Morning News Brief

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 2:42 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One week after the school shooting in Florida, the renewed push for gun law changes is getting mixed results.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. Yesterday, members of Florida's House overwhelmingly voted not to consider a bill that would ban assault-style rifles like the one used in last week's shooting. Students from Parkland, Fla., were in the gallery for that vote, and today some of them meet lawmakers. Kyle Kashuv made the trip to Tennessee (ph) and says his opposition to gun laws has changed.

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KYLE KASHUV: I've been a strong Trump supporter. Someone like myself has been able to go to the middle ground and understand that there needs to be changes. That's great. And that really shows how important what we're doing right now is.

INSKEEP: In Washington, there was a sign of movement yesterday. It came from President Trump who says he is ready to ban bump stocks.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to propose regulations to ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.

INSKEEP: Bump stocks are those attachments that cause a semi-automatic rifle to fire like a machine gun. A man in Las Vegas, you may recall, used bump stocks last fall while spraying bullets into a crowd with multiple weapons.

The president also said he supports stronger background checks - though on this day that the president meets survivors of mass shootings, it is an open question which laws could change.

MARTIN: All right, let's get into it with NPR's Greg Allen. He is in Florida. He's been covering all of this. We're also joined on the line by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning to both of you.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right, I want to start with you, Tam. You have looked at President Trump's memo on bump stocks. What exactly is he proposing? And when would this happen - question mark?

KEITH: When is a big question mark. And what is sort of a question mark, too. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in December began a review process of these bumps stocks. That process is ongoing. And basically, the president's memo says hurry up and...

MARTIN: Hurry up and do it.

KEITH: ...Act and...

MARTIN: Finish your review.

KEITH: ...He would like...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

KEITH: Hurry up and do it...

INSKEEP: Oh, so he ordered...

KEITH: ...And he would like ATF...

INSKEEP: ...Them to do something they're already doing. OK.

KEITH: Yes. And - but he is taking a position. He is saying that he would like the Justice Department to put out for notice for public comment a rule banning all devices that can turn legal weapons into machine guns. But there is a very big question here, which is whether ATF actually has the authority to do that. It has found over the years that it doesn't have that authority. And some are saying that legislation is really the only way to legally do this.

MARTIN: So also - the president tweeted yesterday on the issue of gun control. He said the following - whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening background checks.

OK. So how significant is that tweet? Is he talking about any kind of specific legislation here?

KEITH: What he appears to be talking about - Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, said that he is supportive of making the background checks system more efficient and looking at better ways to improve that process. So not expanding background checks - who would be subjected to them, how they would work - but simply there's legislation out there from Senators Cornyn and Murphy that would basically tell states and local governments and federal agencies to follow the existing law and encourage them to do that. And that appears to be what the president is supportive of.

MARTIN: OK. Meanwhile, at the state level, let's talk about what happened in Florida, Greg. The Florida House yesterday refused to even consider this piece of legislation that would have banned assault-style rifles. Right? What were the arguments against this measure?

ALLEN: Right. Well, this is a bill that was introduced last year by Democrats, and it was bottled up in committee. It was really going nowhere. Even after the Parkland shooting, there had been no hearing scheduled. So the people who supported it - it kind of a desperation move to take it out of committee. They had a vote to take it out of committee and take it directly to the House floor. It'd be very unusual, somewhat of a desperation measure, I think as much as getting the votes on the record as anything else. And it failed on a largely party-line vote. But as you noted at the top, there were some Parkland students in the gallery, and there was some great disappointment and some tears when that happened.

MARTIN: Right. So the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has said in the wake of the shooting that, quote, "everything is on the table" in regards to gun policy. So what does that mean, especially in light of yesterday's vote?

ALLEN: Well, you know, a ban on high-powered rifles like the AR-15 that was used last week in Parkland is a real long shot here. This is a state with a long history of supporting gun rights legislation. You know, this is where they developed the "stand your ground" law, for instance. There's a real...

MARTIN: That was instrumental in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

ALLEN: That's right. Yeah. And there's a bill right now, for example, moving in the legislature that would allow people with conceal-carry permits to bring their guns to church. Although there was one that would allow certain teachers to bring them to school, that one has been postponed for now. So they are taking some notice of it. But you know, that said, lawmakers are sobered by last week's shooting. And they're talking about limiting firearm sales and taking steps to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill.

MARTIN: I mean. They're going to have this meeting. Right? Like, these students from Parkland who are in that gallery, they're going to meet face to face with lawmakers in Florida today. That's going to be emotional, I imagine.

ALLEN: Oh, yeah. And the people - and they're listening here. There's - the governor says he's going to have a proposal on Friday. And the legislature - or the lawmakers - Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers, are looking at several measures to limit sales here.

MARTIN: So meanwhile in D.C., Tam, another meeting is happening, some more listening. The president is supposed to meet with a group of people from Parkland. Who's going to be in this?

KEITH: Yeah. So this is a listening session with parents, teachers and students. What the White House is saying - that it will include members of the Parkland community as well as individuals who were impacted by past school shootings. That includes Columbine and Sandy Hook.

INSKEEP: For better or worse, of course, making law is a process. It can be a very long process. We're at a point now where the president of the United States has been signaling that he is willing to go for change, willing to push for change. But we should note that there was a time when he was eager for changes to Obamacare, which did not get through Congress. There was a time when he signaled eagerness to help DACA recipients, and that hasn't happened either necessarily. So he...

MARTIN: Right. Listening is one thing.

INSKEEP: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: We'll see what actually happens. All right, NPR correspondent Greg Allen reporting from Tallahassee, and we were also joined by Tamara Keith.

Thanks so much to both of you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right, we're going to turn now to Damascus, the capital of Syria. There is a suburb around Damascus that is currently being bombarded.

INSKEEP: It's called eastern Ghouta. It's home to nearly 400,000 civilians, and it's been controlled for some time by rebel forces. For the past couple of days, the Syrian government has been bombing that area - warplanes overhead. Videos from that suburb show streets filled with hunks of concrete from blasted out buildings and rescue workers pulling survivors from the buildings that remain. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 200 people have been killed just since Sunday.

MARTIN: OK. Let's turn to NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

Ruth, what more can you tell us about what's happening in this town, Ghouta?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Yes. Well, it is a relentless campaign there. As you said, you know, these airstrikes are hitting civilian buildings. Hospitals have also been hit - several. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organization, which has aid groups running hospitals there, said that eight hospitals have been hit just in the last couple of days. We spoke - and there's also lots of children dying. There's terrible images on social media of corpses of small children who were killed in the airstrikes. We spoke with one little girl, Nour (ph). She's 12 years old. We found her through activists, and she was with her mother at the time. She says she's in Ghouta, and she told us about what it feels like to be there.

NOUR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Here she says, "I'm so, so scared." She says she's hiding under the stairwell 'cause there's no basement. She's hiding under the stairwell from the airstrikes. And she just appeals to the world asking for help.

MARTIN: Why is this particular place a target right now, Ruth?

SHERLOCK: Well, as you said, you know, this area has been held by rebel groups. And it's one of the last main rebel-held areas in Syria. And it still threatens the government. And it's right on the outskirts of Damascus. So now, it seems, that this air offensive is basically a prelude to a ground attack.

There's this guy General Suheil al-Hassan who's become the leader of one of the government's main militias fighting there, called the Tiger Force. And he's filmed in a video giving this speech of fiery rhetoric. He's saying, I promise I will teach them a lesson in combat and fire. And you won't find a rescuer. And if you do, you'll be rescued with water that feels like boiling oil. You'll be rescued with blood. So they're saying that troops are amassing on the border there.

The U.N. has appealed for a ceasefire. But so far, few have heeded that - no one seems to have heeded their calls.

MARTIN: Wow - so a ground war - so more people dying, most likely.

SHERLOCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, the Syrian government is also working on taking back territory elsewhere in the country - right? - in the north around a place called Afrin. What can you tell us about that?

SHERLOCK: Yes, exactly. And this war is complicated, and there are many countries now involved, many different interests. Here we're talking about Afrin, which is a town near the Turkish border. And in recent weeks, Turkish troops have been attacking that area because it's run by a Kurdish militia. And they - the YPG, whom Turkey considers a terrorist organization - the YPG was losing ground there. And it's desperate not to lose to the Turks.

So as a kind of half-measure, or compromise, they've invited in the Syrian government militias into the town. But this means that now Turkey and the Syrian regime are in the position to be fighting each other directly, which is a whole new complication in the conflict. And so - you know, the regime is getting the upper hand, but this war is far from over.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

Thanks so much, Ruth. We appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-SIDE'S "THOUGHTFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.