- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Trump administration’s health secretary said he is open to having the government study the roots of gun violence in the wake of the latest mass shooting at a high school, breaking with a long-held interpretation of federal law.

Secretary Alex Azar’s announcement Thursday appeared to stake out bipartisan ground in a debate that has grown frustratingly divided and calcified with each killing spree.

For more than two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said federal law prohibits it from researching gun violence in any way that might be used to justify gun control measures.

Mr. Azar, though, said the law — which is renewed each year as part of a spending bill — “does not in any way impede our ability to conduct our research mission. It’s simply about advocacy.”

“We’re in the science business and the evidence-generating business, and so I will have our agency certainly be working in this field as they do across the whole broad spectrum of disease control and prevention,” he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A day before his testimony, a gunman killed 17 students and adults and left 14 others wounded at a Florida high school.

Police arrested Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the school.

A fuller portrait emerged Thursday of Mr. Cruz, a loner who worked at a dollar store, joined the school’s ROTC program and posted photos of weapons on Instagram. At least one student said classmates joked that Mr. Cruz would “be the one to shoot up the school.”

Mr. Cruz, a 19-year-old orphan whose mother died last year, was charged Thursday with murder in the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the sleepy community on the edge of the Everglades. It was the nation’s deadliest school attack since a gunman left a bloody scene at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago.

“We’re going to have a real conversation about two things: How do we make sure when a parent is ready to send their child to school that — in Florida — that parent knows that child is going to be safe. No. 2, how do we make sure these individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun?” Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said at a press conference.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a cross-government effort to take on the issue, saying mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida, must end.

“Today we met with, this morning, our office of legal policy to work with our partners at Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and across this administration to study the intersection of mental health with criminality and violence, and to identify how we can stop people before these heinous crimes occur,” Mr. Sessions said at the Major County Sheriffs of America conference in Washington.

Democrats, though, said that ignores the availability of firearms, which they said are the common thread in the mass shootings.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the debate could find its way into the spending bills that Congress must pass by March 23, or lawmakers could form a select committee to work on a separate gun control bill.

“I would rather pass gun safety legislation than win the election,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, asked Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin if there was money in the upcoming budget to deal with the “proliferation of gun violence.”

“I will say personally I think the gun violence — it’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I’d urge Congress to look at these issues,” Mr. Mnuchin said at a Ways and Means Committee hearing on the president’s 2019 budget request.

Republicans were peppered with questions from reporters who suggested that they have not been proactive in trying to combat school shootings.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, rejected those accusations and pointed to two bills that the House passed on background checks and mental illness. He said the Senate never took up the bills.

Mr. Ryan said existing laws should be re-examined before Congress creates additional gun restrictions.

“The question is: Are those laws where they need to be? Is it being implemented correctly?” he said a weekly press event on Capitol Hill.

The Senate has two bipartisan proposals to restrict access to weapons.

One plan from Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, was drafted in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and aims to expand background checks. It failed to clear the Senate.

Another proposal from Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, and Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, tries to restrict illegal purchases and trafficked firearms.

Ms. Collins said background checks and her bill to stem illegally acquired guns, combined with an approach to address mental health issues, need to be part of the solution.

“So those are three very practical steps that we can and should take and that are overdue,” she said to reporters.

On the House side, three Democrats pushed the Gun Violence Restraining Order Act that would allow family members or law enforcement to petition for the temporary removal of firearms if they believe someone is in crisis. The bill was first proposed in May.

Democrats resisted calls to add more armed security officers.

“The fact is we can’t make our school armed camps. That’s not practical, and it’s not reflective of our open society,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said on Fox News.

A new element to the gun debate is social media. Mr. Cruz had a social media presence that warned of his passion for guns and violence.

The FBI acknowledged that they were notified about a comment Mr. Cruz left on a YouTube channel page last year: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

FBI agent Robert Lasky, who heads the bureau’s Miami division, said authorities were unable to identify the user who left the comment.

But one lawmaker said the issue of monitoring or restricting what people can post online could cross into dangerous territory and jeopardize personal freedoms.

“The First Amendment is pretty darn important. That’s why it’s the First Amendment, and the Second Amendment as well. It seems like whenever we have one of these tragedies take place there’s always folks who want to infringe on fundamental liberties that we as Americans enjoy,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said on Fox News.

• David Sherfinski contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.


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