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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Trump backs efforts to bolster FBI gun checks

President spent the holiday weekend watching cable TV and complaining about the investigation of Russian election meddling

Demonstrators participate in a 'lie-in' during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Demonstrators participate in a 'lie-in' during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump offered support on Monday for an effort to strengthen the federal gun background check system as he hunkered down at his private Florida golf course less than 60 kilometres from the site of last week’s deadly school shooting.

The president spoke on Friday to senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, about a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the FBI database of people prohibited from buying guns, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

“While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system,” Ms Sanders said in a statement.

Mr Trump, who spent the weekend at his private Palm Beach estate, started President’s Day at his nearby golf club. The White House did not immediately answer questions about whether he was playing golf. The president spent most of the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, as White House aides advised against golfing too soon after the shooting at a Parkland school that left 17 dead.

The president spent much of the holiday weekend watching cable television news and grousing to club members and advisers about the investigation of Russian election meddling.

In a marathon series of furious weekend tweets from Mar-a-Lago, he complained about Russia, raging at the FBI for what he perceived to be a fixation on the Russia investigation at the cost of failing to deter the attack at the Florida school. He made little mention of the nearby school shooting victims and the escalating gun control debate.

Pupils and students across the country have called for tougher gun control and are planning a march in Washington next month. On Monday, dozens of teenagers spread their bodies on the pavement in front of the White House to symbolise the dead and demand presidential action on gun control.

“Every day when I say ‘bye' to my parents, I do acknowledge the fact that I could never see them again,” said Ella Fesler, a 16-year-old high school pupil in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s really important to express our anger and the importance of finally trying to make a change and having gun control in America.”

The president has focused his comments on mental health, rather than guns.

The White House on Sunday said that Mr Trump would host a "listening session" with pupils and teachers this week but offered no details on who would attend or what would be discussed.

The bipartisan background check legislation would be aimed at ensuring that federal agencies and states accurately report relevant criminal information to the FBI. It was introduced after the Air Force failed to report the criminal history of the gunman who murdered more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

Mr Trump has been a staunch supporter of gun rights and the National Rifle Association. Last year, he signed a resolution blocking an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people.

Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the measure Mr Trump discussed with senator Cornyn would help to enforce existing rules but would not close loopholes permitting private sales on the internet and at gun shows. She’s pressing for a ban on assault-type weapons and for laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to strip gun rights temporarily from people who display warning signs of violence.

“We need a comprehensive system,” Ms Brown said. “One of these isn’t enough.”

Mr Trump was last seen publicly on Friday night when he visited Parkland. He posted tweets on Saturday and Sunday and met house speaker Paul Ryan on Sunday afternoon. He also visited the golf club on Sunday night.

President Barack Obama was heavily criticised in 2014 when he went golfing during a vacation minutes after denouncing the militants who had beheaded an American journalist. He later regretted playing golf so soon after the killing.

The current president has grown increasingly frustrated since the indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday charged 13 Russians with a plot to interfere in the US presidential election.

On Twitter, Mr Trump stressed that the Russian effort began before he declared his candidacy and claimed that the Obama administration bears some blame for it. He also insisted he had never denied that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 US campaign, although in fact he has frequently challenged the veracity of the evidence.

He tweeted about the nation’s “heavy heart” after the shooting in Parkland. But he also sought to use the shooting to criticise the nation’s leading law enforcement agency.

Late on Saturday, Mr Trump said that the FBI “missed all of the many signals” sent by the suspect and argued that agents are “spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign”.

The FBI received a tip last month that the man now charged in the school shooting had a “desire to kill” and access to guns and could be plotting an attack. But the agency said on Friday that agents failed to investigate.