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At fiery debate, Rubio opposes gun measure he championed after Parkland

A back-and-forth over guns was one of many tense exchanges with Demings

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and challenger Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) clashed over abortion and gun regulations during a heated debate on Oct. 18. (Video: Reuters)

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Val Demings of Florida clashed heatedly over gun restrictions and abortion at a debate Tuesday where Rubio disavowed one measure he embraced four years ago after a deadly school shooting in Florida — a law banning 18-year-olds from buying assault-style rifles.

Rubio, the two-term Republican incumbent, said days after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. — at an event with student survivors — that he would support such age restrictions as well as expanded background checks on gun purchases. But at his first and only debate with Democratic challenger Demings, the senator said the law “doesn’t work” and also said background checks would not have stopped the litany of shootings the candidates argued over.

Demings said the Republican has done “nothing to help address gun violence” and accused him of making “promises that you had no intentions to keep” to parents of victims of the Parkland massacre, in which a 19-year-old killed 17 people. A jury sentenced the shooter to life in prison last week, opting against the death penalty in a case that spurred bipartisan calls for action to prevent more killings.

“How long will you watch people being gunned down in first grade, fourth grade, high school, college, church, synagogue, a grocery store, a movie theater, a mall and a nightclub — and do nothing?” Demings said, pointing her finger as her voice rose.

The back-and-forth was one of many fiery exchanges in the debate, during which Demings said Rubio “has never run anything but his mouth” and Rubio accused the Democrat of getting little done as a legislator. Rubio is favored to win, but polling has shown Demings, a former Orlando police chief, within striking distance as she vastly outspends her opponent, pouring more than $35 million into ads this year.

Defending his stance on gun regulations, Rubio pointed to recent shootings in which he said the assailants had shown signs that they would take up arms. He blamed Democrats for not supporting his proposed version of a red-flag law that would take away firearms from people deemed dangerous. And he criticized the gun-control legislation that Congress passed this year with some Republican support, calling it “crazy” and suggesting it would allow guns to be seized in too many situations.

“I think the solution [to] this problem is to identify these people that are acting this way,” he said.

Disputing that he had failed to address the issue, Rubio pointed to a Department of Homeland Security website with school safety resources. Demings ridiculed that as insufficient.

“He thought he would get a pass!” she said.

The candidates also tangled over abortion. Asked whether he would vote for a federal abortion ban without exceptions, Rubio repeatedly declined to answer directly and said no such legislation was politically feasible. He has previously said that he does “not believe that the dignity and the worth of human life is tied to the circumstances of their conception” — seemingly ruling out exceptions in cases of rape and incest — while also acknowledging that most Americans do not share his view.

On Tuesday, he reiterated that he is “a hundred percent pro-life” but said every bill he has ever backed included exceptions because “that’s what can pass.” He recently backed a proposed federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and defended that measure as reasonable and in line with many other countries.

Demings said, “As a police detective who investigated cases of rape and incest, no, Senator, I don’t think it’s okay for a 10-year-old girl to be raped and to carry the seed of her rapist.”

Rubio then pressed the moderator to ask Demings what limits on abortion she would support. She responded that she supported abortion access “up to the time of [fetal] viability,” about 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Throughout the debate, Rubio struck some contrasts with fellow Republicans. He argued he “took on” his party to expand child tax credits. And he said he wouldn’t support a proposal from his colleague Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to have Congress review Social Security and Medicare every five years.

As part of a 12-point plan, Scott has proposed to “sunset” all federal programs after five years, meaning they would expire unless renewed. “If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” Scott says in his proposal. This would include Social Security and Medicare programs.

Multiple Republican leaders have dismissed Scott’s proposal, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Democrats have used the proposal in campaign attacks, warning voters that if the GOP takes control of the House and the Senate, it will put Medicare and Social Security “on the chopping block.”

Asked about the proposal, Rubio said: “No, that’s not my plan. That is Senator Scott; he’s doing a great job.”

Asked whether he would accept this year’s election results, Rubio said, “Florida has good election laws,” and defended GOP-led voting restrictions passed in other states. Pressed to answer directly, he reiterated: “We have great laws in Florida, absolutely,” then — with more prodding — said “sure” before criticizing election laws in other states, such as Pennsylvania.

Rubio has not embraced former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. But his campaign did not respond earlier when The Washington Post asked candidates in this year’s most closely watched races whether they would accept their elections’ outcome.

Rubio criticized Demings’s support for a national voting rights law that he and other Republicans have assailed as a “federal takeover” of elections. He defended voter ID requirements, saying “I’m a minority, I never felt like producing an ID disadvantages my ability to vote.” Demings suggested the idea of making sure that every person can vote “scares the senator to death.”