I was 10 years old when, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students at Columbine High School, in what was then the most-deadly school shooting in American history. What I can recall most from my childhood mind from the time aren’t the gruesome details in the news reports or even the sense of dread that gripped students and teachers across the country, but the feeling that something central about the country had changed. Something about America had shifted, and it was significant enough that even a child’s understanding could grasp it.
Almost two decades later, after multiple mass shootings and dozens of slain children, it’s clear that what changed wasn’t the mobilization of a country to stop events like Columbine, but the beginning of the normalization of those events. Now, even the fervor of post-massacre gun debates has been fraught with fatalism. Every debate is the same, without any denouement. Advocates cry out for common-sense reforms, NRA-backed politicians decry those measures, donor lists are released, and people complain about the politicization of tragedy. But nothing ever really happens. The gun debate has become a moribund ritual.
But a CNN town hall Wednesday night might have shown that things are changing. The event, hosted in Sunrise, Florida, featured survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, along with their parents and a large local crowd. They debated Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, along with Representative Ted Deutch, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch. The town hall, which featured an emotionally charged and often-contentious debate, was remarkable for how different it was from countless previous debates. Perhaps it showed a way forward.
While Nelson and Deutch took their share of questions, it was Rubio whose prodding proved the most instructive. Junior Cameron Kasky, who has been an outspoken leader of a political movement of survivors of the Parkland massacre, criticized Rubio—who has received millions in contributions from the NRA and an A-Plus rating—for his ties to the organization. “In the name of 17 people, you cannot ask the NRA to keep their money out of your campaign?” Kasky asked. Rubio refused to say he’d refuse NRA money, instead saying that the power of the NRA came not from its money, but from its members who support the Second Amendment. The crowd booed, loudly.
The theme of most of the night was criticism of Rubio, who often appeared hesitant in the face of withering boos and tough questions. As the New Yorker writer Evan Osnos put it: “The pummelling of Rubio felt like an expression of collective rage at the falseness of so much that happens in Washington.” The usual rhetorical feints and misdirections employed by politicians in more milquetoast town halls only seemed to anger the crowd more.
That dynamic was exemplified in a conversation about restricting semiautomatic weapons. When asked if loopholes for purchasing such weapons should be closed, Rubio offered the answer that’s basically become the gun-rights boilerplate. “The issue is not the loopholes,” the senator said, “it’s the problem that once you start looking at how easy it is to get around it, you would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold.” But the crowd cheered loudly at the suggestion of such a ban, a response that caught Rubio off guard. “Fair enough, fair enough. That is a valid position to hold,” he responded, before outlining his disagreement. But the concession was an important one.
The students and parents also pressed Loesch, who adopted a starkly different tone from the one she employs in the combative and often-hostile video ads she releases for the NRA. Emma Gonzalez, also an outspoken Stoneman Douglas student leader in the wake of the shooting, took her to task. “I want you to know that we will support your two children in the way that you will not,” Gonzalez said. She also asked Loesch if the NRA supported any restrictions on the purchase of semiautomatic weapons and modifications like bump stocks.
The debate that followed was important. Loesch did not cede much ground, but her posture was far from the usual NRA-culture-warrior’s obstinacy. Loesch tried to steer the conversation towards systems for reporting people with mental illnesses, but Gonzalez pressed her again on the NRA’s stance on making the acquisition of semiautomatic weapons more difficult in general, and on the sale of devices like bump stocks that can convert them to automatic-like systems. “Well, I think the ATF is deciding about bump stocks right now,” Loesch said. Israel, the Broward County sheriff, then interjected with his own criticism of Loesch. “You are not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons,’” he said.
The exchange was so pivotal not because of Loesch’s positions, but because it pitted the NRA—an organization that often claims to be fighting on behalf of regular Americans—against a roomful of regular Americans, children and parents. The crowd booed Loesch, and critically, a senior law-enforcement official directly criticized the organization. It was a moment of public weakness for a once untouchable entity that now finds itself fighting hard against the tide of public opinion.
The policy takeaways from the debate were important, too. At a bare minimum, a roomful of constituents and politicians agreed that some further restrictions on firearms and modifications might be necessary, and the NRA ceded valuable ground. It’s unclear if those kinds of restrictions would actually reduce the rate of gun violence or incidence of mass shootings, but the town hall did show that the power of people—especially young people—is still important even in this age of big money.
That power only seems to be growing. Students across Florida and other places in the country are marching, and there appears to be an ongoing political awakening among youth about the issue of gun violence. Students from Stoneman Douglas are finding their footing as political leaders in their own right, forced into the fire by tragedy, and have now proven effective in meeting the strongest arguments of their policy opponents, and in wielding the power of public opinion on their side. If there is significant movement on gun-control reforms in the future, it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that the country will look back on Wednesday’s town hall as a paradigm-shifting moment that might have finally moved the debate.
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