President Donald Trump said on Monday (Feb 26) he would have rushed unarmed into the Florida school targeted by a mass shooter, as student survivors of the massacre brought their campaign for gun control to Washington.
Nearly two weeks after the attack in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead, the US Congress reconvened after a one-week recess under intensifying pressure to address the national scourge of gun violence.
Trump has called for reforms in the wake of the tragedy including tougher background checks on firearm purchases, but the White House has yet to support specific legislation in Congress, where enacting federal gun restrictions faces major obstacles especially in an election year.
During a meeting with state governors at the White House, Trump said he would have felt compelled to confront the shooter personally, had he been on the scene.
"I really believe I'd run in there even if I didn't have a weapon," Trump told the governors.
"And I think most of the people in this room would have done that, too," said the president, adding: "You never know until you're tested."
Trump has vocally criticised an armed deputy who failed to intervene in the Feb 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and took up that theme again Monday calling the performance of some local law enforcement "frankly disgusting."
The deputy, Scot Peterson, pushed back through his lawyer against such "uncalled for attacks upon his character," recounting the shooting step by step and saying he positioned himself outside a school building because he believed the shots were originating from outside.
"The allegations that Mr. Peterson was a coward and that his performance, under the circumstances, failed to meet the standards of police officers are patently untrue," lawyer Joseph DiRuzzo said in a statement.
LUNCH WITH THE NRA
Spurred to action by the mass shooting - the worst to hit a US school in six years - several Parkland survivors travelled with fellow students to the US Capitol on Monday to meet with lawmakers on gun violence. The group declined to speak to reporters.
Trump, who touted his Second Amendment credentials on the 2016 campaign trail, said he lunched on Saturday with Wayne LaPierre, the head of the powerful National Rifle Association which opposes several of the proposed gun measures, and told him changes were needed.
"We're going to do strong background checks. Very strong," Trump told the governors. "If we see a sicko, I don't want him having a gun."
Trump has also called for a strong focus on boosting school security, and has controversially promoted the idea of arming some teachers and staff in addition to on-campus guards.
The vast majority of Democrats want to bring gun control efforts to fruition in Congress, and a new CNN poll showed that 70 per cent of Americans support stricter gun laws, up 18 points since October.
Republican leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives have remained largely silent on the issue, however, with their party split on how to proceed.
Republicans from suburban districts where calls for gun control have gained ground, have expressed openness to raising the age limit for purchasing semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, or banning devices that turn such weapons into machine guns.
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican moderate, said she supports expanding background checks, raising the age for buying assault-style weapons and addressing the issue of mental health.
"I definitely want to see the issue taken up," she told AFP.
EMOTIONAL RETURN TO PARKLAND
But many conservative lawmakers consider any restriction of gun rights as a creeping assault on citizens' constitutional right to bear arms.
The split appeared to leave the prospects of significant new gun legislation in doubt.
"I'm a little bit pessimistic that something will happen," moderate House Republican Charles Dent told CNN on Monday.
With the gun debate raging, Parkland students and teachers made an emotional return to their high school for an orientation day on Sunday, setting foot on site for the first time since the Feb 14 massacre.
Staff returned to work on Monday, and classes were to resume on Wednesday.
Several Parkland students have been confronted with ugly false accusations that they are actors exploiting a tragedy.
But on Monday they received praise from First Lady Melania Trump, who said she was "heartened to see children across this country using their voices to speak out and try to create change.
"They are our future and they deserve a voice," she said.