When a nationally-televised audience from Florida enthusiastically embraced a ban on ALL semiautomatic rifles, America’s conversation about guns changed irrevocably.
The most remarkable moment I have witnessed during my 18 years as a gun violence prevention advocate (volunteer and professional) occurred last night during CNN’s “Stand Up: The Students of [Marjory] Stoneman Douglas [High School] Demand Action” town hall meeting when Fred Guttenberg — the father of 14 year-old Jaime Guttenberg, who was shot and killed at the school on February 14 — confronted Florida Senator Marco Rubio on the issue of assault weapons.
Guttenberg informed Senator Rubio that his daughter was shot in the back while running away from the deranged student gunman who perpetrated the attack. “Were guns the factor in the hunting of our kids and is [the AR-15] the weapon of choice? Can you say that?” Guttenberg demanded of Rubio.
Rubio immediately began to dissemble in his answer, claiming that the only reason the AR-15 was banned in the original 1994 federal assault weapons ban was because of a “plastic handle grip” and insisting there was nothing to be done about the issue. “Your answer speaks for itself,” Guttenberg told Rubio with obvious disgust, and sat down.
But Rubio was clearly shaken by the exchange, and he continued to press the point a few minutes later. “The problem [is] that once you start looking at how easy it is to get around [a federal assault weapons ban], you would literally have to ban every single semiautomatic rifle that’s sold in America,” he started.
And before the A+-rated NRA senator could finish his thought, the crowd –which consisted of both students and adults from the Parkland community — interrupted him with furious applause at the prospect of such a ban.
At the conclusion of the town hall meeting, the crowd literally booed NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch off the stage after she, too, lied to them and refused to support a single reform proposal that would prevent future school shootings from happening. Loesch was serenaded with chants of “SHAME ON YOU!” as she walked out of the auditorium.
These were not isolated moments. Across the Sunshine State yesterday — the stronghold of the most powerful NRA lobbyist in America, Marion Hammer — students and adults rose up and spoke bold truth to the gun issue, refusing to tamp down their words and advocacy despite multiple temptations to do so.
It began at a rally at noon directly outside the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee organized by the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, the League of Women Voters of Florida, and state Senator Gary Farmer (D-34th). Organizers helped to bus in students from Broward County schools, but word of the event spread organically and that morning thousands of students started arriving from high schools across the area: Stoneman Douglas, Leon County schools, etc.
The students’ words at the rally were powerful and unflinching, whether it was Ashley Santoro’s chant of “NO MORE AR-15s!”; Rachel Catania’s declaration that “The NRA is murdering me!”; or Sheryl Acquaroli’s shrill, haunting “Dear Congress” pleas to get legislators to do something, anything to save their lives. The adults at the rally were no less courageous, as evidenced by these words from Florida Rabbi Jack Romberg:
Here is a sad truth about our society. It is infected. It is infected in a way that allowed the death of these and numerous other victims. And so I say that we now need to remind all members of our state government and our national government that this culture is actually repelling the presence of God. If you believe that the only solution to gun violence in schools is to turn them into an armed fortress then you do not understand the sickness infecting our culture and you are then repelling God’s presence. If your interpretation of the Second Amendment results in placing gun ownership ahead of the lives of our children — indeed, of all Americans — you are repelling God’s presence. If you refuse to even allow an open discussion to consider the benefits of an assault weapons ban, you are repelling God’s presence. And if you are condemning the students who are pushing for change either as actors of puppets of the left wing, thereby refusing to acknowledge their pain and sincerity, you are repelling God’s presence.
Shortly after the rally began, inside the state capitol building on the 4th floor, student leaders with the March for Our Lives were facing the first effort by corrupt legislators to co-opt their agenda. They had been invited by two state senators, Lauren Book and Bill Galvano, to attend a press conference to speak about the response to the Parkland shooting. The presser had conspicuously been scheduled to take place during the rally outside, conflicting with it. Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence leaders also received word on Tuesday night that Governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi would be attending the press conference. The students were clearly being set up to make it appear as if they were in support of a dubious package of “reform” proposals offered by Galvano and Book. This package offers minuscule changes in gun laws in return for the implementation of a “Sentinel Program” that would arm school staff across Florida.
Word about the fix got out yesterday morning, however, and when the presser occurred, Scott and Bondi were nowhere to be found (nor was Galvano). More importantly, the March for Our Lives students were having no part of the tainted Book/Galvano proposal, refusing to even mention it. Instead, they focused on their goal of banning assault weapons and delivered more straight talk at the gun lobby and its supporters.
Ryan Deitsch, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, declared, “I want to see those people who have spoken out against [a proposed assault weapons ban in Florida]. I want to see those people who shot down that bill [by a vote of 36–71 on Tuesday], who did not let it get past committee. I want to see those people.” Delaney Tarr, another senior at Stoneman Douglas, said, “To shoot down a bill like that is absolutely abhorrent.” Then she promised legislators who back the NRA and oppose reform, “We are coming after every single one of you.” Finally, Tanzil Philip, a sophomore at the school, shared this message directly with NRA’s Florida lobbyist: “To Marion Hammer and to everyone at the NRA and everyone affiliated at the NRA: We are not afraid of you, we will not be silenced by anything you have to say,” he declared. “We are here, our voices are loud, and we’re not stopping until change happens.”
I take tremendous hope from the fact that the Parkland survivors defeated yesterday’s attempts to water down their advocacy and tie them to the present, horrific status quo on guns. I am also elated that the NRA is under active attack in a state where they have long considered themselves invincible. This would have been unthinkable literally hours ago.
But the temptation of the students is not over. Millions of dollars are being thrown at them by celebrities, organizations and others who would love to claim the #NeverAgain “brand” for their own agenda. This is forcing teenagers to make complicated ethical decisions that would challenge adults three times their age.
It should also be noted that the most conservative group in the gun control movement, Everytown for Gun Safety, is now organizing the March for Our Lives (on March 24, 2018) for the students. To this day — after Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and so many other shootings involving battlefield weapons — Everytown still does not support an assault weapon ban at the federal or state level (nor does the second largest group in the gun control movement, Giffords). Whether or not Everytown has given the students money yet is an open question, but it is hard to imagine centrist billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s group going along blithely with an event that issues a strident call for an assault weapons ban and other reforms with actual teeth, as opposed to “compromise” legislation loaded with dangerous gifts for the NRA like the Machin-Toomey bill. Everytown will undoubtedly attempt to convince the students of the merits of the “be polite and beg for table scraps” strategy that has doomed the gun control movement to failure for four decades and running.
If we are truly going to change our gun laws and save countless lives in this country, we need these remarkable young Americans to reject that advice, be their wonderful selves, and understand that they’ve already done more to change our national debate on this issue than modern-day gun control professionals ever have (and I’m speaking as one of them).
“These people putting their money in — not a single one of them has said anything along the lines of ‘I’ll donate but you have to listen to what I say,’” March for Our Lives leader Cameron Kasky assured the Miami Herald yesterday. “Nobody is pulling the strings for [us].”
Those words should be music to the ears of every American tired of the constant shootings decimating our families and communities. Because if the kids remain alright, there are better, safer days ahead.