WASHINGTON — As students across the country protested congressional inaction on gun violence, the House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to help schools identify potential threats — hours after an FBI official told senators at a hearing about missed tips that pointed to the danger of the alleged Parkland, Fla. mass shooter.
A parent at that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing blamed those lapses and others for the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"The testament to their failure is 17 dead children and teachers, 17 more with life altering injuries, a burden we must bear forever," said Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Alaina Petty, was among the slain students.
But a language arts teacher who survived the attack pointed the finger at Congress, saying its inability to enact gun control legislation is allowing mass shootings to happen. Increased funding for mental health programs and school security will have positive effects, but "mass shootings will not stop until we rid society of the weapons that make them possible,” Katharine Posada told senators.
The Senate hearing focused on the government’s response to the shooting and legislative proposals to improve school safety as students from nearly 3,000 schools staged National School Walkout events to urge lawmakers to do more to address gun violence.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Congress must rally around "consensus, evidenced-based solutions" to protect young people from violent attacks.
But gun-control advocates say they expect more from Congress than additional school security. They are calling for an expansion of background checks, a ban on "assault weapons" and high-capacity magazines, and other measures.
"High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, the committee's ranking Democrat and one of the most vocal proponents of gun control.
Hundreds of students rallied outside the White House, calling out President Trump and the National Rifle Association with signs and chanting, “No more silence. End gun violence!”
On Capitol Hill: Parkland family members call on Congress to pass school safety bill
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Gun-control measures are unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Congress. The less controversial school safety bill that passed the House 407-10 does nothing to curb access to guns, but it marks Congress’s first legislative action in response to the Florida shooting.
The bill, which is backed by the NRA, would fund training for students, school personnel and law enforcement to detect early signs of violence. It would also fund threat assessments and “anonymous reporting systems” such as phone apps, hotlines and websites for threats of school violence.
"As we saw in Florida, students and families saw obvious red flags and warned authorities repeatedly about their concerns for the shooter’s mental health," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "At the same time, schools are currently open targets for would-be attackers."
Though the bill passed with bipartisan support, House Democrats on Wednesday complained that lawmakers are not doing enough to stop gun violence.
“The students of this country are being cut down in the classroom in cold blood,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “The do-nothing Republican Congress is missing in action."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said on Tuesday he is “anxious” to pass significant school safety legislation and another measure called “Fix NICs” to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But it is unclear whether senators will get to the bills before they start a two-week recess on March 26 because other measures may consume floor time.
At the Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers discussed several proposals including one with bipartisan support that calls for "extreme risk protection orders" to restrict access to firearms by those who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others.
"My observation is that the man did everything but take an ad out in the paper, 'I’m going to kill somebody,'" said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the bill’s authors, said in reference to the alleged Parkland shooter.
David Bowdich, the FBI's deputy director, said that such legislation would be helpful.
"It sounds like very sensible legislation to me," he said.
The FBI has acknowledged it failed to act on tips about the accused shooter Nikolas Cruz’s “desire to kill people...and the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”
In one instance in September, an agent dismissed a tip about a YouTube posting, under Cruz’s name, that said, "I'm going to be a professional school shooter," after the agent believed the true identity of the poster couldn't be determined, Bowdich said.
In January, Bowdich said, officials didn't follow up on a "very explicit" tip that the accused shooter made references to ISIS, purchased several weapons, mutilated small animals and threatened his mother with a rifle. The tipster worried about him shooting up a school.
The FBI's investigation into the lapses is ongoing, he said.
"We made mistakes here, no question about that," said Bowdich told the committee. "That said, even had we done everything right, I’m not sure we could have stopped this act. But it sure would have been nice to try."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said there needs to be ways to intervene when people demonstrate they're dangerous.
"There was a catastrophic failure at every single level which made this shooting possible and we have to find a way to plug those holes," said Cornyn.
The student walkouts, organized by the youth empowerment arm of the Women’s March, were timed to coincide with the one-month anniversary of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
Some of the students who protested at the White House followed it up with a rally at the Capitol with several Democratic members of Congress.
Sam Blank and Alia Berry-Drobnich, both 14, said they skipped their 9th-grade classes Wednesday because what happened in Parkland made them afraid to go to school.
“People always say kids are the future,” Blank said, outside the White House. “I want to be part of the future but I have to be alive to do that.”
Berry-Drobnich said while legislative efforts to improve school safety were good steps, it wasn’t enough.
“It’s not just schools that are targets. Everyone knows that,” she said. “You have to get to the root of the problem and that’s gun laws.”
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Michael Collins