Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner says efforts to prevent mass shootings like those at a Florida high school, and a movie theater in Aurora should center on issues like background checks and mental health. But he stopped short of laws that would address the actual tools used in those mass murders — guns.

Gardner made the remarks in a wide ranging interview with Colorado Matters, in which he also addressed North Korea and President Trump’s new trade tariffs on steel and aluminum from other countries.

“I think we have to make sure that we are preventing violence from happening,” Gardner said in response to questions about mass shootings. “What happened in Parkland, what's happened in Sutherland Springs, what's happened in Aurora, is unacceptable.”

Students across Colorado and the country say they plan to walk out of their classrooms on Wednesday to demonstrate how fed up they are with gun violence.

Preventing that violence means more staff training at schools and health care workers to identify people who may represent potential dangers, Gardner said. That's in line with Trump's stated position.

“We ought to take advantage of the language that we passed in the 21st Century Cures Act that would provide more training to counselors at schools to help identify those who could carry out such a heinous act, who could commit harm against their fellow students,” Gardner said.

“I had a law enforcement round table in Colorado last week where we met with sheriffs and law enforcement from around the state who talked about some of the health care barriers that are preventing them from helping those who may be at risk of committing harm to their communities,” he added. But Gardner also cautioned that, “We have constitutional rights at stake. We have to protect those rights as law abiding citizens, but we have to make sure that we can prevent this kind of harm from happening.”

As to addressing gun laws, he favored a closer look at background checks.

“f there's things that we need to do to make sure that, the Air Force for instance, or the government, is failing to forward information to background checks, that's important that we do that. We have to provide due process in these circumstances. So we should look at that,” he said. “But we have to be very careful that we're providing due process, making sure that information is there and then acting on mental health issues that seem to be very common in this.”

Gardner also questioned the law enforcement response in the Florida shooting.

“The other thing we have to point out is, where was the failure in law enforcement, especially in places like Florida where the sheriff's office was apparently contacted by somebody over 40 times. Could that have prevented this act? So there's a lot of information that we need, a lot of angles that we can take, but I think it's important that we have these very, very difficult conversations,” Gardner said.

Trade Retaliation Concerns

Gardner said he heard from businesses and agricultural interests concerned after the president signed an order to impose steep tariffs on some imports of aluminum and steel. The moved fulfilled a campaign promise Trump made to steelworkers.

“I oppose the tariffs,” Gardner said. “I think it's the wrong economic direction to take. We do need fair trade deals yes, but I'm afraid that a tariff actually penalizes the ones that we're trying to help.”

“Manufacturers like Trinidad Benham headquartered in Denver that makes aluminum foil products,” contacted him with concerns, he said. “If you look at Coors and Left Hand Brewing Company and some of the others, Ball Canning Operations, they’re very concerned about aluminum.”

“I do think it's a tax on the American people. I'm telling them that we will continue to engage with the White House. There's possible legislative solutions that we have to turn to,” Gardner said. “They're talking about exempting Canada and Mexico and other countries. … I hope the White House, over the coming days, will narrowly tailor any action they are taking to those countries that are truly causing problems when it comes to the trade issues at stake.”

Trump And North Korea

As NPR reported, the White House appeared to put conditions on a much anticipated meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying that the rogue nation must take "concrete and verifiable action" on nuclear weapons.

Gardner also said that the North Koreans must have a blueprint for total denuclearization before any meeting with U.S. leaders.

“We need to have concrete and verifiable steps toward that denuclearization. That's why, I've said that over and over again, because they have made promises in the past. In 1994, that they would denuclearize. In 2005, they said they would abandon their nuclear program. Every time, they reneged on their promises. They did not follow through. And so we need to see those concrete steps.”

Does Gardner think there's anything different about this moment?

“I think the sanctions are working. In my conversations with the intelligence community, and conversations with the State Department, we're seeing significant impact that the sanctions are having on North Korea. Kim Jong-un's cronies, the elites of Pyongyang, aren't able to get the luxury goods that they've become accustomed to,” Gardner said. “We're hearing that there's fuel lines.”

Managing the situation would be easier with an ambassador in South Korea — which the U.S. does not have, Gardner said. “We need an ambassador, desperately.”

“But I think the maximum pressure doctrine that has been put in place by Congress is working. It's starting to prove that sanctions can work. And that's what the president has pursued. Abandoning the failed doctrine of strategic patience was important,” her said. “There's a lot hanging on this meeting. Because, if as I have said, there is room left on the diplomatic runway to work with North Korea, a meeting with the president, that takes up a lot of that runway space that's remaining. Because if it doesn't go well, what is there, aside from presidential negotiations, that we have left? So that's why there's so much at stake with this meeting.”

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. A meeting between American and North Korean leaders would be a big deal for the U.S., for North Korea, for the world. Such a meeting wouldn't merely be an opportunity to negotiate, it is in and of itself, a bargaining chip, says U.S. Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner. The Republican sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and chairs the subcommittee on East Asia. We spoke late Friday.

I wonder if you've tried to put yourself in the shoes of the North Koreans, since word of a possible meeting emerged, what they might want out of engaging this time.

Sen. Cory Gardner: Well, I would hope that the people of North Korea would see what's happening in the south part of the peninsula. They have economic prosperity. They have incredible agricultural operations and trade operations, and that's what North Korea could have if they would just stop the work of this tyrannical regime.

RW: Of course, South Korea's been to their south for a long time, prospering. What's different about his moment, do you think?

CG: Well, it wasn't that long ago, really, that the North's economy was more prosperous than the South. So over the past decades of Kim family rule, that's changed dramatically. And so part of the effort that I've undertaken is, through legislation I've passed and work of the State Department, is to try to show the people of North Korea that there is a better way of life. That's through things like dropping thumb drives or broadcasts or television programming geared at North Koreans and so they can see how life in South Korea and in the free world, what it's really like. And so those are the kinds of things that I hope that they will look to. If this denuclearization occurs, things would get better.

RW: Those computer drives, those broadcasts, those have occurred? That's part of what's already going on?

CG: That's correct.

RW: You've said that you think the North Koreans must have a blueprint for total denuclearization before any meeting. You think that should be in place before the Trump administration agrees. Why would they do that for a meeting?

CG: We need to have concrete and verifiable steps toward that denuclearization. That's why, I've said that over and over again, because they have made promises in the past; in 1994, that they would denuclearize. In 2005, they said they would abandon their nuclear program. Every time, they reneged on their promises. They did not follow through. And so we need to see those concrete steps.

RW: Do you think there's anything different about this moment, though?

CG: I think the sanctions are working. In my conversations with the intelligence community, and conversations with the State Department, we're seeing significant impact that the sanctions are having on North Korea. Kim Jong-un's cronies, the elites of Pyongyang aren't able to get the luxury goods that they've become accustomed to. Things are harder to get by. We're hearing that there's fuel lines. And he knows that this is going to hold as long as he continues to violate international law.

RW: How's the White House handling this, in your estimation? And I'll note that it's without an ambassador in place.

CG: Well, first we need an ambassador, desperately, in South Korea. But I think the maximum pressure doctrine that has been put in place by Congress is working. It's starting to prove that sanctions can work. And that's what the president has pursued. Abandoning the failed doctrine of strategic patience was important.

I also, though, believe that this is a very high level, high interest meeting. There's a lot hanging on this meeting. Because, if as I have said, there is room left on the diplomatic runway to work with North Korea, a meeting with the president, that takes up a lot of that runway space that's remaining. Because if it doesn't go well, what is there, aside from presidential negotiations, that we have left? So that's why there's so much at stake with this meeting.

RW: That is, the meeting itself is a bargaining chip. I'd like to move on to the fact that, last week, the president signed an order to impose steep tariffs on some imports of aluminum and steel. What have you heard so far from Coloradans about how they will be directly affected? Who's reached out to you?

CG: Well I've heard from a number of people from agricultural interests who are concerned about retaliatory tariffs that could be placed on agricultural products to manufacturers like Trinidad Benham headquartered in Denver that makes aluminum foil products. If you look at Coors and Left Hand Brewing Company and some of the other, Ball Canning Operations, very concerned about aluminum. This morning I spoke with Conrad Winkler, the CEO for steel in Pueblo, Colorado about his concern with the tariffs, and NAFTA as well, if we were to pull out of that. He's very concerned.

RW: What are you telling them? What are you telling them?

CG: Yeah, first of all I oppose the tariffs, I think it's the wrong economic direction to take. We do need fair trade deals yes, but I'm afraid that a tariff actually penalizes the ones that we're trying to help. So I do think it's a tax on the American people. I'm telling them that we will continue to engage with the White House. There's possible legislative solutions that we have to turn to. Obviously engaging with the White House to find out what the tariffs mean, there's exclusions. They're talking about exempting Canada and Mexico and other countries apply. I hope the White House, over the coming days, will narrowly tailor any action they are taking to those countries that are truly causing problems when it comes to the trade issues at stake.

RW: Of course anything that Congress carves out as an exception would have to be signed by the president, so it doesn't sound like that would be an easy path.

CG: Well that's certainly the system that our founders set up.

RW: Okay. Students across Colorado and across the country will walk out of their classrooms later this week to demonstrate how fed up they are with gun violence. Senator Gardner is there one change to gun laws in this country that you could get behind?

CG: Well look, I think we have to make sure that we are preventing violence from happening. What happened in Parkland, what's happened in Sutherland Springs, what's happened in Aurora, is unacceptable.

RW: Preventing violence is a laudable goal, how would you do it?

CG: So there's a couple things we ought to do, we ought to take advantage of the language that we passed in the 21st Century Cures Act that would provide more training to counselors at schools to help identify those who could carry out such a heinous act, who could commit harm against their fellow students. We need to, I had a law enforcement round table in Colorado last week where we met with sheriffs and law enforcement from around the state who talked about some of the healthcare barriers that are preventing them from helping those who may be at risk of committing harm to their communities. Those are things that we can look at. So I hope that we have a broad discussion in this community, in this country, about what we need to do to prevent harm. We have constitutional rights at stake. We have to protect those rights as law abiding citizens, but we have to make sure that we can prevent this kind of harm from happening.

RW: So nowhere in that answer did you point to the guns themselves, the tool that is used. Is there anything you'd change about gun laws in particular?

CG: Well if there's things that we need to do to make sure that, the Air Force for instance, or the government, is failing to forward information to background checks, that's important that we do that. We have to provide due process in these circumstances. So we should look at that, that's what we should do, but we have to be very careful that we're providing due process, making sure that information is there and then acting on mental health issues that seem to be very common in this.

The other thing we have to point out is, where was the failure in law enforcement, especially in places like Florida where the sheriff's office was apparently contacted by somebody over 40 times. Could that have prevented this act? So there's a lot of information that we need, a lot of angles that we can take, but I think it's important that we have these very, very difficult conversations.

RW: Republican Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner. We spoke late Friday. I'm Ryan Warner, CPR News.