Heated exchanges fill CNN town hall on gun violence

By Felix Albuerne Jr., Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Thursday, February 22, 2018, 2:13 PM EST
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A crowd of more than 7,000 attended a CNN town hall event Wednesday night to listen to survivors of the Parkland mass shooting and question policymakers and law enforcement about next steps following the Valentine's Day attack.

CNN’s Jake Tapper served as moderator of the event, held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida and moderated the discussion between students, parents, teachers and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch.

Although the audience and survivors sharing the stage with Nelson, Rubio and Deutch had questions for all the lawmakers, Rubio was often targeted with questions challenging his recently stated position on an assault weapon ban.

Hard questions for legislators

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School parent Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was among the students killed in the attack, in particular called Rubio’s responses to the situation, as well as President Donald Trump’s, “weak.” He then asked Rubio to accept that guns were a factor in the “hunting of our kids in this school this week” and that he would work to do something about guns.

Rubio, who was booed during the exchange, countered by stating his belief that gun laws alone would not solve the problem. He went on to reiterate his stance that the assault weapons ban as it existed from 1994-2004 and current similar legislation is flawed due to its reliance on cosmetic factors relating to defining “assault weapons.”

Student Cameron Kasky, one of the survivors of the shooting, went further, asking Rubio to pledge not to accept any more political funding from the National Rifle Association.

Rubio responded  by pointing out positions he has staked out that the NRA does not support, and saying his acceptance of their support did not equal his endorsement of all their respective positions.

"If people want to support my agenda, they’re welcome to do so. But they buy into my ideas, I don't buy into theirs," he explained.

Rubio also said he believes in changing the minimum age a person can buy an AR-15, the weapon used by Nikolas Cruz, which is something the NRA disagrees with, he said.

Rubio added that while he doesn't know what the NRA's stance is on allowing teachers to be armed, the senator said that's something he doesn't agree with.

The discussion did not solely focus on Rubio and his positions, however. Ashley Kurth, a teacher at Stoneman Douglas High who sheltered 65 students during the shooting, asked a question related to Trump’s suggestion earlier in the day that teachers possibly should be armed in classrooms.

“Am I supposed to get extra training to serve and protect on top of educating students?” Kurth asked.

All three congressman stated they opposed Trump's suggestion of arming teachers.

The next morning, Trump tweeted that what he said was misconstrued. He suggested possibly allowing "gun adept" teachers to carry concealed weapons, not all teachers. 

Student Robert Schentrup, whose sister Carmen was among the victims in the shooting, asked Deutch about the state of America’s democracy, considering that lawmakers have done little to strengthen gun laws despite a majority of Americans favoring stricter regulation.

“It is a little bit, yes” Deutch said, but then quickly pointed to the raised voices in the room and the message the spirit of activism in the evening sent as evidence that America’s democracy could be fixed.

Notably, while student Chris Grady questioned him on whether large capacity magazines for weapons had a place in American society, Rubio expressed a possible shift in his previous stances on the issue.

“I am rethinking my position,” Rubio said, pointing to information he’d learned over the past week. He said that although a ban on large capacity magazines would not have prevented the attack, it might have made it less lethal.

Heated exchanges with NRA spokesperson

Later in the program, it was NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s turns to take questions from the audience. While the crowd was generally supportive of Israel, they often booed Loesch as she expressed her organization’s commitment to keeping guns out of the hands of “crazy people.”

"People who are crazy should not be able to get firearms," Loesch said. "People who are dangerous to themselves and other individuals should not be able to obtain a firearm."

Teachers and parents challenged Loesch on the Second Amendment, with one teacher even asking her in the terms of a homework assignment to define “a well-regulated militia” within the context of the Second Amendment and how an 18-year-old with a military is well regulated.

Loesch answered by quoting founding father George Mason, who at the time defined “militia” as “every man, every woman … an American man, an American woman who could operate and service their firearm.”