In his first stop on a statewide tour, United States Sen. Doug Jones visited several places in Mobile, but while the planned focus was on local issues, the national concern over last week’s mass shooting at a South Florida high school that killed 17 people appears to have followed the freshman senator home.
Unlike Democrats from more liberal states, Jones played to Alabama’s pro-gun proclivities during his contested campaign against Roy Moore last fall — calling himself a strong proponent of the Second Amendment and an avid hunter. But it’s an issue that’s not as cut and dried for Jones.
Taking questions from journalists this week, he didn’t mince words on his support for a bipartisan bill moving through the Senate aiming to strengthen and streamline the federal background check system used to vet those purchasing firearms. He’s not alone in that support, either.
The bill, introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) just two days after the Parkland shooting, has already garnered support from many in the GOP, including President Donald Trump. However, echoing recent comments from the Democratic Party’s leadership, Jones suggested Trump’s support was an abrupt about-face.
“I’m glad he’s [supporting the bill] because last week when he submitted his budget, he was going to cut the background check system by $12 million,” Jones said. “We’ve got to fund it fully and fund additional technology for it. So, I’m very glad to hear that, I just hate it took another tragedy for him to say it, because there’s been a lot of people in Congress saying that for a long time.”
Unlike more aggressive gun control measures that have been discussed following this and other mass shootings, the Murphy-Cornyn legislation has a much narrower focus: reinforcing requirements for federal agencies to report crimes on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and create financial incentives for states to do the same.
Jones noted that had the U.S. Navy reported a domestic violence court-martial of former Airman Devin P. Kelley to the proper background systems, it could have prevented him from buying the assault rifle he used to kill 26 people in a Texas church last November.
Jones said the Murphy-Cornyn bill would be a “very good first step” but said it would have to be the “first of many” to curb the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. He said a solution couldn’t address guns alone but would need to retool mental health services and school safety procedures as well.
To that, Jones said states need to look at addressing school safety from “a standpoint of construction,” and added that, with Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal in the works, Congress might actually be in a position to help states.“There are some school systems in Alabama right now that do a pretty good job of protecting schools because they’ve got funding, where they can lock down doors or lock down classrooms. But you go into the Black Belt of Alabama and they don’t have that,” he said.
“People are also going to have to have an appetite to change their culture. We got used to getting on airplanes through metal detectors, and I think we’re going to have to do the same thing with schools.”
Jones echoed concerns raised by conservatives about the FBI’s response to warnings about the Parkland shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. Just over a month before he killed 17 people, the FBI failed to act on tips about “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, disturbing social media posts” and “the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” according to reports.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has since called on FBI Director Christopher Wray to step down, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered the Department of Justice to review what went wrong. Trump, though, has used the bureau’s misstep as another way to question the ongoing probe of whether his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
“They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — there is no collusion,” Trump wrote in a Tweet. “Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”
Jones agrees the FBI “dropped the ball” and said people would probably need to be “called on the carpet” to find out how it happened and prevent it from happening again. However, he said that individual failure isn’t “an indictment of the entire FBI by any stretch of the imagination.”
“I thought it was highly inappropriate for the president to blame the FBI and say they were too focused on a Russian investigation instead of this,” Jones said. “Those are local folks down there in Florida, who I’m sure had other things going on and they just dropped the ball. This had nothing to do with the Russian investigation.”
With regard to mental health, in addition to increased funding Jones appeared to support greater resources to assist teachers and law enforcement agencies with identifying and mitigating potential threats from students who may harm their classmates.
One of the notable points in the analysis of last week’s shooting has been the well-documented concern teachers, parents and students had about the danger Cruz posed. He had a history of erratic behavior, had been sent to an alternative school program and was eventually expelled from his school about a year before he returned with an AR-15 assault rifle.
While Jones said there’s always more to be done, he acknowledged that these are “tough issues.”
“I think to some extent we’re still in a little bit of a learning curve about mental illness and what to be on the lookout for. Whether somebody can truly predict something like this could happen, I don’t think they could, but clearly more should have been done,” he said. “There were warning signs there, and I think there warning signs in the past.”
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