Florida students force Marco Rubio to backpedal on gun support
Raw emotion and tough questions characterise extraordinary town hall debate
Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school student Cameron Kasky confronts Republican senator Marco Rubio at a town hall meeting in Florida on Wednesday. “Can you tell me right now you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”, the student asked. Photograph: Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
Faced with a furious crowd of Florida students demanding a renewed ban on assault weapons, Republican senator Marco Rubio offered one concession after another.
He said he supported legislation to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle to 21 from 18. He said he supported a law to create gun violence restraining orders, which would give family members and law enforcement a way to petition a court to take away a dangerous person’s guns. He said he opposed Donald Trump’s proposal to prevent school shootings by arming teachers or putting more armed security in classrooms.
Finally, Rubio said he was “reconsidering” supporting a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, what experts call the most substantive part of the assault weapon ban. Rubio said that yet-to-be-announced details from the investigation on the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school would show that limits on ammunition magazines might have saved several lives in the shooting.
None of this was enough for the passionate crowd of more than 7,000 people at CNN’s town hall discussion in Florida on Wednesday night. They applauded, cheered and gave standing ovations in support of a full ban on the kind of military-style rifle and ammunition used in the Parkland shooting. A loophole-ridden federal assault weapon ban had passed in 1994, in the wake of a school shooting in California, and expired a decade later, in 2004.
Rubio, the only national Republican politician who agreed to answer questions from the Florida shooting survivors, seemed to watch the political ground of the gun debate shift under his feet. At one point, he argued that it did not make sense to ban only a subset of semi-automatic rifles based on certain cosmetic military features.
“You would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in America,” he began, before being cut off by huge whoops and cheers from the crowd.
“Fair enough, fair enough,” Rubio said. “That is a valid position to hold.”
When Rubio pressed the Democratic congressman Ted Deutch, who was also on stage, on whether or not he would support a full ban on semi-automatic rifles, he dodged. Deutch said he supported banning weapons that fire “150 rounds” in “seven or eight minutes”, but did not specifically say he supported banning all semi-automatic weapons, which automatically reload and do not continuously fire.
Deutch’s cloudy response highlights what may be a dramatic gap between the type of sweeping gun bans that students and parents want, and what Democrats in Washington are willing to fight for.
Cameron Kasky, one of the student organisers of a planned protest march on Washington on March 24th, asked Rubio the most pointed question.
“Can you tell me right now you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”
Rubio, who was backed by the National Rifle Association in his last election race to the tune of more than $1 million, refused to make that promise, arguing that his belief in the second amendment was shaped by principle, and that “people buy into my agenda, I don’t buy into theirs”.
In their questions to Rubio and other lawmakers, the students and parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas were disciplined and unrelenting, and the crowd around them was deeply involved. It was the rare televised political event where it seemed that the ordinary citizen questioners were the ones in charge.
Teenagers who have become nationally recognised political activists in the past week stood toe-to-toe with politicians and an NRA spokeswoman who had honed their talking points over years.
The NRA’s Dana Loesch tried to praise Emma González , the Stoneman Douglas student whose passionate speech decrying the political influence of the NRA had gone viral. Loesch said no one should attack her for her activism.
González told Loesch that even if she was not willing to take action to protect her own children, the Stoneman Douglas students were.
The crowd repeatedly booed and hissed Loesch, who focused on states’ failures and tried to blame law enforcement errors for the Parkland shooting, a striking claim for a five-million member conservative organisation that includes large numbers of police and law enforcement officials.
And they returned again and again to the need to ban assault weapons.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, described Stoneman Douglas kids being “hunted” in their own school. “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor,” he told Rubio. “Look at me and tell me you accept it, and you will work with us to do something about guns.”
Rubio said he did not support an assault weapon ban. He told Guttenberg: “If I believe that that law would have prevented this from happening I would support it. But I want to explain to you why it would not.”
Over boos from the crowd, Rubio made the common Republican argument about a renewed assault weapon ban: that it targets a small set of 220 semi-automatic rifles with certain cosmetic military-style features, but left thousands of other guns that function in the exact same way un-banned.
“Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Guttenberg persisted.
“Senator Rubio, my daughter running down the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was shot in the back. With an assault weapon, the weapon of choice. It is too easy to get. It is too easy to get. It is a weapon of war. The fact that you can’t stand with everybody in this building and say that – I’m sorry.”
Rubio admitted: “I did not grow up in a school or an era in which children were shot in classrooms.”
Several students asked how politicians could ensure that it was actually safe for them to return to school.
Ryan Deitsch said last week’s shooting had been the second time he had had to hide with classmates from an active shooter. The first time had been in fifth grade.
“We’d like to know, why do we have to be the ones to do this?” Deitsch asked the lawmakers. “Why do we have to speak out to the Capitol? Why do we have to march in Washington just to save innocent lives?”– Guardian