One week after 3,000 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School huddled under desks, inside lavatories, and behind barricaded classroom doors in the hopes of surviving the latest mass shooting in a nation singularly beset by them, survivors of that massacre grilled elected officials about their plans to address gun safety in a televised town-hall forum.
“Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action” was billed by CNN as a two-hour listening session between three Florida politicians and survivors of the shooting. Aired seven days after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at the school, killing 14 students and three faculty members, the town hall was marked by moments of extreme emotion and of extreme anger, as nearly two dozen students pressed Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch on how they planned to keep an event like the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, from happening again.
“Why did it have to take so much blood to be spilled, so much money to be gained?” asked Michelle Lapidot, a student at Stoneman Douglas. “Why do we have to be the last school? Why wasn’t the first school the last school?”
The surviving students, as well as a few teachers at the school and parents of slain students, questioned the lawmakers from all angles of the national debate on firearm safety and regulation, from background-check loopholes and access to semiautomatic weapons to the notion—advocated by President Donald Trump—that school shootings can be thwarted by arming teachers.
Despite the high emotional tenor of the evening, the student speakers were universally poised, concise, and well-spoken—traits that have sparked laughable online conspiracies in recent days from hoaxsters who insist that Stoneman Douglas survivors are too cool and collected to not be agents of some unnamed anti-gun cabal. Students who had witnessed horrific violence days before, or even sustained injuries themselves, spoke clearly and pointedly throughout the town hall.
“I was shot twice,” said Samantha Grady, a student who was in a classroom attacked by Cruz. “My best friend was killed right in front of me, and the experience that I had can never be taken away from me, no matter how much I want it to be.”
The town hall’s confrontational nature—Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie Guttenberg was killed in Parkland last week, brought the crowd to its feet when he told Rubio that his comments in the shooting’s wake were “pathetically weak”—showed the fruits of a week of intense activism on the part of Stoneman Douglas students.
Rubio, who in the course of his career in elected office has received $3,303,355 in donations from the National Rifle Association, publicly came out for banning bump stocks, said he is now “reconsidering” his position on high-capacity magazines, and, for the first time, voiced support for raising the age for purchasing rifles.
“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.
“What you’ve lived through and what you live through is not supposed to be a part of your high-school experience,” Rubio told student Ryan Deitsch, who asked why it has been left to teenagers to force a dialogue on gun violence. “It is unfortunate that in this country, we haven’t been able to make progress on any major issue for a lot of different reasons, this being one of them. You do have a chance to change it, I really believe it.”
On an issue viewed by many in the 7,000-person audience as a litmus test for firearm regulation, however, Rubio did not budge.
After Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior who survived last week’s shooting, coolly asked Rubio whether he would reject future donations from the NRA, Rubio wouldn’t say no.
“The influence of these groups comes not from money, it comes from millions of people who support the agenda,” Rubio said, over a chorus of loud and sustained boos. “People buy into my agenda. Ultimately our goal is to move forward.”
Pressed by Kasky, Rubio declared that he “will always accept money from people who support my agenda.”
Rubio, the sole elected Republican to appear at the town hall despite invitations to Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, was frequently interrupted by boos from the audience at the town hall’s outset, although some speakers and Rubio’s colleague in the U.S. Senate lauded him for facing a critical audience in person.
At one moment, when Rubio protested that due to loopholes in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, “you would literally have to ban every semiautomatic rifle,” he responded to the ensuing applause gamely. “Fair enough.”
On other issues, Rubio found broader support. Asked by culinary teacher Ashley Kurth, who helped shield 65 students and other teachers during the massacre, whether she should be required to obtain extra training and a fire-resistant vest in order to teach in America—as advocated by Trump—the junior senator was less equivocal.
“I don’t support that,” Rubio said. “The notion that my kids are going to school with teachers that are armed with a weapon is not something that, quite frankly, I’m comfortable with.”
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel later echoed that sentiment. “I don’t believe teachers should be armed. I believe teachers should teach,” Israel said, in a thinly veiled criticism of Trump’s suggestion that “if you had a teacher with, who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly.”
Israel called such thinking “exactly what’s wrong with this country: We have people in Washington, D.C.—representatives, senators, and legislators—telling teachers what they should do without asking teachers.”
Rubio was not the only elected official who conceded that national lawmakers had failed in their duty to address the issue of mass gun violence in the United States. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether Democrats had made a mistake in failing to address gun violence legislatively when they controlled the U.S. Senate, House, and White House in 2009 and 2010, Nelson sheepishly agreed.
“Uh, yes,” Nelson said. “When the Senate had 60 votes, as we did... that’s how we got the Affordable Care Act passed, and yes, gun legislation under those circumstances should have been considered, because there had been a lot of massacres up to that point.”
It was, Nelson said, an opportunity no longer available to Democrats. “The hard reality is that there are not a majority of senators—primarily the ones that have been supported, financially, by the NRA—there’s not a majority of senators that are going to be willing to do a lot.”
Skepticism of Rubio’s commitment to addressing gun violence gave way to open hostility when NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch took the stage to answer questions. Loesch, who once compared incentivizing gun owners to secure their firearms to “shaming a rape survivor,” told the audience that “this individual was nuts, and I, nor the millions of people that I represent as part of this organization… none of us support people who are crazy” from obtaining weapons.
Loesch, who once called anti-gun-violence activists “tragedy-dry-humping whores,” had low expectations for the town hall. In a preview video before the event, Loesch, who is perhaps best known for threatening to set a copy of The New York Times on fire, said that she hoped for a “civil debate… without anybody screaming ‘murderer’ at me.” The NRA spent $54 million during the last federal election cycle, roughly $30 million of which went to supporting Trump or attacking his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
A question posed by Lapidot before Loesch’s arrival indicated that Loesch’s hopes were misplaced.
“For her and the NRA,” Lapidot asked, “and all of you puppet politicians that they are backing: Was the blood of my classmates and my teachers worth your blood money?”
Audience members were unified across the political spectrum, however, in the belief that after this mass shooting—the nation’s 30th this year—things may finally change.
“Things are different—we are not going to stay quiet,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told The Daily Beast before the town hall began. “We are going to do something about this.”
—James LaPorta contributed reporting from Sunrise, Florida