Critic's Notebook: CNN Town Hall on Guns Proves Young People — Not Politicians — Are Our Only Hope

CNN

Survivors and grieving friends and family members held Sen. Marco Rubio and NRA national spokeswoman Dana Loesch to account in a profoundly moving and powerful televised event.

The opening moments of CNN's town hall event Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action featured a montage of photographs of the 17 victims of last week's horrific Parkland, Florida, shooting. The pictures were projected for just a few seconds each. And yet the ghastly procession seemed to go on forever.

It's apparently been left to our teenagers to lead this country out of its collective madness. And although there's every reason to think that this latest tragedy will recede into our collective unconscious like the seemingly countless others that have preceded it, something feels different this time. Politicians are being called to account for their cravenness. And the NRA is being recognized for the death-promoting organization that it is.

The questions were posed by survivors of the shooting who lost friends, students and loved ones, and by the parents and siblings of the victims. The event was held just a week after the school shooting, during a time when these people had every right to simply be lost in unfathomable grief. Instead, they're taking action, and they handled themselves with a strength and dignity to which most of us can only hope to aspire.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump declined the invitation to participate. Scott apparently thinks there are more important things happening in his state than the mass slaughter of innocent people in its schools, nightclubs and airports. And, of course, Trump couldn't be there. He only goes to Florida on weekends.

The politicians that did show up were Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch, both Democrats, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican. Nelson and Deutch had it relatively easy, since they're strong proponents of increased gun regulation and the banning of assault weapons. Rubio, needless to say, had a tougher time with the crowd. How could he not, since he delivered a speech on the Senate floor the day after the tragedy in which he basically threw up his hands and said there were no laws that could be passed that would have prevented it.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of one of the victims, had something to say to him about that.

"Your comments, and those of our president's, have been pathetically weak," Guttenberg told the visibly squirming senator. He then asked Rubio to look him in the eye and tell him that he would do something about guns.

In the movies, this would have been the time for Rubio to square his shoulders and have his come-to-Jesus moment. But in real life, he accepts massive donations from the National Rifle Association. So instead, he delivered a dithering response that drew loud jeers and boos. Regarding an assault weapon ban, Rubio said, "If I believed that it would have prevented this from happening, I would support it" before launching into a wonky explanation that the bill wouldn't ban enough types of guns. So he's apparently for an assault weapon ban, but only a stronger one. The grieving father finally gave up in disgust. "Your answer speaks for itself," Guttenberg said dismissively.

Deutch bitterly criticized the inevitable Republican response to these sorts of mass shootings. "It is not 'too soon,'" he declared. "It's too late for the 17 lives that were lost." He and Nelson both made the argument that there's a common-sense solution to the problem. "Like getting the assault rifles off the streets," Nelson declared. "When you get right down to it, the gun is going to be what does the killing," he added. "An AK-47 or an AR-15 is not for hunting, it's for killing."

In response, Rubio pointed out, "You would literally have to ban every semi-automatic weapon sold." He was presumably implying that would be a bad thing, but the audience responded by giving him one of his few cheers of the night. Another came later, when he said that he was "reconsidering" his position on large-capacity magazines. "It wouldn't have prevented this attack, but it would have made it less lethal," Rubio said. This is how low the bar has gotten. We're likening mass shootings to snack foods containing less calories.  

Earlier in the day, Trump had said it might be a good idea to start arming schoolteachers. It's an idea that might just work in military schools like the one he went to. But speaking from personal experience, I wouldn't have felt much safer in my junior high geography class if my teacher, Mr. Applebaum, had been packing heat. The issue was raised at the event by Ashley Kurth, a heroic culinary arts teacher at the Stoneman Douglas school who sheltered 65 students in her classroom during the shooting.  

"Am I supposed to wear a Kevlar vest, to serve and protect my students?" she asked. Rubio said that he didn't think arming teachers was a good idea, primarily because SWAT teams entering schools might get confused. Even when he's right, he's wrong.

Robert Schentrup lost his sister Carmen in the massacre. "Today would have been Carmen's 17th birthday," he announced. Saying that elected officials have done nothing to solve the problem, he asked Deutch, "Does this mean our democracy is broken?"  

"A little bit, yes, it's broken," Deutch responded. It certainly is, especially in light of the fact that a recent poll showed that 97 percent of the population supports universal background checks. Considering the margin of error, that means everybody. Which, in the political world, apparently means nothing.

Survivor Cameron Kasky strode right up to Rubio and asked, "Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?" Rubio, desperately looking for a hole in the stage in which to fall in, naturally wouldn't, sputtering that of course he would take money from "people who buy into my agenda" and basically admitting that he could be bought.

To be fair, it took guts for Rubio to appear before what would obviously be a hostile crowd. But not as much guts as NRA national spokeswoman Dana Loesch who, to her credit, managed to avoid using the phrase "thoughts and prayers." Her principal argument was that guns are fine, they just have to be kept out of the hands of an "insane monster" like the Douglas High shooter. She went on and on about the need to keep guns out of the hands of potentially violent people — which would be fine if we lived in the futuristic world of Minority Report and the Precrime Unit could arrest people before they actually did anything wrong.

"I'm fighting for all of you," she told the survivors and victims' loved ones, who definitely didn't give the impression that they appreciated her fighting for them. Loesch, who very much looked like she would have preferred to come to the event armed, was then treated to a pop quiz by one of the school's history teachers.

"What is your definition of a well-regulated militia?" the teacher asked, adding, "and use supporting detail. Our nation is going to grade your answer." (At this point, even I was terrified.) Loesch answered that in the 18th century a well-regulated militia was essentially anyone who could operate a firearm. Which, she failed to add, is exactly how the NRA views them today. It's just too bad that well-regulated militias aren't what they used to be.

Loesch underwent further grilling by Linda Schulman, whose son Scott Beigel was one of the victims. The grieving mother asked why her son's "unalienable rights," as described in the Declaration of Independence, were less important than the right to bear arms. "When the Second Amendment was ratified, they were talking about muskets," Schulman pointed out.

"There were more than just muskets available," Loesch responded, making an argument that not even a mother, and certainly not the mother of a school shooting victim, could love.

In the end, it was Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel who had the best solution to the problem. Addressing the still-traumatized people in the audience and the others who by the grace of God have so far been spared a similar tragedy, he advised, "Vote in people who feel the same way you do."

There's an election coming up in less than nine months. That would be an excellent time to start.