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Trump Urges Mental Health Action After Shooting, Sidesteps Guns

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President Donald Trump said that the nation should take unspecified action on mental health issues on Thursday, the day after a shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people and wounded at least 14 more. He said he plans to visit the community to meet with victims’ families.

“Yesterday, a school filled with innocent children and caring teachers became the scene of terrible violence, hatred and evil,” Trump said in a statement from the White House. “No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning.”

(Related: Mental Health Benefits Parity Now Applies to Anorexia: Trump Administration)

He ignored a question about gun control after his statement, and said nothing about guns or gun laws in his address.

He said that the U.S. must “tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” but offered no specifics.

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference,” he said.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, responded directly to gun-violence questions from Rep. John Lewis at a House hearing earlier Thursday.

“Personally, I think gun violence is a tragedy, what we’re seeing yesterday. And I urge Congress to look into these issues,” Mnuchin said. “I assure you I appreciate the severity and the tragedy and I will speak to the president and other Cabinet members.”

Shortly after Trump spoke, former President Barack Obama called for the country to act on gun control in the wake of the tragedy.

“We are grieving with Parkland. But we are not powerless,” Obama said in a tweet. “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, common-sense gun safety laws that most Americans want, then we have to change.”

‘Mentally Disturbed’

The 19-year-old gunman, Nikolas Cruz, attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. It was the deadliest school shooting since 20 children and six adults were killed in the December 2012 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Authorities said the Florida shooter used a semiautomatic AR-15-style rifle that he bought legally. Similar guns have been used in many mass shootings, including in Las Vegas last year and Orlando in 2016.

Trump didn’t immediately appear on television after the shooting, instead tweeting a series of reactions. Earlier on Thursday he appeared to blame people around Cruz for not doing more to prevent the incident.

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” he wrote on Twitter. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

News reports suggest that school officials, classmates and even strangers were concerned that Cruz could pose a threat. A teacher told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that administrators sent an email last year saying that Cruz was not allowed to carry a backpack on campus. BuzzFeed News reported Thursday that a YouTube user was interviewed by the FBI after alerting the bureau to a comment from a user named Nikolas Cruz that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

The Associated Press reported that Cruz was a member of a white nationalist militia group and participated in paramilitary drills. The group wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state, the AP reported.

Addressing children who may be frightened by the shooting, Trump said that “if you need help, turn to a teacher, a family member, a local police officer or a faith leader. Answer hate with love, answer cruelty with kindness.”

Trump is scheduled to meet with governors on Feb. 26 and plans to make school safety a topic of discussion, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email. She didn’t otherwise respond to questions on what action on mental health the president would like to pursue.

Mental Health Funding

The president’s budget proposal, released Monday, provides some hints at where Trump might want to see additional mental health resources. The White House request includes $8.6 billion for mental health services at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including for programs designed to improve identification of and intervention for at-risk veterans. The budget also includes funding increases across various federal agencies that would address mental health aspects of the opioid epidemic.

But the president’s budget would also slash funding for the National Institute of Mental Health from $1.6 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to $1.1 billion in 2019 -a reduction of over 30%. Last year, internal National Institutes of Health documents obtained by Science magazine revealed that the Trump administration had decided against renewing a 3-year firearms research initiative. And the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would see a 9% budget cut over the same period under the president’s proposal.

As president, Trump has opposed any new restrictions on gun rights. Last year he signed a bill revoking Obama-era regulations banning gun purchases by people who receive Social Security disability checks for mental illness or who have been determined unfit to handle their own finances. Obama proposed the rule after the Sandy Hook shooting and his administration anticipated that it would have added 75,000 names to the national background check database.

In an interview last month with Piers Morgan, Trump defended permissive U.S. gun laws.

“If he didn’t have a gun, he would have a bomb, or would have something else,” Trump said of Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 and wounded hundreds by firing on a concert from a Las Vegas hotel room in October, where he had stockpiled an arsenal of 55 guns.

“The point is, he would have had 55 bombs. He would have had 55 of something else,” Trump said.

After the Las Vegas shooting, in October, Sanders said the immediate aftermath of a tragedy wasn’t the time to talk about gun policy, the same stance Republicans including Florida Governor Rick Scott adopted after Wednesday’s shooting.

“There’s a time to continue to have these conversations about how through law enforcement, how through mental illness funding, that we make sure that people are safe,” Scott said at a news conference Wednesday in Parkland, Florida, according to The Hill. He declined to address questions about gun control, The Hill said.

Republicans and Democrats alike in Washington discussed banning a piece of equipment Paddock used to fire more rapidly, called a bump stock, after the Las Vegas shooting. But the issue soon receded as Congress instead focused on a tax overhaul and funding the government, and no new gun laws have been passed.

—With assistance from Justin Sink.

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