- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2018

The White House offered support Monday for a bill that would bolster the federal system of background checks on gun owners, while the Florida couple who took in Nikolas Cruz, who is accused of killing 17 people at a high school last week, said he texted their son that he had a secret to share just three minutes before the gunfire started.

As public pressure mounted on Washington to address school shootings, the White House said President Trump generally supports improvements to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which helps prevent people with criminal convictions from purchasing firearms.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr. Trump spoke Friday with Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, about legislation he has proposed with Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, to improve federal compliance with NICS.

“While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system,” she said.

The bill, known as “Fix NICS,” is aimed at strengthening the federal background check database by ensuring that states and various federal agencies report individuals’ criminal histories, including domestic violence, into the system.

The measure was introduced in November after a gunman killed 26 people at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The Air Force later acknowledged that it had failed to report to NICS the gunman’s history of domestic assault, which should have prohibited him from purchasing a firearm.

The National Rifle Association has expressed support for the measure, and a spokesman for Mr. Cornyn said Monday that “it’s clear the president is interested in getting something done.” The last significant attempt to enact gun regulations failed in 2013 when the Senate blocked a proposal to expand background checks.

Students from the Washington area held a protest outside the White House on Monday afternoon, with 17 students from a group called Teens for Gun Reform lying on the ground. Protesters held signs with messages such as “Protect Kids, Not Guns” while a demonstrator with a bullhorn read the names of the 17 victims of the Florida shooting.

Mr. Trump, who came into office as a staunch defender of gun rights, is scheduled to hold a “listening session” with students and teachers Wednesday at the White House. Over the weekend at his private club in Florida, the president reportedly was sounding out friends such as broadcaster Geraldo Rivera about proposed action on gun regulations.

Mr. Cruz purchased his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle legally about a year ago. He had obtained 10 rifles within the past year, according to CNN, which cited unidentified law enforcement officials.

Pressure also is building on the Florida Legislature to enact tougher gun restrictions, which hasn’t happened since Republicans took control of state government in 1999.

Incoming state Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, told reporters in Florida that his chamber was preparing a bill that would include raising the firearm purchase age to 21, create a waiting period for all gun buys, ban bump stocks and introduce “gun violence restraining orders” that temporarily let family members ask a court to prevent a person from buying a gun.

But the bill’s fate remains uncertain, in part because state House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, haven’t detailed firearms regulations they would support. Mr. Scott has meetings on school safety scheduled for Tuesday and has told reporters he will make mental health proposals this week.

Mr. Cruz made a brief court appearance Monday in Broward County but didn’t speak. Nearby, two more teenage victims of the school attack were laid to rest.

James and Kimberly Snead, who took in Mr. Cruz after his mother died last fall, said he sent an eerie text message to their son at 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday. Police say Mr. Cruz was inside the high school in Parkland, Florida, at that time readying to unleash the attack.

“He told my son he’s going to the movies,” Mr. Snead said on “Good Morning America” on ABC. “And he said he had something to tell him. And my son pressed him, ‘What is it? What is it?’ And he goes, ‘Nothing bad, bro.’ That was it. He said he was going to the movies.”

The Sneads said Mr. Cruz acted somewhat depressed but otherwise “seemed normal.” They said they didn’t see any warning signs of violent behavior.

Although police had been called to the Cruz family home numerous times about his behavioral problems, Mr. Cruz didn’t have a criminal record and therapists did not regard him as a serious risk to others.

After speaking with Mr. Cruz in 2016, the staff at Henderson Behavioral Health, a South Florida mental health facility, didn’t see the need to hospitalize him.

The “Fix NICS” legislation is the third attempt since 1997 to reform the system for tracking criminal histories. The National Criminal History Improvement Program gave states an incentive to report more criminal records, and the NICS Improvement Amendments Act after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 provided millions more dollars to encourage states to improve data sharing.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, accused the Trump administration Sunday of proposing to cut funds by a combined 16 percent in its fiscal 2019 budget for two programs that help encourage submitting criminal records to the database, from $73 million to $61 million next year. He called the proposed budget cuts “downright dangerous.”

It’s not clear whether the budget proposal represents an actual cut, however. The line items in the budget indicate a total of $43 million actually spent in fiscal 2017 on the two programs, and the fiscal 2018 appropriations are incomplete.

Some Democrats said the move wouldn’t be enough and called for a reinstatement of the federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004.

“If support for this one bill is all the White House wants done legislatively to address the tragedy in Parkland, then President Trump has already failed,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. “Legislation to report information to a federal database, while helpful, will do little to address the root causes of the hundreds of mass shootings across our country every year. The White House’s support for this legislation is mere lip service when young people in Florida are shouting and pleading for meaningful action.”

He said the administration should “put in place universal background checks, ban bump stocks, prohibit those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a weapon, and direct its CDC researchers and scientists to conduct research on gun violence prevention.”

The president of the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, John Feinblatt, said improvements to the federal NICS database would not be enough to solve the problem.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Scott called on FBI officials to release all details regarding the school shooting after it was revealed that they failed to follow up on warnings concerning the behavior of Mr. Cruz.

“Last week, our state and nation was shocked to learn of the FBI’s inexcusable inaction after receiving a tip informing them of Cruz’s desire to carry out a school shooting,” the governor said in a statement. “The FBI’s failure to initiate an investigation raises many questions and the victims’ families deserve answers now.”

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