FLORIDA — They were angry and frustrated. And given the chance to face the lawmakers and others who can make their lives safer, high school students who a week ago were running from gunfire pointedly demanded change Wednesday night from Washington and the National Rifle Association.
Survivors of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took center stage at a town hall hosted by CNN as thousands of community members cheered on the young people thrust into the national spotlight by a massacre that killed 17 people.
The students-turned-gun-control advocates, their teachers and parents asked frank questions of Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch about whether they would support banning certain assault-style rifles and refuse to take money from the NRA.
“We would like to know why do we have to be the ones to do this? Why do we have to speak out to the (state) Capitol? Why do we have to march on Washington, just to save innocent lives?” asked senior Ryan Deitsch, his voice rising with each question.
The Stoneman Douglas students and parents also confronted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, who said the organization feels the system for buying firearms is flawed and too many people who shouldn’t be able to buy guns are getting through the cracks.
The town hall on Wednesday night followed days of sit-ins, walkouts and demonstrations in solidarity with survivors of the massacre.
Not everyone was pleased with what they heard.
Avery Anger, 14, who hid in a closet during the shooting, said she didn’t know what to think after the town hall. “It was more of a debate than a discussion,” she said. She entered the town hall with one question — “is it going to be safe for me to go back to school?” By the end, she still was unsure. “I don’t feel like they answered the question.”
Grieving father confronts Rubio
The shooting reignited the passionate national discussion on gun laws and how to keep communities safe, catalyzing a protest movement led by the young students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed, angrily addressed Rubio, wanting the senator to agree that semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 type used in the shooting were the problem.
“Sen. Rubio, I want to like you. Here’s the problem. … Your comments this week and those of our President have been pathetically weak,” he said to lasting applause and cheers. “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in the school this week.”
Guttenberg called on the senator to do something about guns, to work with the people affected by the massacre. Rubio, a Republican, replied, “I’m saying that the problems we are facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone.”
Rubio said he supported raising the age requirement for rifles and is open to reconsidering the size of gun magazines.
Student presses Rubio to turn down NRA money
Cameron Kasky, a junior at the school, asked Rubio to turn down campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.
Rubio said he supports the Second Amendment but he also stood for school safety. He wouldn’t say he would turn down an NRA contribution.
“The influence of these groups comes not from money,” he said, “You can ask that question and I can say that people buy into my agenda.”
NRA’s rep: ‘Insane monster’ shouldn’t have had a gun
Loesch, the National Rifle Association spokeswoman, told the audience she was fighting for them and that people who shouldn’t own guns should be reported by states to a national background check system.
“I don’t believe this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm,” Loesch said Wednesday night, calling the suspect “nuts.”
While some in the crowd yelled, “You’re a murderer,” Loesch said the system to buy firearms is flawed.
Student Emma Gonzalez, who has been outspoken about her opposition to semiautomatic rifles, asked Loesch what the NRA’s position was on bump stocks and making it more difficult to buy certain weapons.
Loesch replied the NRA is waiting on the Justice Department to make a ruling on bump stocks.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel interrupted Loesch, saying he knew she was standing up for the NRA.
“But you just told this group you were standing up for them,” he said. “You’re not standing up for them until you say I want less weapons.”
A life filled with drills
Deitsch told Rubio he had been doing active shooter drills since he was in elementary school. When he was in fifth grade he had to hide in a bathroom for three hours when his school went on lockdown because there were reports of a shooter in the town.
“Now seven years later, I am in a closet with 19 other kids waiting, fearing for my own life,” he said.
Why do we have to lead the change, he asked?
Rubio said change can come when people on different sides, who have strong feelings, can agree on a way to make progress.
He said he has proposed a concept called a gun violence restraining order that would allow people to go to authorities with concerns about someone who should not have a gun. Police would be able to take away weapons, he said.
“I do appreciate your words there but that feels like the first step of a 5K run,” Deitsch said.
President suggests arming teachers; senators disagree
Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump, who declined to participate in the town hall, suggested at a listening session at the White House that part of the solution to preventing school shootings could be having some armed, trained teachers on campus.
None of the politicians at the town hall was sympathetic to the thought.
Nelson, a Democrat said, “I think it is a terrible idea.”
Rubio and Deutch agreed.
Robert Runcie, the Broward County school system superintendent, told the audience beforehand that teachers should be armed with more money.
Sheriff to the students: ‘You will get it done’
Before the event, Israel fired up the crowd in the arena, saying, “My generation, we did not get it done. You will get it done.”
Runcie told the Stoneman Douglas students that they have started a movement.
“These are the young people that are going to change the world for the better. And let me tell you, our students are ready for this moment. They have been preparing for this moment,” he said.
Some of the student participants came straight from the state Capitol in Tallahassee after lobbying state lawmakers for tougher restrictions on weapons like the one used to kill their friends and teachers.
Night ends with a tribute in poetry and song
The evening closed with poignant moments, one involving the words of Alex Schachter, one of the students who died.
Read by his dad, Max Schachter, the poem was about roller coasters. Alex loved them.
“He wasn’t writing about his life and had no idea his poem would become the future,” Max Schachter said.
In the poem, Alex compared the ups and downs of life to a roller coaster.
“It may be too much for you at times. The twists, the turns, the upside downs, but you get back up. You keep chugging along,” he wrote.
The program closed with a song, “Shine,” performed by members of the Stoneman Douglas drama club.
The song was addressed to the shooter, who is in jail.
You may have hurt us
But I promise we are not going to let you in
We’re putting up a fight
You may have brought the dark but together we will shine a light
And we will be something special
We’re going to shine, shine
Different students said these lines between verses:
We refuse to be ignored by those who will not listen.
There are so many things you can do to become involved.
Reach out to your congressmen, mail, call and tweet.
The smallest of words can make the biggest difference.
Be the voice for those who don’t have one.
White House takes on gun violence
Trump’s listening session Wednesday afternoon was attended by people affected by some of the nation’s highest-profile deadly school shootings, from Columbine High School to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
The President pledged to go to work after the meeting ended. “We don’t want others to go through the kind of pain you have gone through. It wouldn’t be right,” he said.
The father of Meadow Pollack, who was killed last week, said he was speaking at Wednesday’s session because his daughter couldn’t.
“We as a country failed our children,” Andrew Pollack said.