AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) - President Donald Trump offered support for a limited strengthening of federal background checks on gun purchases Monday while staying largely mum in the last few days about the victims of the Florida high school massacre and the escalating debate about controls on weapons.
At his Florida club just 40 miles from a community ravaged by the shooting that left 17 dead last week, Trump gave a nod toward a specific policy action, with the White House saying he had spoken Friday to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, about a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the FBI database of prohibited gun buyers. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders qualified the support, stressing that talks continue and "revisions are being considered," but said, "the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system."
In the wake of the Florida high school shooting, Cornyn addressed his colleagues last week on the Senate floor. He said there are things Congress can do to help "lessen the likelihood of such terrible tragedies."
Cornyn spoke about his state's most recent mass shooting last year in Sutherland Springs. The suspected gunman, Devin Kelley, 26, is believed to have opened fire at the First Baptist Church during service on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2017.
"He was a convicted felon," Cornyn said concerning Kelley. "Under existing law, he could not legally purchase or possess firearms, but that didn't stop him from getting the weapons he used to murder those 26 people and shoot 20 more. Part of the reason was because his criminal history was not uploaded on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the F.B.I."
Cornyn says his "Fix NICS Act," or National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) would fix that specific problem.
"Our churches and schools should be refuges, places where parents and children especially feel safe and secure. Many of these shootings can be prevented. Perhaps not all, but we need to do everything we can," he said. "I personally am unwilling to face another family member who's lost a loved one as a result of these mass shootings that could be prevented by making sure the background check system works as Congress intended."
Mental health advocates are also closely watching this proposal and others.
"When a person is in crisis and has access to a firearm, that is a very problematic scenario for the risk of suicide, as well as the risk of violence against another person," explained Greg Hansch, the public policy director for NAMI Texas. "We need a strong background check system and that is so critical. There needs to be a robust conversation about fixing the background check system."
Representatives with NAMI Texas say getting the right names in the national database appropriately is what matters.
"What is critical is that we do not create a blanket addition of people with mental illness to the background check system because that would be counter-productive. That would stigmatize individuals with mental illness and it would make it more likely for them to not seek treatment -- which is the opposite of what we are advocates for," said Hansch.
The National Rifle Association supports Cornyn's legislation.
However, other groups say while Cornyn's bill is a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough.
"I believe that there should be an overall ban of semi-automatic rifles," said Ana Lopez, the founder and past president of Students Against Campus Carry at the University of Texas at Austin. "I believe that those who sell and barter killing machines should be liable for the lives lost."
Lopez says she wonders what Cornyn will gain from the legislation.
In a statement from John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, Feinblatt says:
If all Congress does is pass the Fix NICS Act, then lawmakers will have failed to meet this moment and do their job. Across America, students, educators, mothers and fathers are demanding that Congress finally get serious and meet this moment with robust action to reduce gun violence. This bill is a small step forward. Congress needs to do much more, starting with legislation to require criminal background checks on every gun sale -- supported by 95 percent of Americans."
The proposed bill has passed the House and been referred to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. It has been in that committee since Dec. 6.
The Associated Press has reported that after the Las Vegas massacre in the fall, Republicans and Democrats in Congress talked about taking a rare step to tighten the nation's gun laws. Four months later, the only gun legislation that has moved in the House or Senate instead eases restrictions for gun owners.
Trump, who visited first responders and some victims Friday, has focused his comments on mental health, rather than guns. The White House says the president will host a "listening session" with students and teachers this week and will discuss school safety with state and local officials. But they have offered no further details on who will attend those sessions.
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