After Shooting, Trump Focuses on Mental Health, Not Guns

President says safety at schools will be priority, not limiting access to firearms

Members of the West Ohio Minutemen practice their right to carry firearms near the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, July 19, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of the West Ohio Minutemen practice their right to carry firearms near the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, July 19, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 15, 2018 at 12:09pm

An American citizen’s use of a military-style semi-automatic weapon to carry out a mass murder on U.S. soil thrust President Donald Trump into a somber spotlight on Thursday, and he sent a clear signal he views the incident as about mental health, not guns.

The president offered his condolences to the loved ones of the 17 people law enforcement officials say 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He also spoke in the same measured tone he and his predecessor, Barack Obama, have used following shooters’ murderous rampages.

“We are all joined together as one American family, and your suffering is our burden, also,” Trump said. “No child, no teacher, should ever be in danger in an American school.”

Top administration officials responded in the wake of the shooting by offering thoughts and prayers. But by Thursday morning, senior officials — including Trump and his attorney general — seized on mental health issues as to blame for the massacre, not Cruz’s ability to purchase the AR-15 assault rifle law enforcement officials say he was armed with when he entered the school.

Watch: Trump Sends Condolences to Florida Shooting Victims and Families

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That stance, though, does not align with the president’s actions since taking office.

Trump used the second half of his remarks Thursday to announce he is placing school safety atop the agenda when he huddles with governors and state attorneys general in the coming weeks after a string of deadly school shootings.

The GOP president, however, again made clear he is not interested in tightening federal gun access laws, saying his meetings with state and local officials instead will focus on tackling “the difficult issue of mental health.”

“Making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority,” he said during remarks from the White House. “It is not enough to take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.”

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The president’s Thursday remarks were similar in tone to an address he delivered on Oct. 2, the morning after the machine-gun rampage in Las Vegas.

He deemed that mass murder an “act of pure evil” and said “our bond cannot be broken by violence.” But, like on Thursday, the president did not give any indication he is interested in making it harder to purchase the AR-15 assault rifle that is the weapon of choice for many mass killers.

Watch: 10 Years of Congressional Efforts on Gun Control

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Rather, Trump used a morning tweet to signals his view that mental health, not gun access, is the cause of such mass killings. The president tweeted his contention that there were “so many signs” that the suspected shooter was “mentally disturbed” and had a history of “bad and erratic behavior.”

Then the president critiqued the community reeling from the tragedy. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem,” Trump wrote on social media of Cruz. “Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

That tweet was a more succinct version of comments Attorney General Jeff Sessions made just before the president’s address that called for greater attention to be placed on “the intersection of mental health and criminality and [identifying] how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes.”

Trump himself came out against stiffer gun laws on Nov. 6 following a Texas church shooting that left more than 20 people dead.

“Mental health is your problem here. This was a very … deranged individual,” the president said then, adding that shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had “a lot of problems over a long period of time. But this isn’t a guns situation.”

Yet on Feb. 28, 2017, he signed into law a bill nixing an Obama-era rule aimed at making it harder for individuals with mental health problems to purchase firearms.

The Obama administration estimated it would have added 75,000 people to a national background check database; the crux was to add individuals whose Social Security numbers had been run in relation to mental issues and those deemed unable to handle their own finances to the database.

The measure got 235 votes in the House (with only two GOP members voting no) and 57 in the Senate.

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Trump often casts himself as a defender of the Second Amendment, and said in recent days that had Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton been elected instead last year, she would have tried to block Americans’ ability to purchase firearms.

Trump last delivered his Second Amendment line during a Sept. 22 campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, for then-GOP Sen. Luther Strange. 

“If crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have a Second Amendment, believe me,” Trump declared. “You’d be handing in your rifles. You’d be saying here, here, here they are.”

“You’d be turning over your rifles,” Trump roared as the crowd jeered.

Second Amendment advocates are a big part of Trump’s base, and the president flew to Atlanta last April to address a National Rifle Association conference. He told that audience that what he called an “eight-year assault” on their Second Amendment rights came to a “crashing end” with his election.

“You have a true friend and champion in the White House. No longer will federal agencies be coming after law-abiding gun owners,” Trump said that day. “No longer will the government be trying to undermine your rights and your freedoms as Americans. Instead, we will work with you, by your side.”