Governors Skeptical of Congress, But Welcome New Gun Debate

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker speaks during the panel The Opioid Crisis, at the National Governor Association 2018 winter meeting, on Saturday, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Governors assessing the fallout from the latest school shooting said Saturday that the gun control debate has changed after the sorrow in Florida, a shift helped driven by public outrage and student activists.

But they are skeptical Congress can seize the moment, overcome its partisan divide and enact measures intended to prevent more tragedies, so governors are preparing to take the lead and have states push ahead with new gun restrictions.

The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that claimed 17 lives is drawing much of the attention at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. School safety and gun violence are expected to dominate the governors’ discussions Monday with President Donald Trump at the White House.

“There’s no question we’re in a different environment,” said Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn. “There’s a lot of folks looking like, is it common sense to rule out someone to buy a beer at 20, but we’ll let him buy an assault rifle?”

Trump has not made any proposals to Congress. He spent much of the past week voicing support for strengthening federal background checks of gun buyers, banning “bump stock” type devices like the ones used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre, and keeping assault weapons out of the hands of anyone under age 21.

In public discussions last week with students and teachers, state and local leaders, he mused about the need for more mental institutions and allowing some trained school personnel to carry concealed weapons. Trump said he phoned Republican congressional leaders on Friday, and White House officials said Trump is looking to begin meetings with lawmakers this coming week on considering a legislative response to the shooting.

In a tweet Saturday, he lowered expectations that he would promote on Capitol Hill the idea of putting “gun-adept” teachers and staff in schools with concealed firearms. “Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them. Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again – a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States.”

Democratic governors at the conference said they had little faith that Trump, who enjoyed significant support among the National Rifle Association during his 2016 campaign, would keep his word about trying to find a legislative response or that the issue would retain his attention.

“What can you trust coming out of the president’s mouth on this particular issue? Particularly when you know that the NRA invested $30 million making sure he got elected,” said Gov. Dannel Malloy, D-Conn., who dealt with the aftermath of the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown.

The Democratic governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island announced a partnership last week to address gun violence. The agreement would allow the governors to share data on suspects and gun purchasers

“Congress needs to act but we’re not going to sit around and wait for them to act. We’re taking action on our own to keep people safe,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo, D-R.I.

Even Republican leaders fretted about the prospects for progress in Congress, which failed to pass gun control or background check legislation after the Connecticut shooting and has long ground to a halt on issues such as health care and immigration.

Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, told The Associated Press on Friday that he has convened a diverse group of advisers on gun policy to help him develop new approaches. He also said he was looking to raise Ohio’s minimum age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles like the one used in the Parkland shooting.

Governors are watching GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who announced Friday that he would seek to raise the minimum age for purchasing any firearm in Florida to 21, and strengthening rules meant to keep guns away from those with mental health issues. It would mark the strongest gun control laws in the state in decades, defying the NRA, but falling short of what gun control advocates have demanded.

“We are a strong Second Amendment state and so our focus is going to be on keeping children safe, keeping our schools safe,” said Gov. Bill Walker, an independent from Alaska. “I think he’s taken some very significant steps. We’re going to look at that in Alaska but we’re going to do it on terms that works for Alaska.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., accused Scott of “scrambling to try to cover up 30 years of inaction and 30 years of being under the thumb of the NRA and 30 years of putting our children at risk.”

“They’re making some little tiny baby steps to cover up their tracks because now they’re running for other office, that’s the situation in Florida,” Inslee said. Scott is expected to launch a campaign for Senate in the coming months.

The governors acknowledged the fresh voices of young people impacted by the recent shooting, who have led school walk-outs and other protests both in Florida and across the country.

“I see these kids and I don’t see them letting go,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “I see them charging through.”

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