Teens, Parents Get Heated in Call for Gun Control in CNN Town Hall

Screengrab/CNN

Florida senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson on Wednesday night fielded questions from students and parents of victims of the Parkland mass shooting.

CNN held a special Town Hall on Wednesday night in Florida led by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland following the deadly mass shooting at the school last week.

Hosted by Jake Tapper, Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action aired live on Wednesday and welcomed the students at the center of the tragedy to voice their concerns and opinions before a national audience. The NRA was also invited to attend, sparking controversy from some, in an effort to have a national conversation on gun control on the cable news network.

Standing onstage in the center of a large auditorium, Tapper noted that both President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott denied requests to attend, the former eliciting several scattered boos from the audience. 

The program began with a memorial for the 17 victims of the shooting. Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch then addressed the crowd, saying, "Some have said it is too soon to have this conversation," before saying that it is "too late" for the victims and the rest of the community. "Our community doesn't want words, thoughts and prayers. They want action." His comments were met with a standing ovation. 

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson then called for "getting assault rifles off the streets" and "criminal background checks." 

Republican Senator Marco Rubio came next, saying, "I don't know the pain of what it's like to lose a child." He went on to say that "a demand for action" was needed, but pointed to struggles such as being a "nation who does not speak to each other ... who isolate ourselves to only watch channels that tell us we're right. We're a nation who has isolated ourselves politically to the point that having a conversation like this is hard to have." He then applauded the students in attendance, saying they "have a chance to change the way we talk about politics in this country. The reason this is so important tonight ... is because tonight people will have different points of view, to talk about something that we all agree should never happen again, if we want to ensure that it doesn't then we have to find a way to work with each other to find a solution without accusing each other of being evil."

Tapper introduced Douglas High senior Ryan Schachter, who lost his brother in the shooting, who asked Deutch how he should feel safe and secure in the future. "As a start, we can make sure that assault weapons are illegal in every part of this country," Deutch answered. 

Rubio was criticized, along with Trump, as being "pathetically weak" by the father of one of the shooting's victims. "Look at me and tell me you will do something about guns," Fred Guttenberg said. Rubio responded saying, "I will look at you and tell you what I said, and repeat it," earning wide boos from the crowd. 

"Were guns a factor?" Guttenberg asked.

"I will support the banning of bump stocks," Rubio said. "I think what you're asking about is the assault weapon ban. If I believed that the passing of that law would prevent this, I would support it, but it does not," he said, earning more boos.

"My daughter, who was running down the halls when she was shot, was killed by these guns. If you can't see that, then I'm sorry," Guttenberg said.

When asked by a student why young people had to "march on Washington just to save innocent lives," Rubio said, "It is unfortunate that we haven't been able to make progress on many major issues, this being one of them." He continued to propose a "gun violence restraining order," that would allow people to go to authorities and have guns from persons of interest taken away with due process if they fail to meet specific guidelines. The student responded, "That sounds like the first step of a 5K run," to which Rubio responded, "I agree, but I think it's more than a 5K run. But it's an important first step."

"If we truly want this to be the last time, then what you've done this week ... needs to be continue to make sure no other community in America must go through a forum like the one here this evening."

Earlier in the day, Trump met with students and parents affected by the shooting, during which he said he's considering backing proposals to promote concealed carrying of weapons by trained school employees to respond to campus shootings and promised to be "very strong on background checks."

When asked by a teacher about how she would be trained to operate as an armed guard, Rubio said he did not support that notion. "I'm not comfortable with it, and beyond that I think it has tactical problems. Imagine in the middle of this crisis the S.W.A.T. team comes into this building and there's an adult with a weapon and we have an additional casualty because of that."

Nelson called it a "terrible idea." 

Speaking on the issue of the NRA and government funding, Deutch was stern. "Is our democracy broken? When any organization spends tens of millions of dollars influencing our democracy on gun control legislation, then yes, our democracy is a little broken," he said.

Rubio was asked point-blank if he could say that he would no longer take money from the NRA by one of Stoneman Douglas' students. "The influence of these groups comes not from money, it comes from millions of people who support the agenda. You can ask that question and I can say people buy into my agenda. Ultimately our goal is to move forward," Rubio said.

When asked again, Rubio said, "I will prevent any law that supports the killing of people." He declined the offer to refuse NRA donations in the future, saying he "will always accept money from people who support my agenda" and went on to note his proposition to raise the legal age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, which the NRA does not support.

A spokesperson for the NRA, Dana Loesch, was asked by student Emma Gonzalez about making it harder to obtain semi- and automatic weapons.

"I don't think anyone should deny you your voice because you are young," Loesch said. Cries of dissent greeted her from the crowd, but Loesch continued, saying, "I don't believe this insane monster should have gotten his hands on any weapon," Loesch said of the shooter. "I want everyone to think about this: It is not federal law for states to report convictions ... and I wish this network would have reported it more like other networks." She went on to ask if the crowd would like to prevent mentally ill people to get guns in the future, adding "they have to be in the system." Loesch noted that the shooter passed a background check.

Broward County sheriff Scott Israel then interjected to say that Loesch wasn't "standing up" for the people in the room until she said "I want less weapons." 

History teacher Diane Wolk Rogers then told Loesch about the deaths she had witnessed and asked the NRA spokeswoman to define "well-regulated militia as stated in the Second Amendment." 

Loesch responded that the original writers of the amendment defined a militia as "the whole of the people, it is every man and every woman." When asked how the shooter was able to purchase a gun, Loesch said, "He shouldn't have been able to." She went on to say that "red flags" about the Parkland shooter were not acted on by law enforcement.

The evening drew to a close with the reading of a poem written by one of the victims, Alex Schachter, read by his father, followed by a song written and performed by Stoneman Douglas drama club students.