WASHINGTON — An anguished father mourning his 18-year-old daughter vented his anger and pleaded for safer schools.
A fear-stricken student who watched classmates die last week wept openly as he called for banning assault weapons.
A mother who lost her 6-year-old son in a school shooting a little more than five years ago warned that more parents would lose their children if President Trump did not act, adding, “Don’t let that happen on your watch.”
One by one at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, survivors of school shootings and the family members of victims shared their stories and their calls to action. The extraordinary public exchange with the president gave voice to an intensely emotional debate over how to respond to the latest gun massacre in a US school.
A week after a gunman opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and prompting a rash of student-driven lobbying for new gun restrictions, Trump met for more than an hour with grieving people in search of solutions. News cameras captured the unusual listening session, revealing an emotional give-and-take between a president and private citizens that is typically shielded from public view.
Trump used the event to pitch his own ideas about how to prevent such debacles in the future, polling the group about whether they supported allowing teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons, an idea he said could have halted the carnage in Parkland.
“That coach was very brave, saved a lot of lives, I suspect,” Trump said, apparently referring to Aaron Feis, a coach at Stoneman Douglas who reportedly died using his body as a shield to protect students. “But if he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run. He would have shot and that would have been the end of it.”
Trump said he would press to strengthen background checks for people buying guns and for enhanced mental health measures.
“We’re going to go very strongly into age — age of purchase,” he added, appearing to refer to a proposal to set an age threshold for buying certain weapons including the AR-15.
But in a session that began as a subdued conversation and sometimes descended into tears and shouting, policy proposals were overshadowed by raw expressions of fear, anger, and sorrow.
“We’re here because my daughter has no voice — she was murdered last week, and she was taken from us, shot nine times,” said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was one of the 17 killed in Parkland. “How many schools, how many children have to get shot? It stops here, with this administration and me, because I’m not going to sleep until it’s fixed.”
Most of the students and parents invited from the school appeared to support Trump, many of them prefacing their comments with praise for his leadership. But even fans of the president vented anger and desperation.
“It should have been one school shooting, and we should have fixed it — and I’m pissed,” said Pollack, the only parent of a child killed in Parkland who was at the session, raising his voice as he looked at Trump. “Because my daughter, I’m not going to see again.”
Samuel Zeif, 18, told of texting his parents and brothers from the second floor of the high school, believing that he would be killed, dissolving into tears as he begged the president: “Let’s never let this happen again — please, please.”
“I don’t understand why I can still go in a store and buy a weapon of war, an AR,” Zeif said, referring to the AR-15 rifle. “How is it that easy to buy this type of weapon? How do we not stop this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook? I’m sitting with a mother who lost her son. It’s still happening.”
Trump, who has often struggled to express empathy in the face of tragedy, appeared moved by the personal stories, even as he asked repeatedly whether anyone in the ornate room at the White House knew how such horrors could be prevented in the future.
“I know you’ve been through a lot — most of you have been through a lot more than you ever thought possible,” Trump said, seated in a circle of chairs. “All I can say is that we’re fighting hard for you, and we will not stop.”