One of the highlights of CNN’s Wednesday town hall on guns came when Cameron Kasky, a student survivor of the Florida school shooting, stood several feet away from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and challenged him, “Can you tell me you won’t take a single donation from the NRA?”
Cheers erupted in the crowd, a gathering at an arena in Sunrise, Fla. that included parents of victims, student survivors and other community officials from Parkland, Fla.
Rubio didn’t answer yes or no, other than to say that “people buy into my agenda.”
The town hall was riveting and even raucous at points. The dramatic moments were all the more extraordinary given that teenagers were the ones putting Rubio and others on the spot to respond to their questions, following up and pressing them when they dodged giving full answers.
The news network had held a town hall on guns in 2016 with President Barack Obama, but this one was different, matching the raw emotion of last week’s tragedy with the Washington politicians who set the agenda. It was a sign that the response to this latest mass shooting is enduring, and the event marked a prelude to a student-led march on Washington scheduled for March 24.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the school shooting, drew big cheers when he told Rubio that he thought Rubio’s comments in the past week and those of President Donald Trump were “pathetically weak.”
Rubio, who has voted against past gun control proposals, stood with a stone face and listened.
“Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in the school this week,” Guttenberg said. “Look at me and tell me that you accept it and you will work with us and do something about guns.”
Rubio responded that yes, “of course” guns were a factor. But he said the “problems we are facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone.”
“We instead should make sure that dangerous criminals, people that are deranged, cannot buy any gun of any kind,” he said.
He was joined by Florida’s other senator, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and one of its members of the House, Ted Deutch, another Democrat.
As much as Rubio was put on the spot, Nelson gave Rubio credit for attending the event, unlike Gov. Rick Scott, who may be Nelson’s opponent come midterms. David Hogg, another student who has been among the most visible in criticizing D.C.’s inaction, tweeted, “Thank you [Marco Rubio] for actually coming out it means a lot.”
Rubio also signaled new positions. He said that he would support raising the age limit on the AR-15 rifle, the one used in the shooting, to 21, and he said that he was changing his position on banning the use of high-capacity magazines. But when Guttenberg pressed Rubio for whether he would support an assault weapons ban, a “weapon of war” that was used to kill his daughter, Rubio declined. He challenged the notion of banning all assault weapons, saying that the problem is that the past law, which was allowed to expire in 2004, was full of loopholes.
Nelson acknowledged that Democrats did not do enough to pass gun control legislation when it had a 60-vote, veto-proof majority in 2009 and 2010, and instead focused on passing the Affordable Care Act.
Earlier in the day, emotions ran high at the White House, where Trump held a “listening session” with parents, students and other survivors. One of the ideas that Trump floated was to arm teachers.
That concept was met with jeers from the town hall crowd. Even Rubio said that he didn’t think it was a good idea. “I think it has practical problems,” he said.
Emma Gonzalez, a senior at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, whose speech over the weekend blasting inaction has gone viral, was given the first question to Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, and asked her whether it should be harder to obtain semiautomatic weapons.
Loesch turned to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable via background checks. “Do you guys want to stop mentally unstable individuals from getting firearms?” Loesch asked. She did not, however, support raising the age requirement for certain types of weapons.
Loesch did refrain from trying to turn attention to gun violence in movies and TV shows, which the NRA did in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012.
Still, Scott Israel, the sheriff of Broward County, blasted Loesch for not talking about reducing the proliferation of weapons.
“You just told this group of people you are standing up for them. You are not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons,'” he said.
The town hall ended with Max Schachter, the father of victim Alex Schachter, sharing a poem that his son wrote.