Senator Marco Rubio walked into an arena of 7,000 grieving Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, alumni and parents on Wednesday, most of them in no mood to consider arguments from the Florida Republican one week after the nation’s deadliest high school shooting.
But even though Rubio was booed and jeered by the crowd at times, the politician who has enjoyed the support of the National Rifle Association since entering elected office in 2000 did unequivocally state that 18-year-olds should not be able to purchase a gun, teachers should not be armed in classrooms, and expressed openness to banning high-capacity magazines in semiautomatic rifles.
“I absolutely believe that in this country, if you are 18 years of age you should not be able to buy a rifle. I will support a law that takes that right away,” Rubio said, just after he stared into the eyes of Fred Guttenberg, a Parkland father who lost his daughter one week ago.
Rubio, voicing some new opinions about gun control, bucked the NRA, President Donald Trump and even some Republicans in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday night during a CNN Townhall in Sunrise in which he was the only Republican elected official in a room of Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch.
Gov. Rick Scott, who is likely to challenge Nelson for his Senate seat in 2018, declined an invitation, as did President Donald Trump.
Hosted by Jake Tapper on national television, the event was a political lion’s den for Rubio. There were moments, like when Rubio was repeatedly asked by Parkland student Cameron Kasky whether he would accept any future contributions from the NRA, that were cringe-worthy. In one heated exchange, Guttenberg, whose daughter was shot in the back while fleeing from gunman Nikolas Cruz, grilled Rubio and demanded that he refer to the AR-15 as a “weapon of war.”
Rubio responded that a proposed assault rifle ban was full of loopholes, and that “we instead should make sure that dangerous criminals, people that are deranged, cannot buy any gun of any kind. That’s what I believe a better answer will be.”
Rubio’s point: An assault weapons ban would not be able to keep semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of dangerous people who want them. The crowd in Florida’s largest Democratic-controlled county erupted in cheers when he said that, to achieve what they wanted, Congress would have to pass a comprehensive ban that “would literally ban every semi-automatic rifle that's sold in America.”
But beyond the policy, Rubio, Nelson and Deutch all struggled to answer the questions that spoke to the raw emotions of last week’s shooting.
“My best friend was killed in front of me. What are you going to do to strengthen background checks?”
“My friends and I are afraid that we’re going to be murdered in our classrooms. What reassurances can you give us that this won’t happen?”
It was intense. And for 90 minutes at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, the students, teachers and families of Parkland proved that they will not be silent after enduring a horrific shooting that killed 17 teens and adults in just 6 minutes.
Given a national stage by CNN, they forced Nelson to acknowledge his party blew it by ignoring gun control when it controlled Congress in 2009-10, got Deutch to admit that Democracy is “a little bit” broken when the country overwhelmingly favors gun control legislation that Congress won’t consider, and pushed Rubio to shift positions on a number of gun rights issues and legislation.
Victoria Alvarez, a 15-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas freshman who was in room 1216, one of the first rooms that Cruz shot into, said she wanted to see if Rubio and Nelson will “do something.”
“I understand the Second Amendment, but assault rifles are unnecessary,” Alvarez said, as fellow classmates stopped by to hug her while talking to a reporter.
Alvarez said she doesn't know much about politics, but that she wants to see more security inside schools.
Dr. Barry Hummel, a 55-year-old pediatrician from Parkland, and Dr. Darby Sider, a 53-year-old physician from Parkland, said the sustained calls for political action and national attention on guns is due to the activism of students in the past week.
“It's almost like they picked on the wrong community,” Hummel said.
“It's a very progressive community, the students are very progressive and they’re well-supported,” Sider said.
Hummel and Sider, who do not support Rubio, said they give him credit for showing up, but also want to hear concrete solutions from the Florida Republican.
“He keeps talking that guns need to be well-regulated,” Hummel said. “Well, I would like him to go on the record and explain what well-regulated means. I would like to hear real solutions. Guns have to be part of the conversation.”
Alfonso Calderon, a Parkland student who was in Tallahassee earlier today talking to state lawmakers, said Rubio deserved credit for changing some of his positions.
“I am thankful that he dared to show up,” Calderon said. “Even Marco Rubio is talking about change.”