WASHINGTON — House Republicans declined Tuesday to sign onto President Donald Trump's proposal for a federal mandate to arm teachers in the wake of the Florida school massacre, and also made clear their aim is to oppose further restrictions on guns.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., speaking as Congress returned from a long break after the Feb. 14 killing of 17 students and teachers by a former student armed with an AR-15 rifle, said decisions about teachers' use of weapons should rest with local authorities.
"That is really a question for local governments, local school boards," he said of the proposal to arm educators, which Trump repeatedly has promoted since last week.
"As a parent myself and as a citizen, I think it's a good idea. But as speaker of the House, we should respect federalism and respect local jurisdictions."
Ryan instead cited "system failures" and mental health issues as "the kinds of things we are going to be discussing with our members, with the Senate and with the president." He did not include gun restrictions in that list.
"There are a lot of questions that need answers," Ryan added. "What we want to do is find common ground to make a difference."
The day's events suggested an election-year struggle for House and Senate Republicans — how to confront rising national support for gun restrictions, and the powerfully emotional testimony of the high school victims, without reversing their long support for expansive gun rights.
Teenage survivors of the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have led a dramatic public fight to expand background checks before guns can be purchased and to limit the availability of semiautomatic weapons such as the one used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. But Ryan and other leaders made clear that congressional Republicans consider local law officials' handling of warnings about Cruz to be their prime focus.
"There was a colossal breakdown in the system locally," Ryan said, citing Cruz's run-ins with law enforcement and the FBI's failure to investigate after its tip line received detailed allegations that he might be planning a mass shooting.
"Of course we want to listen to these kids, but we also want to make sure that we protect peoples' due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get guns don't get them."
Trump last week also proposed raising the minimum age for purchasing long guns from 18 to 21. But after a weekend meeting with several executives of the National Rifle Association, he has dropped that proposal for a federal age minimum, which the organization opposes, from his public remarks. His spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, suggested Monday that its fate was up in the air.
The president has persisted in pushing for legislation encouraging the arming of teachers, which the NRA supports, though it has generated opposition from teachers, law enforcement officials and politicians of both parties.
Trump said that while teachers should not be forced to carry weapons, those who are "adept" at shooting should — and should be eligible for bonuses if they do. Addressing wary governors this week, he said the federal government could help pay for bonuses.
Even as that measure has doubtful prospects in Congress, Republicans controlling both houses stand at odds on other, related legislation.
The House, as Ryan reiterated Tuesday, wants the Senate to act on its previously passed measure ordering federal, state and local agencies to more rigorously add information to the federal background check registry that could disqualify some gun purchasers.
That measure also would allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry guns across state lines, an expansion of gun rights that is opposed by Democrats, as well as officials from states that do not sanction concealed guns permits. A pending Senate version of the background check bill does not include the concealed weapons component.
A leading gun rights advocate said Monday that Republican House leaders had promised not to take up the Senate bill if it is passed without the concealed weapons provision. Ryan on Tuesday would not say if he would allow a vote on a stand-alone background check measure.
"We'll discuss and cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.
Neither the House nor the Senate plan would expand the background check system to cover the full range of gun sales, including those over the internet or at gun shows that currently are exempt from checks. Closing that sales loophole has been among the most urgent demands from the Florida survivors.
At their news conference Tuesday, one GOP House leader after another followed Ryan to the podium to criticize the actions — and inactions — of local Florida officials before the shooting and after it, and to contend that mental health difficulties and a violent national culture were culprits as well.
"We are learning more and more about the failures and inaction and ignored warnings that ultimately gave way" to the shooting, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He said that was key to "mak(ing) sure that nobody like this deranged Mr. Cruz person can get their hands on a firearm."
Neither McCarthy nor the other leaders explained how they would have denied Cruz his legally purchased weapons without abridging the due process rights and Second Amendment rights they also pledged to uphold.
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