FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA/WASHINGTON – Republican leaders of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday said they were focused on improving background checks for potential gun buyers, less than two weeks after 17 people were killed at a Florida high school by a teen with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
The second-deadliest shooting at a U.S. public school has stirred the long-running U.S. debate over gun rights, prompting President Donald Trump to float potential responses, including arming teachers or raising the minimum age to buy firearms.
House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said lawmakers would focus on improving background checks for potential gun buyers. The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn, urged lawmakers to pass a bill to tighten the federal background check system.
“We shouldn’t be banning guns from law-abiding citizens,” Ryan said at a news conference. “We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don’t get those guns.”
Prosecutors say that Nikolas Cruz, 19, carried out the Feb. 14 rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, an affluent suburb of Fort Lauderdale, with a legally purchased rifle. Federal and local law enforcement agencies have acknowledged receiving multiple warnings ahead of time of Cruz’s potential for violence.
Trump has been under pressure to show he is responding without alienating Republicans who oppose restrictions on gun rights. In a Monday meeting with more than 35 governors he floated ideas including arming teachers and reopening mental hospitals as ways of preventing school attacks.
The National Rifle Association has opposed moves to restrict gun sales and helped block efforts for national legislation following the 2012 massacre of 26 young children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut, the deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer said Congress must try again to pass meaningful gun legislation, starting with a measure guaranteeing comprehensive background checks for gun purchases.
“It’s outrageous that so many guns are sold with no background check whatsoever,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “We cannot settle for half-measures. Not after what happened in Florida. Not after so many tragedies.”
Florida lawmakers and the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, have proposed raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons to 21, from 18.
The Florida court where Cruz faces 17 counts of premeditated murder on Tuesday canceled a hearing where prosecutors had been scheduled to seek hair and DNA samples from the suspect.
Broward County prosecutors and Cruz’s publicly appointed defender, Gordon Weekes, reached a deal late Monday to provide those samples, making the hearing unnecessary, Weekes said.
“There was no reason to push back,” Weekes said. “It was a routine motion.”
Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is hearing the case, on Monday rejected a request by defense attorneys to recuse herself from the case. They had argued that she had shown herself to favor the prosecutors.
Cruz’s case is due to return to court on Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether he has sufficient assets to pay for his own defense, Weekes said. Cruz’s mother died in November.
Local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have faced criticism that they failed to properly look into multiple tips that Cruz had the potential and capacity for violence.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has been criticized for his department’s response to the shooting, including the fact that an armed school resource officer stationed at the school stayed outside during the attack.
The officer through an attorney on Monday said he remained outside because that was where he believed the gunfire was occurring.
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