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Marco Rubio and the NRA confronted by shooting survivors, grieving parents at tense town hall

CNN hosted a town hall discussion with the students and teachers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, parents and lawmakers on gun violence on Feb. 21. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

There appeared to be little room for nuance Wednesday evening at CNN’s emotionally charged town hall, which brought survivors, lawmakers and a prominent Second Amendment advocate together for the first time since the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Little room for discussing whether a ban on “bump stock” devices — which allow semiautomatic guns to fire faster — could have prevented a 19-year-old from entering the school last week and killing 17 people and wounding dozens more with an AR-15 rifle.

Little room for questioning whether raising the minimum age to purchase that gun could have stopped him.

When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) brought up a concept that would allow police to temporarily seize a gun owner’s weapons, Stoneman Douglas student Ryan Deitsch told him, “That feels like the first step of a 5K run.”

“This issue will take more than a 5K run,” Rubio answered.

Judging by their applause and jeers, what the parents and classmates of the victims wanted was a commitment to more immediate action.

Many asked Rubio, who has recently become the face of lawmakers’ inaction on stricter gun regulations, questions they said should have clear-cut answers seven days after one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.

“Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in the school this week,” Fred Guttenberg told Rubio.

Guttenberg’s 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, had been running down the hallway when she was shot in the back and killed, Guttenberg said.

“Were guns the factor in the hunting of our kids?” he asked.

“Of course they were,” Rubio responded.

But the senator said a “better answer” than banning assault weapons is to “make sure that dangerous criminals, people that are deranged cannot buy any gun of any kind.”

Rubio said he would support a law that makes it illegal for 18-year-olds to purchase rifles, as well as the banning of bump stocks and expanded background checks. He said he pushed for a $50-million-a-year threat-assessment fund so states could identify people who could potentially commit mass shootings, and stop them.

Rubio also said he’s reconsidered his position on magazine-clip size limits, saying that they might not help prevent a shooting but could lower the number of lives lost in one.

When asked by Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky if he would stop accepting donations from the National Rifle Association, Rubio answered indirectly. The NRA has spent more than $3 million on Rubio’s behalf through its political arm, and has given Rubio an A-plus rating, The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan has reported.

“I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda,” Rubio said.

In the days after the massacre, the surviving classmates have rallied legislators for tougher firearms regulations, hoping this most recent school shooting will be the one to finally spark a movement for gun control. Their call to action has been answered by hundreds of students who walked out of high schools across the country and marched in solidarity with the survivors.

Students take charge of gun-safety movement with some help from existing groups

Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas student activist who is among many who’ve captured the nation’s attention since the shooting, was in an AP government class about an hour before the shooting. At Wednesday’s town hall, she confronted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch.

“I want you to know that we will support your children in a way that you will not,” she told Loesch, before asking her whether the NRA believes it should be more difficult for people to obtain semiautomatic weapons.

Before responding, Loesch commended González for being so outspoken about gun control.

“I was a very politically active teenager, and I’m on this stage as a result of that,” Loesch said. “Think of how far you all could go as a result of voicing your beliefs.”

Someone in the crowd then shouted, “If they live to do it.”

Loesch said that the NRA does not support people “who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, getting their hands on a firearm.” She criticized “flawed” background check systems, though the NRA on its website states that it opposes expanding those systems.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel interrupted her: “You just told this group of people you’re standing up for them. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’ ”

Israel earned applause from the audience several times for his earnestness, especially when clashing with Loesch, who tried to redirect the discussion to who should be able to obtain firearms and questioned whether law enforcement did enough to investigate the shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz.

Israel, a 39-year law enforcement veteran, said that what has been done to prevent mass shootings to date hasn’t worked. He pushed for changes to Florida’s Baker Act, which he said would allow law enforcement to seize guns and take a person against his or her will for a mental-health evaluation if “the totality of the circumstances” warrants it.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) appeared during the early part of the town hall, one day after the Florida House of Representatives voted not to consider a bill banning the sale of assault weapons. Legislators on Tuesday did pass a resolution claiming porn is dangerous. Deutch said early during Wednesday night’s broadcast that when he returns to Washington, he would support a bill that makes assault weapons illegal.

“It’s not a 5K, it’s a sprint,” he said. “We need to do it next week.”

This post has been updated.

Read more: 

‘Fix it’: Students and parents tell Trump he needs to address gun violence at schools

Broward sheriff says that after ‘pure evil’ of school shooting, gun laws must be changed

House Judiciary Democrats: Focus after Parkland shooting should also be on guns, not just FBI’s misstep