WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump told governors on Monday not to worry about the National Rifle Association lobbying group as states consider how to improve school safety after 17 students and educators were killed at a Florida high school on Feb. 14 by a gunman with semiautomatic rifle.
"Don't worry about the NRA. They're on our side," Trump told more than 35 governors, including Rick Scott of Florida, during a White House meeting. "And you know what, if they're not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while. That's OK. They're doing what they think is right."
The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, inflamed the nation's long-running debate over gun rights.
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Trump, a Republican who backed gun rights during and since his 2016 presidential campaign, last week suggested that arming teachers could help stop more rampages. He did not mention on Monday raising the legal age to buy assault rifles to 21, an idea he emphasized last week and one that Florida's Scott, also a Republican, backed after the rampage.
The NRA could not be reached for immediate comment.
Investigators said the assault was carried out by Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student at the high school, who legally purchased a semiautomatic AR-15 assault weapon nearly a year ago. Police charged Cruz, who had been kicked out of the school due to disciplinary problems, with 17 counts of premeditated murder.
The shooting has rattled long-drawn political lines on gun rights in the United States, where Republican officials have often backed any efforts to tighten gun ownership rules, often out of concern about potential retribution by the powerful NRA.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, told Trump that teachers in his state do not want to carry weapons. In a later interview with MSNBC he said he was encouraged by Trump's apparent flexibility on issues like raising the minimum age to buy firearms and stronger background checks.
"We do need not just more rhetorical flourishes by the president," Inslee told MSNBC. "If he's going to be serious, he needs to be true to his commitment.
Florida plans to invest $500 million to have a significant law enforcement presence in every public school in the state, Scott told the White House meeting, adding "I'm not waiting for the federal government."
OFFICER NOT A 'COWARD,' LAWYER SAYS
Trump criticized the law enforcement officers who responded to the shooting.
An armed school resource officer stationed at the school stayed outside during the attack, and has since resigned his position. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has been criticized for his department's response to the shooting.
"The way they performed was, frankly, disgusting," Trump said, adding that he believed that if he were in the same situation, he would have run into the school, "even if I didn't have a weapon."
The businessman-turned-politician avoided military service during the Vietnam War through student and medical deferments.
He has called the school resource officer, Scot Peterson, a "coward."
An attorney for Peterson defended his actions in a statement that he had remained outside because he believed the gunfire was occurring outside the school, according to local media.
"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," attorney Joseph DiRuzzo said in the statement.
Trump has said he plans to limit sales of "bump stocks," an accessory that can modify a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle to fire at high rates of speed akin to a machine gun. Fully automatic machine guns are largely banned under U.S. law.
The NRA has pushed back against that idea, saying that new restrictions on firearms would impinge on the rights of law-abiding gun owners while having no effect on public safety.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)