A week after a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, CNN hosted a town hall with students, teachers, parents, and politicians in Sunrise, Florida.
The town hall, moderated by Jake Tapper, gave survivors and family of the murdered victims the chance to confront lawmakers on the issue of school safety, gun control, and mental health. Florida’s two senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio — attended, as did Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), whose district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the second half of the town hall, National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel took the stage. (You can watch the full video here.)
The event was intense, raw, and, in many ways, remarkable. High school students and parents who had just buried their friends and children asked agonizing questions to lawmakers, ones often repeated after mass tragedies: Why did this happen, and what can be done to prevent it?
The crowd was bipartisan — self-identified Trump voters asked questions — but the mood was largely in favor of stricter gun control, and the crowd responded accordingly to the lawmakers’ responses with cheers and applause or jeers and boos. The atmosphere often became confrontational, but on some level, it also felt cathartic — an overdue national reckoning in primetime.
Here are seven compelling moments from the town hall that you might have missed:
1) A grieving father confronts Marco Rubio: your comments have been “pathetically weak”
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed last week, had one of the first tense exchanges with Sen. Marco Rubio. He told the senator that his comments, and the comments of President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the shooting, were “pathetically weak.”
“So you and I are now eye to eye,” Guttenberg said to Rubio. “Because I want to like you. Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week. And look at me and tell me you accept it and you will work with us to do something about guns.”
Rubio responded by clarifying that “the problem we are facing here cannot be solved by gun laws alone.”
Rubio said he agreed that teenagers (the Parkland shooting suspect was 19) should not be able to buy rifles. He also said he would support the banning of bump stocks and changing background check systems, among other measures.
But the senator said he did not believe an assault weapons ban would prevent the Parkland shooting from happening.
“Sen. Rubio, my daughter running down the hallway at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas was shot in the back with an assault weapon,” Guttenberg fired back. “The weapon of choice. It is too easy to get; it is a weapon of war. The fact that you can’t stand with everybody in this building and say that, I’m sorry.”
2) Speaking of Marco Rubio: will you stop taking money from the NRA?
Rubio had it rough in a crowd that was vocally in favor of stricter gun control measures. Those who lobbed pointed questions still credited him for showing up, though. (Republican Gov. Rick Scott did not attend, nor did President Trump — though he hosted an emotional listening session in the White House on Wednesday with school shooting survivors.)
But perhaps the tensest exchange came when Cameron Kasky, a Stoneman Douglas High School survivor, asked Rubio directly: “Sen. Rubio, will you tell me now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?”
Student Cameron Kasky asks Marco Rubio whether he will pledge not to take any more NRA money pic.twitter.com/kJi1Tot2YT— Axios (@axios) February 22, 2018
Rubio did not give a direct answer. “The answer is people buy into my agenda,” he responded. “And I do support the Second Amendment, and I support the things.”
Kasky press again in frustration, and boos and jeers echoed from the crowd. Rubio repeated: “The answer is people buy into my agenda.”
3) Rubio did say he’d reconsider his position on large-capacity magazines
Chris Grady, a Stoneman Douglas High School senior who’s enlisting in the military, asked Rubio a very pointed question on whether he’d agree that there was no place for large-capacity magazines.
Rubio conceded that while he hadn’t supported such measures in the past, he was now “reconsidering that position.”
Would you agree that there's no place in our society for large capacity magazines?— CNN (@CNN) February 22, 2018
Rubio: I traditionally haven't supported it but “after this and some of the details I learned ... I am reconsidering that position” https://t.co/1zo7oRaJHW #StudentsStandUp https://t.co/lzGQlSPytq
Rubio alluded to developments in the Parkland investigations — though he didn’t give details — that persuaded him to rethink his stance. “But that is something that I believe we can reach compromise in this country, and that I’m willing to reconsider,” he said. “I do believe that in this instance, it wouldn’t have prevented the attack, but it [could have] made it less lethal.”
4) A teacher asks: “Am I supposed to have a Kevlar vest?”
A teacher who sheltered dozens of terrified students during the Florida high school shooting asked why some think it's a good idea that she be armed.— CNN (@CNN) February 22, 2018
Sen. Marco Rubio responded, "First, I don't support that." https://t.co/DzYzyoXhiF #StudentsStandUp pic.twitter.com/2scIZd7AMz
Ashley Kurth, a teacher at Stoneman Douglas High School, brought up the issue of arming teachers — a topic that featured prominently at Trump’s Wednesday listening session at the White House.
Kurth said she was a registered Republican and Trump voter who supported the Second Amendment, but she had problems with the idea that teachers should be armed. “When I had those hundreds of terrified children that were running at me, my question to that is, am I supposed to get extra training now to serve and protect on top of educate these children?”
“Am I supposed to have a Kevlar vest; am I supposed to strap [a gun] to my leg or put it in my desk?” she added, “How am I supposed to go on that way?”
Rubio responded, unequivocally, that he did not support the idea arming teachers, saying he “wasn’t comfortable” with the idea.
5) The NRA versus the sheriff
In the second half of the session, Tapper invited NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to the stage to respond to questions.
In one notable moment, Emma Gonzalez, the outspoken activist and Stoneman Douglas High School survivor, asked Loesch if it should be harder than it is now for people to obtain semiautomatic weapons or modifications, such as bump stocks, that can make firearms fully automatic.
Loesch applauded Gonzalez and her fellow students for speaking out and lambasted those who have belittled the students’ activism.
Student Emma Gonzalez: Do you believe it should be harder to obtain semi-automatic weapons?— CNN (@CNN) February 22, 2018
NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch: "I don't believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm" https://t.co/V50uSUR7r8 #StudentsStandUp https://t.co/P5Sioleoss
She criticized problems with law enforcement and mental illness but did not take on the question directly. (The Parkland gunman legally purchased his weapon.)
“None of us support people who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, getting their hands on a firearm,” she continued, as hecklers started to chime in from the crowd.
“I’m not just fighting for my kids, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for all of you,” Loesch told the crowd.
After she concluded, Sheriff Israel, whose department responded to the Parkland shooting, chimed in. “You just told this group of people you’re standing up for them,” he told Loesch. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’”
Sheriff Scott Israel to NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch: "You just told this group of people that you are standing up for them. You're not standing up for them until you say, 'I want less weapons.'" pic.twitter.com/JEDN5K7DcU— Axios (@axios) February 22, 2018
6) Teacher gives the NRA a con-law quiz
History teacher Diane Wolk Rogers asked Loesch a very history-teacher question.
“Define something for me ... what is your definition of a well-regulated militia as stated in the Second Amendment and, using supporting detail, explain to me how an 18-year-old with a military rifle is well-regulated? And the world, our country, our nation, is going to grade your answer,” she said.
Teacher Diane Wolk Rogers asks the NRA spokeswoman to explain how she defines a “well-regulated militia” and how “an 18-year-old with a military rifle is well-regulated”— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) February 22, 2018
Loesch: “He should have been barred from getting a firearm” #StudentsStandUp https://t.co/EShEaDC2Sm
Loesch responded with a reference to a quote from Founding Father George Mason, who died in the 18th century. The history teacher wasn’t having it. “That was in the context of the time,” she replied.
And that wasn’t the only history-based question of the night. Linda Schulman, whose son, Scott Beigel, a teacher, was killed in the shooting, asked Loesch: “Why are my son’s inalienable rights not protected as fiercely as the right to bear arms?”
The mother of Scott Beigel, a teacher who was killed in the shooting, to NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch: "Why are my son's unalienable rights not protected as fiercely as the right to bear arms?" #StudentsStandUp https://t.co/AJcpoHo4Za https://t.co/kbqZVZ9xYO— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) February 22, 2018
Loesch said it wasn’t a trade-off between those who believe in self-defense and life. “No innocent lives should be lost.”
“When the Second Amendment was ratified, they were talking about muskets,” Schulman replied. “We’re not talking about muskets,”
7) Mom: “Enough talk! What is your action?”
Lori Alhadeff’s 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in the shooting, and Alhadeff emphasized school security to prevent gun tragedy.
“I am tired of people doing nothing. This horrific incident has to be the catalyst that finally puts things in action. Let’s make our school safe again,” she said.
She referenced a 2013 NRA report for security at schools and said that five years on, nothing had been done. “Where are our metal detectors? Where is the bulletproof class?”
Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter died in the shooting, delivers a powerful speech at #StudentsStandUp directed at the NRA: “Enough talk. What is your action?” https://t.co/JGw5maxKgd https://t.co/PTwUu9qrqS— CNN Tonight (@CNNTonight) February 22, 2018
“Enough talk! What is your action?” Alhadeff yelled out in conclusion. She then turned toward the crowd and lifted up her hands in the shape of a heart.