President Donald Trump hosted a number of Americans who have been impacted by school gun violence at the White House on Wednesday.
The individual stories of people who lost young loved ones to gun violence were heart wrenching.
At the same time, it was an opportunity for a president who has promised to “come through” for the National Rifle Association to leverage goodwill for victims into an infomercial for his own self-pronounced common-sense solutions.
The White House effectively turned school shooting victims into a reality show starring Trump.
“We’re here because my daughter has no voice,” said Andrew Pollack, father of Meadow Pollack, who was killed along with 16 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “She was murdered last week and she was taken from us.”
Pollack was among a number of parents and teenagers to speak who lost loved ones at the Columbine massacre, the Sandy Hook massacre, last week’s Parkland massacre, and to gun violence in D.C.
Pollack continued by suggesting that schools take security measures similar to those taken at concerts, stadiums, embassies, and federal buildings. “How many children have to get shot?” Pollack said. “It stops here with this administration. … Mr. President, we’re gonna’ fix it.”
“It’s simple,” Pollack added.
There was conflict, however, over which solutions ought to be undertaken and which ones might actually solve the problem. Some suggested arming teachers, a position the president at one point seemed to endorse.
“A custodian could be an undercover policeman,” said Andrew Klein, the father of a student at Marjory Stoneman.
The president appeared to agree with this proposal, calling for “concealed carry for teachers and for people of that type of talent.”
He then nodded at the story of an assistant football coach at Marjory Stoneman named Aaron Feis, who died after shielding students during the attack. The president suggested Feis should have had a gun.
“If he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run, he would have shot, and that would be the end of it,” Trump said.
The president then called for a show of hands as to who might endorse such a proposal and who might oppose it. One opponent was Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was murdered during the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre. Barden noted that his wife couldn’t be at the White House because she is a schoolteacher and she was working.
“She will tell you that schoolteachers have more than enough responsibilities right now than to have to have the awesome responsibility of lethal force to take a life,” Barden said to applause.
While Barden’s response was a mild rebuke to the president, he and other critics actually could be seen to offer the event greater legitimacy.
Samuel Zeif, whose story of his harrowing text messages with his brother Matthew during the shooting went viral after Matthew’s life was saved by a Parkland teacher named Scott Beigel, argued for restrictions on assault weapons. (As Zeif noted, Beigel was killed in the attack.)
“I turned 18 the day after [the shooting and] woke up to the news that my best friend [Joaquin Oliver] was gone,” Zeif said, breaking into tears. “And I don’t understand why I can go into a store and buy a weapon of war.”
Such a measure, though, is not under any consideration by the president or Republicans in Congress. Again, by including such voices, the White House will be able to say that this was a nonpartisan meeting of minds. At the same time, the most vocal student activists in the wake of the shooting reported that they were not invited to the event, with one saying “we don’t have time to thank these people for taking half a step in the right direction.”
Indeed, Barden’s own appearance was a physical manifestation of why some might have reason be skeptical that Trump is sincere in his new posture on common-sense gun measures. Barden lobbied for new gun safety legislation for years, policies that never became federal law. He has blamed the NRA, one of Trump’s biggest campaign contributors, for America’s failure to pass new laws in the wake of Sandy Hook. He has also criticized Trump for his affiliation with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has claimed Sandy Hook was a hoax. But on Wednesday, Barden could be seen to be one of many voices calling—alongside the president—for common-sense solutions.
There’s no doubting the good faith of Barden and the other attendees of the listening session. The president’s own potential for sincerity on this issue will be judged by whatever he does next. Given Trump’s history and what he owes the gun lobby, though, it seems doubtful Wednesday’s event will ultimately hold much meaning for him beyond its usefulness as an effective bit of political theater.