Jules Witcover: The NRA shoots back, with Trump aboard

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Before going into that White House listening session with classmates and parents of the latest mass school massacre victims in Florida, President Donald Trump had a brief cheat-sheet from an aide advising him to tell them: “I hear you.” He then proceeded to give the young visitors reason to wonder whether he really did.

Judging from his most notable comments, Trump’s prime brainstorm was to put even more guns into schoolrooms, by proposing the arming of their teachers. He thus bought into the view of NRA chief Wayne La Pierre, who repeated it at Thursday’s annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

Never mind that the teachers’ first responsibility and motivation is to educate their students, rather than undergoing training to safely and effectively fire a lethal weapon. That’s the responsibility of police, who already are thoroughly qualified, although not always positioned to respond.

The president in his press conference Friday reiterated his pitch for arming teachers, saying benignly that the idea would give schools an “offensive capability.” He equated it with putting armed federal marshals on airplanes to prevent hijackers from seizing control of them, a vastly rarer occurrence and a ludicrous comparison. He also said “a lot of airplane pilots” now carry guns.

The students who joined in a heated CNN discussion Wednesday night with three Florida members of Congress left no doubt that they were fed up with legislators who were bought and paid for by the gun lobby. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio took the brunt of the heat from a teenage interrogator who demanded in vain that he say he would stop taking the NRA campaign donations.

It was a televised scene reminiscent of Rubio being ridiculed by then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a scripted robot as a 2016 presidential candidate. Rubio again pathetically bobbed and weaved under the tenacious assault, reinforcing his image as a programmed, paid mouthpiece for the lobby. He lamely argued that the NRA gave to him merely because it happened to share his views on the Second Amendment protection to bear arms.

Rubio’s presidential ambitions were so intensive in 2016 that he vowed not to seek re-election to the Senate if he failed to win his party’s presidential nomination. But after having been denied it by Trump, he reconsidered, ran again and was re-elected after all. It will be interesting to see whether Florida voters will be so forgiving the next time he faces them after his new six-year term, or if he runs for president again some time.

Rubio offered a mild break with NRA policy by telling the CNN town hall meeting that on reflection he was ready to have the age for buying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle raised from 18 to 21, and could possibly support stronger limits on the capacity of bullet magazines.

An NRA spokeswoman, Dana Loesch also was invited to the CNN conversation and then the CPAC affair, and she turned her fire on the news media at the latter. “Many in legacy media love mass shootings,” she said, using her term for mainstream journalism. “I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold.”

She also joined the recent criticisms of the FBI, noting the report that agents failed to act on the red flags reported about the behavior of the Parkland, Fla., shooter now in custody. “The government has proven it cannot keep you safe,” she said.

In all this, it seems clear that even with the intensified public demand for tougher gun-control action, the most obvious step of Congress restoring Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s flat-out prohibition of mass-target assault weapons remains a steep uphill climb.

As for Trump’s comparisons of school shootings with aircraft hijackings, and his idea to arm teachers with the concealed carrying of federal air marshals, imagine what serious members of Congress might think of that.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.