Six things we learned from the Florida town hall on gun control

Dana Loesch, the NRA spokeswoman, blamed mental illness and law enforcement, rather than gun laws, for the attack.
Dana Loesch, the NRA spokeswoman, blamed mental illness and law enforcement, rather than gun laws, for the attack. Photograph: Michael Laughlin/Sun-Sentinel via ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school students, teachers and parents booed, screamed and asked questions through tears as they interrogated lawmakers and a National Rifle Association spokeswoman about how the shooting that killed 17 people could have happened in the first place – and what those in power would do to stop another massacre.

Here are six key takeaways from the two-hour CNN town hall:

Marco Rubio won’t stop taking NRA money

The Republican senator Marco Rubio faced the most intense scrutiny of the elected officials in attendance, with grieving students and parents directing their anger at policy inaction and the NRA’s influence toward the Florida lawmaker.

One of the most intense moments of the evening came when a student named Cameron Kasky said to Rubio: “Can you tell me now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”

The senator, who received $1m from the NRA in the 2016 election, repeatedly deflected the question, citing his commitment to the second amendment, adding: “People buy into my agenda ... The influence of these groups comes not from money. The influence comes from the millions of people that agree with the agenda.”

Rubio is open to ‘reconsidering’ his stance on magazines

Despite his refusal to denounce NRA money, the GOP senator said he would consider certain gun control policies that his party has generally opposed. In one exchange, he said he would reconsider his position on banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“While it may not prevent an attack, it may save lives in an attack,” he said. “I think we can reach a compromise.”

He did not, however, make any firm commitments.

Some Parkland students praised the senator for at least showing up, unlike the Florida governor, Rick Scott, and the president, Donald Trump, who both declined invites, according to CNN.

NRA blames ‘crazy’ people and law enforcement

The NRA’s spokeswoman Dana Loesch adopted a predictable strategy of casting blame on mental illness, repeatedly referring to people who are “crazy” and “nuts” carrying out these attacks. This is despite the fact that, as critics pointed out, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators and only commit a small fraction of offenses.

Loesch also targeted law enforcement in her comments, arguing with the sheriff of Broward County seated besides her and claiming that police should be doing more to prevent these kinds of tragedies. The crowd repeatedly booed Loesch, who got in heated exchanges with students and parents about the second amendment.

Divides on assault rifle bans

The town hall kicked off with an emotional plea from Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in the shooting. He said to Rubio: “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kid.”

But Rubio made clear he would not support an assault rifle ban: “If I believe that that law would have prevented this from happening I would support it.”

He claimed that it would not address all assault weapons, saying: “You would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in America.” Though unintended, the line learned huge applause from the crowd, prompting the senator to say: “Fair enough ... That is a valid position to hold.”

Some consensus on gun control

There was some consensus on a few limited proposals. Rubio said he did not support arming teachers, echoing the position of the local Florida law enforcement officials and Democrats.

Rubio also said he would support a law to create gun violence restraining orders, which would allow police and family members to request that a court block a dangerous individual from possessing weapons. The senator also said he supports raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21.

Ryan Deitsch, a student who survived the shooting, responded to Rubio’s modest proposals, saying: “I do appreciate your words here, but that feels like the first step of a 5k run.”

Moments of hope

The student activists and others expressed some amount of hope and optimism during and after the town hall. Commentators noted that this moment felt different than the typical cycle of an American mass shooting, with teenage survivors pushing for change in effective and powerful ways.

Emma González, a student who recently went viral with her impassioned speech criticizing the NRA, tweeted after the hearing: “Words cannot describe how Good I feel after this Town Hall ... we got to Talk to the People who can make a Difference ... and though tears were listened to #STONEMANSTRONG.”

CNN presented the evening as an “historic exchange” and observers commented on the rarity of seeing teenagers passionately challenge their lawmakers on live television.

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