Crises are crucibles, bringing out a leader’s core characteristics. The aftermath of the shooting last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has thrown two sides of President Trump into sharp relief.
Over the course of 48 hours, Trump has suggested a variety of possible responses to gun violence in schools. Some of them look like the product of the independent, unconventional politician some people had hoped for—willing to buck partisan orthodoxies about gun control in favor of policies that he sees as common sense, and which draw broad public support: tighter background checks, mental-health restrictions, higher age limits for buying rifles. Other suggestions show the other Trump: An impulsive politician who quickly grabs onto ideas without thinking them through, and finds it hard to resist throwing red meat to his base, like suggesting the arming of teachers. They also display his tendency to see the world in Manichean terms, and his emphasis on heroic individuals rather than systemic forces. The clash between these two Trumps is a central tension of his presidency. Thus far, it is the second set of tendencies that has triumphed over and over. Will the gun debate end any differently?
During a Tuesday meeting at the White House, Trump appeared to endorse an idea circulating in conservative media to arm teachers, as well as eliminating gun-free zones.
It’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training. And they would be there, and you would no longer have a gun-free zone. A gun-free zone to a maniac—because they’re all cowards—a gun-free zone is, let’s go in and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us.
And if you do this—and a lot of people are talking about it, and it’s certainly a point that we’ll discuss—but concealed carry for teachers and for people of talent—of that type of talent. So let’s say you had 20 percent of your teaching force, because that’s pretty much the number—and you said it—an attack has lasted, on average, about three minutes. It takes five to eight minutes for responders, for the police, to come in. So the attack is over. If you had a teacher with—who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.
This is classic Trump: He has quickly fastened on to something he heard on cable TV, and meanders through it, promising to consider it, without quite committing. The idea doesn’t seem all that well-thought-out. There was an armed policeman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the day of the massacre, and it didn’t prevent the massacre. There were multiple armed people in Las Vegas during the October 2017 massacre there. Some firearm experts quickly argued against the president’s idea, noting the increased risk of accident and saying that even highly trained teachers would be unlikely to increase safety while contributing havoc. Even if guns could end massacres sooner, there’s little reason to believe they’d be much deterrent, since many school shooters are killed or kill themselves. Beyond that, questions like the arming of teachers or handling of gun-free zones are state or local issues, beyond the control of the federal government.