Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School want, expect and demand action.
On February 21, in their biggest show of force yet, the students organized their longest day of driving change, culminating in a town hall meeting, organized and hosted by CNN, with legislators, law enforcement and the National Rifle Association (NRA). The event, Stand Up, aired live on CNN at 9 p.m. EST, and was hosted in a packed arena, with reportedly more than 7,000 in attendance in Sunrise, Florida. The crowd was a fraction of the hundreds of protesting students around the country rallying behind the 3,300 survivors of the Douglas shooting. CNN host Jake Tapper facilitated and guided the town hall discussion, which allowed students, teachers, parents and community members ample time to direct their biggest questions at people they feel are empowered to make the change they want to see. Assembled were Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL), NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. (Florida Governor Rick Scott and President Donald Trump declined to attend.) The FBI was also invited and unable attend, citing a conflict with their ongoing investigation.
Throughout the event, the Stoneman Douglas students, teachers, and parents insisted upon transparency and accountability. “If a majority of Americans have long supported stricter gun control regulations, but our elected officials, who are supposed to represent the people, have done nothing, does this mean that our democracy is broken?” asked Robert Schentrup, who lost his 16-year-old sister Carmen Schentrup—whose birthday would have been the day of the town hall—in the shooting at his school on February 14. His question was for Florida Representative Ted Deutch to answer.
Deutch’s response? “A little bit, it is.”
After noting that a recent poll shows 97% of Americans support universal background checks, Rep. Deutch said, seeming to refer to the NRA, “When any organization spends tens of millions of dollars promoting the interests of gun corporations to influence what happens in our election, then, yes, our democracy is a little broken.” He then continued, on a hopeful note, “Here’s why our democracy is great, because everything we’ve seen, from the 3,300 survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the leadership that has been shown is leading a movement that is so much stronger than money spent in political campaigns. That’s why the democracy can be fixed and will be fixed.
Senator Rubio faced a barrage of questioning, and he publicly disagreed with Trump’s call to arm a percentage of teachers, assuring Stoneman Douglas teacher Ashley Kurth (who sheltered 65 students from the shooter in her culinary arts classroom) that he had a problem with that particular idea. It was a rare moment of absolute agreement between the shooting survivors and lawmakers in a sea of discord.
In another exchange, Fred Guttenberg, father to 14-year-old Jaime, who died in the Douglas shooting, called Rubio’s comments and actions so far “pathetically weak.” Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky lobbed perhaps the toughest challenge at Rubio, asking the senator to stop accepting donations from the NRA. The Senator refused, insisting that the money donated was to support his ideas, not a payout to push the NRA’s agenda.
Kasky did not appear convinced, but earlier in their exchange, the student silenced the crowd when they loudly booed the senator. By the end of the debate, the students had Rubio on record promising to pursue legislation to ban bump stocks, improve background checks, and set age restrictions on gun purchases.
The town hall made clear that the Stoneman Douglas community aren’t just interested in feeling safe again, they’re also hungry to learn how to stop history from repeating. Stoneman Douglas history teacher Diane Wolk-Rogers was there alongside them, asking NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch to explain (with supporting detail, of course) how a 19-year-old with a military weapon is well-regulated.
Loesch carefully dodged, saying that gun regulation is designed to work for people who are not a threat to themselves or the community. Her suggestion: Regulate the people, not the guns. In one of the most compelling exchanges of the night, Douglas survivor Emma González also told the NRA spokeswoman, “I want you to know that we will support your two children in a way that you will not.”
Another big moment came when Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, sitting next to Loesch, said, “You just told this group of people you’re standing up for them. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’”
To parent Linda Schulman, who lost her son Scott Beigel in the February 14 attack, Loesch said, “If I could change time and change circumstances, I would have done everything in my power to prevent that.”
Schulman responded, “I think you have the power.”
For his part, Senator Nelson stuck by his consistent call throughout the town hall to get assault rifles off the streets. He received multiple standing ovations.
Nelson promised to fight for legislation that would ban assault rifles at the federal level. Sheriff Israel agreed with students that more gun control was necessary. Refusing to accept empty answers at each step, the students pushed the conversation toward the action they wanted to see.
Earlier the same day, Stoneman Douglas students also met with top Florida officials including Florida Senate President Joe Negron, Senate Democratic leader Oscar Braynon, and Senators Lauren Book and Gary Farmer. In statements since, many have already announced their plans for action.
In Negron’s statement, he said the Senate “is committed” to providing $100 million in funding to identify and treat people with mental health issues, as well as another $78.1 million to improve safety and security in schools. Farmer responded too, much more in lockstep with the students, saying, “Our rally is just one small example of the millions of people in America demanding change from their elected officials on the topic of sensible gun safety legislation. It is time for our State and Federal governments to deny the powerful gun lobbies and courageously stand up for the people they represent.”
Despite these successes, multiple times during the town hall, students heard reminders that public interest in school shootings fades, but both Rubio and Loesch seemed to suggest that the students expand their political interests and move on once the session ends.
At the end of the night, Douglas survivors performed “Shine,” a song the students wrote and performed at the town hall’s conclusion. “We’re tired of hearing that we’re too young to make a change,” they said.