Every time a water main breaks, it seems, CNN gets ready to roll out its town-hall machinery. Back in the 2016 presidential primary season, the 24/7 network town-halled its way across the country, corralling candidates into policy chit-chats before live audiences. Over three months in early 2016, for example, CNN produced seven town-hall meetings — some of them forgettable.

Such description will never attach to CNN’s Wednesday night town-hall event in Sunrise, Fla., one week after the school shooting in Parkland that killed 17 people and fomented an incipient push for greater gun restrictions. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, interest in gun control has remained robust in the days after the slayings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Onto this hot griddle landed the CNN town hall, which was moderated by CNN host Jake Tapper. There was so much to discuss: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas killings were the eighth time in 2018 that someone was killed or injured in a school shooting; students from the school have been all over the media in recent days arguing for action; and conservative critics have attempted to discredit the children by suggesting that they’re being manipulated by left-wing gun-control groups.

No wonder, then, that when Tapper opened the town-hall event, he was addressing perhaps the most engaged audience he has ever seen. If there was any doubt, it disappeared when politicians on the first panel of the evening — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) — gave their opening remarks. The audience hung on every remark, especially Rubio’s. “I think all of us would like to see action, but I want to tell you what we’re going to struggle with. We are a nation of people that no longer speak to each other. We are a nation of people who have stopped being friends with people because who they voted for in the last election,” said the senator.

Rubio was at the center of several compelling moments on the Sunrise stage. “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in last week’s massacre. “And look at me and tell me you accept it, and you will work with us to do something about guns.” Rubio responded, in part, that the problems “that we’re facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone.” Later in the session, Cameron Kasky, a junior at the high school, asked Rubio, “So, Senator Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?”

Rubio: “The answer to the question is that people buy into my agenda. And I do support the Second Amendment. And I also support the right of you and everyone here to be able to go to school and be safe.”

If that utterance wasn’t newsworthy enough, Rubio made headlines when he was asked by Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior and Army enlistee Chris Grady: “Would you agree that there is no place in our society for large-capacity magazines capable of firing off — over — from 15 to 30 rounds and if not more?” The entirety of Rubio’s response is worth passing along:

First let me thank you for your willingness to serve our country, you’re doing it tonight and you’re going to be do it in uniform and we’re very grateful to you. And I’m glad you asked that question because I traditionally have not supported looking at magazine clip size, and after this and some of the details I learned about it, I’m reconsidering that position and I tell you why. I’ll tell you why.
Because while it may not prevent an attack, it may save lives in an attack. And I’ll let — I’ll let the authorities discuss at the appropriate time why I say that.
But suffice it to say that I believe that there will be evidence that at a key moment in this incident, three or four people — three or four people might be alive today because of something that this deranged killer … had to do, and obviously it’s not for me to make law enforcement announcements.
I don’t know what the right number is. I don’t know what — I know that there are for example handguns that has 17 and so we’ll have to get into that debate. But that is something I believe we can reach a compromise in this country and that I am willing to reconsider because I do believe that in this instance, it didn’t prevent — it wouldn’t have prevented the attack but it made it less lethal.
And that’s the kind of thing that I hope my colleagues — and that’s why these discussions are important because they do lead you to rethink positions after you’ve taken new information and new input from people.
By the way, American politics is the only part of our lives where changing your mind based on new information is a — is a bad thing. We do it in every other aspect of our lives. And we’ve got to — and we have to stop doing that as well. So that is an issue I’ll look into absolutely.

There were indeed jeers and boos; but there were also appeals for unity and reconciliation, not to mention acknowledgments that Rubio had shown courage in showing up for what he knew would be a grilling — something that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and President Trump couldn’t claim. They declined to appear.

When the audience got a touch unruly in the early going, Tapper issued this appeal: “I’m not going to tell anybody in this room not to feel strongly and — and not to feel emotional. The only thing I will tell you is, when you do this, you’re eating up into the time that other people in the audience, other people who want to ask questions are asking questions. OK?” People listened, and CNN pulled off a constructive and highly spirited presentation, from start to finish.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Here’s Tim Graham, executive editor of the mainstream-media-critical NewsBusters:

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday morning, reviews of CNN’s work in Sunrise were also pointed. Lawrence Jones of Campus Reform chided CNN for having failed to do a town hall when Republican lawmakers were attacked by a gunman during a baseball practice in Virginia in June 2017. That particular situation, said Jones, “didn’t fit their agenda.” Wednesday night’s event, he alleged, was political: “They’re doing a town hall so they can get gun control and we can’t get duped by our emotions on that.”

And in a spirited CPAC address, Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, addressed what she alleged were the racial dimensions of mass shootings.

“There are thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend and you don’t see town halls for them, do you?” asked Loesch. “Where’s the CNN town hall for Chicago?”

So, how splintered is this country? Splintered enough that a broadcaster that invites survivors of a horrific school shooting an opportunity to directly air their grievances before a panel of powerful officials gets second-, third- and fourth-guessed for doing so. Forget all that noise: CNN recognized that now was a time to throw out the standard three-pundit panel discussion in some studio in New York or Washington — and to place these issues on a national stage. It worked.

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