Rather than calling for sweeping gun reforms in the wake of mass shootings over the weekend in Texas and Ohio, President Donald Trump on Monday said he supported legislation that would allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from people deemed mentally unstable by the courts — a proposal that Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been unsuccessfully pushing for almost 18 months.
Trump, reacting to shootings that killed 31 people and wounded dozens more in El Paso and Dayton, spoke in favor of so-called “red flag laws” — the kind that Florida passed last year after the Parkland mass shooting — during an address to the nation from the White House. He also said state and federal law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of detecting early warning signs that someone might become a threat to others.
“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said. “That is why I’ve called for red flag laws.”
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have “red flag” laws on the books, according to Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. Texas and Ohio do not.
Florida passed its law in 2018 as part of a sweeping gun-and-school safety bill after a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student with a history of mental illness returned to campus on Valentine’s Day and killed 17 students and faculty with a semiautomatic rifle.
A month after the Parkland shooting, Rubio filed the Extreme Risk Protection Order and Violence Prevention Act in the Senate. The bill offers federal money to states that create programs that, like Florida, allow police or family members to petition the courts to remove guns for up to a year from a person deemed to be a threat to themselves or other people “in the near future.”
The law failed to pass, and Rubio reintroduced the bill in January with three co-sponsors. But once again, it has gone nowhere this year, stuck without a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We asked Senate Judiciary to take it up as few months ago,” Rubio, who did not provide comment for this article, tweeted Monday. “I hope they will now do so.”
The bill is just one of several pushed by Florida’s congressional delegation that Trump seemed to back, in principal, on Monday. On Twitter, Parkland-area Rep. Ted Deutch noted that “red flag” bills already exist, as well as cooperation between federal and local law enforcement.
“We don’t have to wait,” said Deutch, a Democrat. “These bills already exist and are bipartisan.”
Deutch and three other lawmakers who have sponsored a proposal that is similar to Rubio’s bill issued statements Monday that both criticized the president for echoing “Republican talking points” about guns and called on Congress to rally around Trump’s support for red flag laws.
Deutch also is backing a plan to expand the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, which specializes in threat assessment, including in schools. The proposal — called the EAGLES Act in honor of the Stoneman Douglas High School mascot — was sponsored in the House by Deutch and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, of Miami.
A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, D-Iowa, and Rubio, and was co-sponsored by Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who as Florida governor last year signed into law the sweeping Marjory Stoneman High School Public Safety Act that brought forth Florida’s “red flag” law.
The president’s support for the proposals could, in concept, mean a shift in fortune for the bills and their sponsors. Trump’s speech Monday signaled, at a time of national shock, that he wants to see legislation come out of Congress, where a number of House-passed bills — including one that would enforce stricter background checks — have received no consideration in the Senate.
“The White House being committed is hugely important,” said Diaz-Balart, who voted in March for a bill to strengthen background checks despite arguing that the proposal was too partisan to pass in the Senate. “I also think House leadership needs to also want to do things in a bipartisan way if we’re going to get anything done.“
But it’s hard to see how this is any different from Trump’s discussion of red flag laws last year.
The president publicly ordered, back in March 2018, that the Department of Justice “provide technical assistance” to states wanting to establish “carefully tailored” red flag programs But Rubio’s bill didn’t gain any traction as a result.
And Democrats and gun-safety advocates also pointed out Monday that Trump avoided any clear calls for gun control during his speech. The president instead stuck to traditional Republican talking points about mental health and the perils of violent video games. He warned of the dangers of extremism on the internet without any acknowledgment of his own use of Twitter in a way that has stoked divisions. And he condemned hate speech — even though in May during a Panama City campaign rally, he chuckled when someone suggested that illegal immigration could be stopped by shooting immigrants.
A day earlier, on Sunday, Trump had seemed to declare his support on Twitter for stronger firearm background checks, while also suggesting that a bill that passed in the House could be tied to an immigration proposal. But on Monday, Trump barely mentioned background checks and said nothing about legislation to tighten regulations around who can purchase a gun.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger,” Trump said from the White House. “Not the gun.”
This article has been updated to reflect the increased death toll of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton.