He called it “heartbreaking” and said he was devastated. Dozens killed or injured in a shooting rampage that shook Florida and the nation — and “deeply impacted” him as he considered his political future.
Twenty months passed. Then, it happened again. Another mass killing.
Now, Marco Rubio has become the face of congressional inaction on tougher gun restrictions, especially to the students who survived the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school.
The 46-year-old senator drew special attention after declaring the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting to be a life-altering event that he followed with an about-face run for reelection. But since then, Rubio has largely adhered to orthodox GOP positions on guns, resisting several efforts to tighten laws.
In the hours after the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Rubio stood on the Senate floor and said that most of the tougher gun restrictions that others have proposed wouldn’t have prevented it. The state’s highest-profile Republican lawmaker has faced an intense backlash from Americans demanding new regulations on firearms.
“Shame on you Marco Rubio & NRA,” read a banner that was flown over the South Florida coastline.
The liberal advocacy group Avaaz parked three trucks with large red and black signs near a local Rubio office in a nod to the Oscar-nominated movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“Slaughtered in school. And still no gun control. How come, Marco Rubio?” the mobile boards asked.
“I think he’s the symptom of a problem, and he represents an opportunity,” Avaaz Deputy Director Emma Ruby Sachs said.
In response to the shooting, Rubio has advocated a variety of remedies, and has sent cautious and sometimes confusing signals about where he stands.
He has embraced the idea of a gun violence restraining-order law while also sounding open to expanding background checks, creating a task force to examine the causes of mass shootings and banning “bump stock” devices that allow certain guns more rapid firing capability. He has repeatedly accused news outlets of misrepresenting his views.
He has not explicitly embraced the more-assertive actions that gun-control advocates have demanded and has underscored his commitment to gun rights. At times, he has sounded somewhat open to new limits — a tactic reminiscent of his presidential campaign, when he often appeared to advocate two positions at once, leaving his stance open to interpretation.
“If someone has decided ‘I’m going to commit this crime,’ they will find a way to get the gun to do it,” he said on the Senate floor. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a law that makes it harder. It just means, understand, to be honest, it isn’t going to stop this from happening.”
One Rubio associate, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity, described his approach as “all over the place” and “scattershot.”
This strategy is similar to how Rubio has navigated other contentious debates in his career — and it’s one that even some of his allies find troubling.
“He’s got thin skin. It shows in the Trumpesque Twitter rants he’s gone on against the media in recent days,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who has known Rubio for years.
Rubio, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is slated to appear Wednesday evening at a town hall hosted by CNN that will include classmates, parents and community members of last week’s shooting victims.
According to federal campaign finance records, the NRA has spent more than $3 million on Rubio’s behalf through its political spending vehicles. He has also received an A-plus rating from the organization.
Throughout his career, Rubio has shown flashes of a willingness to buck his party’s conservative base. Often, however, he pulls back, rejoining the bulk of the GOP.
He did it on immigration, joining a bipartisan group that wrote a sweeping bill — only to distance himself from it later on as hard-right critics pounced. Last week, he rejected another bipartisan immigration compromise.
At the outset of the President Trump’s administration, Rubio flirted with voting against his pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. In the end, he fell back in line with his party.
Right after a gunman opened fire at the Orlando nightclub in June 2016, Rubio, then a defeated presidential candidate headed for retirement from the Senate, sounded like someone who had been fundamentally changed by it.
He issued a statement the same day, saying he was “devastated by this heartbreaking act of terrorism.” Authorities said the gunman had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
“I’ve been deeply impacted by it,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt the next day, saying that it “most certainly has impacted my thinking in general about a lot of things.”
After a period of reflection that included a conversation in Orlando with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a close friend who urged him to consider running for reelection, Rubio announced he would run for a second Senate term.
Following the Orlando shooting, the Senate rejected four competing gun proposals. Rubio joined most Republicans in voting against Democratic measures to allow the attorney general to deny firearms and explosives to any suspected terrorists and to expand background checks for gun purchases.
He supported alternatives sponsored by Republicans to increase funding for the government to run background checks without expanding them and to allow authorities to delay a gun sale to a terrorism suspect with the backing of a judge.
In February 2017, Rubio voted for a measure that blocked the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients to a national background-check database. Trump signed it later that month.
In response to the Orlando shooting, Rubio introduced a measure that would require each federal department or agency to provide to the FBI information about a person who is or has been under a federal terrorism investigation. It went nowhere and gained no co-sponsors.
Some students who attend the school where last week’s shooting unfolded have voiced dissatisfaction with Rubio’s positions.
“It’s not our job to tell you, Senator Rubio, how to protect us. The fact that we even have to do this is appalling,” junior Cameron Kasky said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Our job is to go to school, learn and not take a bullet. You need to figure this out. That’s why you were unfortunately elected. Your job is to protect us and our blood is on your hands.”
Rubio has been careful not to criticize the students who are going after him. His defenders say he is simply fighting back against unfair criticism.
“He’s responding to the joint efforts of the media and the Democratic Party to make him and people like him be perpetrators when they are not perpetrators,” said Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County.