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 semiautomatic 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.”
Cameron Kasky, one of the Stoneman Douglas organizers of the planned student march on Washington, asked Rubio the most pointed question.
“Can you tell me right now you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” Kasky said.
Rubio, who was backed by The National Rifle Association in his last race to the tune of more than $1m, refused to make that promise, arguing that his belief in the second amendment was shaped by long 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 recognized political activists in the past week stood toe-to-toe with politicians and an NRA spokeswoman who had honed their talking points for 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, saying that no one should attack her for her activism.
Gonzalez 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 choice for a five-million member conservative organization that includes large numbers of 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 that he did not support an assault weapon ban, telling 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 typical 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.”
From the beginning, Rubio recognized that what politicians in the room were facing was something new: not just grieving survivors, but a whole generation shaped by the experience of active shooter drills and coverage of previous shootings on the news.
“I did not grow up in a school or an era in which children were shot in classrooms,” he said.
Some of the questions asked highlighted the starkness of the violence students felt they now faced.
Several students asked how politicians could ensure that it was actually safe for them to return to school.
“Why don’t we have kevlar vests in classrooms for our students. Why don’t we build our walls with kevlar?” Michelle Lapidot, a Stoneman Douglas student, asked. “Why do we protect America’s children with nothing but drywall?”