Trump’s speech in response to Florida high school shooting was code for: forget background checks and other gun control measures
It has been observed that there are two Donald Trumps: Twitter Trump and Teleprompter Trump. Early on Thursday, Twitter Trump came dangerously close to blaming the victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
He described the suspect as “mentally disturbed” and stressed that it was important to “report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
A few hours later, Teleprompter Trump was more disciplined and measured, but still had a political axe to grind. “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” he said. “We must actually make that difference.”
It was Trump code for: forget background checks and other gun control measures that might make you feel better. Instead, his second amendment-friendly prescription was: “We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools and tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”
It has now become a sombre ritual after gun massacres for US presidents to put on their most statesmanlike mien and play the role of comforter-in-chief. It took Trump more than 20 hours to make public remarks after a former student, armed with an AR-15 rifle, killed 17 people and injured 14 others in Parkland. Barack Obama, by contrast, spoke less than six hours after the 2012 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
As Washington has become more polarised, so these statements have become more politicised. On the day of what was then the worst modern American shooting in Orlando in June 2016, Obama felt compelled to describe it as “a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that allows them to shoot people at a school, or a movie theater, or a church or a nightclub”.
For his part, on Thursday, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and striped blue tie and American flag pin, Teleprompter Trump spoke for six and a half minutes under a portrait of George Washington in the Diplomatic Room at the White House. He earned instant plaudits from supporters for a dignified tone as he spoke of “terrible violence, hatred and evil” and, as he did after the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, quoting scripture. He promised to visit Parkland.
But his emphasis on mental health rather than guns came from a familiar playbook focusing on individual rather than social or political culpability. When he visited Las Vegas, after it became the scene of the worst modern mass shooting, Trump called the gunman “demented” and a “very sick individual”. After a shooting at a Texas church left 26 people dead in November 2017, the president said “mental health” was the problem, adding that “this isn’t a guns situation”.
In common with abortion rights, which he used to support, Trump has shifted his position on gun control, apparently for political expediency. On his 99th day in office, he told the National Rifle Association he was their “friend and champion”. He also signed a resolution passed by the Republican-led Congress blocking an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people.
As Trump left the lectern at the White House on Thursday, a CNN correspondent shouted: “Mr President, why does this keep happening to America? Will you do something about guns?” The president did not reply.
Less than an hour later, Obama tweeted: “Caring for our kids is our first job. And until we can honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep them safe from harm, including long overdue, commonsense gun safety laws that most Americans want, then we have to change.”