CAPITOL HILL - As students staged a coordinated school walkout in districts across America, U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday grilled federal officials on the failure to act on repeated warnings about Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman who killed 17 people at a Florida high school last month.
“It appears that the FBI did not communicate with local law enforcement,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said.
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“There was a catastrophic failure at every single level (of law enforcement) that occurred here which made this shooting possible, and we have to find a way to plug those holes,” Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said.
The Senate panel met as throngs of students and activists converged outside the Capitol and in other locations nationwide to demand restrictions on firearms.
Democrats backed their call. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California noted that the United States has suffered more than 200 school shootings in the last five years.
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“This averages out to five school shootings per month. This is outrageous,” Feinstein said. “This Congress cannot continue to do nothing, because (doing) nothing means more lives are lost, including the youngest and the most vulnerable among us.”
Most Democrats favor establishing universal background checks for all gun purchases as well as reestablishing a ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles.
“It’s common sense to get the assault rifles and banana (high capacity) clips off the streets,” Florida Senator Bill Nelson said. “Universal background checks are common sense.”
By contrast, most Republicans back measures to boost law enforcement’s capability to detect dangerous individuals and prevent gun sales to those deemed a security risk, rather than banning entire classifications of firearms or subjecting every gun sale to a background check.
In addition, President Donald Trump has directed the Justice Department to craft regulations banning the sale of so-called “bump stocks” that dramatically increase the number of rounds a semi-automatic rifle can fire in a given time period. He has also voiced support for allowing trained teachers to carry firearms in schools.
Weeks ago, Trump appeared to endorse universal background checks as well as raising the minimum purchase age for assault weapons, but reversed himself days later.
“There are things we (Republicans and Democrats) agree on. We should pass those things,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said.
“We must rally around consensus,” Grassley said.
Democrats countered that limiting congressional action to the lowest common denominator of measures palatable to majorities of members in both parties will not prevent future mass shooting incidents.
“Guns and assault weapons continue to flood our streets by the millions,” Feinstein said, adding that gun deaths in America rose sharply after a previous assault weapons ban expired in 2004. “We have seen more and more children, families, communities victimized by mass shootings from military-style assault weapons.”
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, announced his support for a bipartisan proposal to provide federal funding to train school districts and local and state police forces to identify security threats, form crisis intervention teams, and boost security infrastructure at schools nationwide.
“We use a variety of security measures to protect workplaces and government buildings across America. We ought to be able to do the same to protect our children,” McConnell said in a statement.
Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio called the proposal an initial step to boost school safety, adding that further steps “must also include gun safety measures.”