run into the building to try to save students.
Trump echoed that sentiment, saying that the performance of Peterson and three other deputies whose actions have been questioned “was, frankly, disgusting.”
Later, he added that “the way they performed was really a disgrace.”
As lawmakers returned to Washington after a weeklong break, the president used the White House forum Monday to insist that politicians do something quickly to ensure that shootings like the one in Florida will never happen again.
Trump said again that he supports a bill to strengthen the system of background checks made during some gun purchases. That legislation is sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate who said Monday that he would move forward with his background-check bill as early as this week.
But the two top Republicans in Congress — House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader — have largely been silent on the broader debate about possible changes to gun laws after the Florida shooting.
And the politics of guns for Republicans continue to be difficult. Georgia’s lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle, a conservative Republican, said Monday that he would block any tax break for his state’s largest employer, Delta Air Lines, if the company does not reinstate discounts for NRA members that it suspended after the shooting.
But Trump tried to take the lead.
“We have to have action. We don’t have any action,” Trump complained. “A week goes by, ‘Let’s keep talking.’ Another week goes by, we keep talking. Two months go by — all of the sudden, everybody is off to the next subject. Then, when it happens again, everybody is angry and, ‘Let’s start talking again.’ We got to stop.”
Trump said that was his message during his lunch Sunday with Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, and Chris W. Cox, the group’s top lobbyist. He called the pair “great patriots” and “great people” who want to “do something” quickly to prevent more school shootings.
“Don’t worry about the NRA. They’re on our side,” the president told the governors. “You guys — half of you are so afraid of the NRA. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And you know what? If they’re not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That’s OK.”
But even as he chided his predecessors in Washington for their delays and inaction, Trump’s own preferred solutions remained elusive Monday as he continued what administration officials described as a “listening” phase of the response.
“We’re still listening and making and determining the best steps forward,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters after the president’s session with the governors Monday morning.
Trump lamented a period in history when he said mentally unstable people who had not yet committed a crime could be committed to a mental hospital if it were clear they were acting like a “boiler ready to explode.”
“You could nab somebody like this,” Trump said of the Florida shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz, citing the scores of warning signs that Cruz was troubled. “You can’t arrest him, I guess, because he hasn’t done anything.”
But he said too many of the governors in the room had closed the mental hospitals that might have been a solution to that problem, often because of how expensive they were.
“We have no halfway. We have nothing between a prison and leaving him at his house, which we can’t do anymore,” Trump told the governors. “So I think you folks have to start thinking about that.”
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state appeared to annoy Trump during a testy exchange about the president’s proposal to protect students by allowing trained teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools.
“It would just be a very small group of people that are very gun adept,” Trump told the governor.
Inslee responded that giving guns to any number of teachers, coaches or administrators in the schools would be wrong, and he urged the president to abandon the idea.
“I’ve listened to the first-grade teachers that don’t want to be pistol-packing first-grade teachers,” Inslee said as the president frowned and folded his arms across his chest. “I just suggest we need a little less tweeting here and a little more listening. And let’s just take that off the table and move forward.”
Trump did not acknowledge the criticism and moved quickly to remarks from Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.
In a separate meeting with the spouses of the governors, the first lady, Melania Trump, gave brief remarks that also touched on the shooting at the Florida high school. She praised the students from the school who have been demanding action from politicians.
“I have been heartened to see children across this country using their voices to speak out and try to create change,” Trump said. “They’re our future and they deserve a voice.”
Sanders said later that the president also supported the students who had been protesting, even though he opposes the ban on assault weapons that many of them have been calling for.
“That’s the reason why he had a number of them here at the White House just last week,” Sanders said. “It is one that is very important and should be listened to. We want to continue that dialogue as well as continue the conversations with state, local and federal officials.”
The governors came away impressed by Donald Trump’s resolve to address the issue, according to Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association.
Noting that he leads the state that last year endured the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Sandoval added that the governors shared the urgency. “There’s a consensus that something needs to be done.”
But there was no consensus about Trump’s idea of arming trained teachers or other school personnel. “I have three kids,” said Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, a Democrat and vice chairman of the association. “I don’t want my teachers armed. I don’t think most Americans do.”