As students walked out of schools across the country Wednesday to protest gun violence, some lawmakers in Washington expressed solidarity with their efforts, but others questioned whether they are leading the national debate over school safety in the right direction.
“I sure hope the student walkout will have an impact,” predicted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who joined some local students outside the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.
The nationwide protest was spurred by the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month, which left 17 people dead. Teen survivors of the incident have led an aggressive public push for stricter gun control laws, and they are organizing a March for Our Lives in Washington later this month to keep the pressure on Congress.
“My hope is we’ll hear these young people,” Warner told WSET. “I think they’re speaking with a very clear voice.”
He cited “common sense” measures he believes Congress can enact, such as mandating universal background checks and banning the use of bump stock devices.
“I think these young people, starting with the students at the high school in Florida but now spreading, have really said it very articulately,” he said. “They don’t want to hear elected officials in the wake of tragedy offer sympathy and prayers. They want us to act, they want us to do our jobs.”
Warner has been unimpressed by President Donald Trump’s response to the demands of activists since the Parkland shooting. Trump has at times indicated support for some restrictions on gun rights, but the proposal for school safety released by the White House this week jettisoned any measures opposed by the NRA.
Though many Republicans in Congress have indicated support for strengthening the background check system and funding some school safety programs, the students’ calls to limit gun rights have been met by a less enthusiastic GOP response.
The STOP School Violence Act passed in the House Wednesday with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote of 407-10. It could provide schools and law enforcement with additional tools to protect students, but it does nothing about guns.
"Today the House took major steps toward securing our schools by passing the STOP School Violence Act. We must put the safety of America's children FIRST by improving training and by giving schools and law enforcement better tools. A tragedy like Parkland can't happen ever again!" President Trump tweeted.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said he understands completely why the students are protesting, but he opposes the walkout.
“I’m never supportive of kids walking out of school,” he said, adding, “I know there’s a noble cause.”
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., praised the student activism surrounding the school safety issue, but he believes guns should only be a small part of the discussion.
“That’s what I’m all about, keeping our students safe,” he said. “I think it gets muddled when people want to bring in the gun debate.”
Noting the warning signs that were missed with the Parkland shooting suspect and background check errors that have enabled other shooters to purchase weapons they should never have had, Fleischmann said fixing those problems should be a priority.
“We’ve seen there are some holes in that system,” he said. “So I don’t think its so much about the weapon as about the background check.”
The missed opportunities to prevent the suspect from getting his hands on a gun also concerned Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
“There were so many ways that tragedy could have been avoided,” he said.
Tillis listened to family members of students at a hearing on Wednesday morning, and he said they did not want to see the conversation about school and community safety hijacked by the extremes of either side. He agreed with that sentiment.
“We need to talk about a number of things that I think reasonable people are prepared to take action on in Congress,” Tillis said.