The Parkland school shooting demanded unique answers from our nation. Whether it was the timing, media attention, or devotion of some students to bring about codified change, there was an undeniable feeling that Parkland would be a lasting conversation in the debate concerning the Second Amendment. Seizing on the demand for action, CNN hosted a televised town hall to air the Parkland students’ anger, anguish, and grievances against the political elite and gun lobby. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., answered CNN’s call to participate.
Rubio knew that he faced a “community that was angry and hurting,” but felt it was his duty to face his constituents.
“[Our] Republic only works when people are engaging with one another […] in honest and open debate,” he explained to us.
As things in Parkland have started to settle down, we spoke with Rubio about his mindset leading up to the town hall, his positions on the Second Amendment and securing a safer society, and the future of conservatism.
In the days after the Parkland shooting, Sen. Rubio told us that he asked himself, “What could we have done? How could we have prevented this?”
At the time of the televised forum, some of these questions remained unanswered as the details of the shooting, and missteps by law enforcement and the school were still coming out.
What the nation witnessed at the town hall was less a debate or discussion and more a community emoting their anger and loss at politicians they perceived to be somewhat responsible. The setting was particularly unfavorable to Rubio as the sole Republican whom the room rightly knew to be the most pro-gun politician at the event. The other elected officials, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were able to duck questions regarding their views on semi-automatic weapons. Sen. Rubio, on the other hand, was given no such cover – not that he needed any.
Rubio made clear that all school shootings are personal to him as the “father of young children,” but that this tragedy hit a particular chord with him as it occurred in his home state. The television discussion ended, the students and parents went home, but Sen. Rubio continued to work. He knew that we needed to do something. The town hall could not and would not be the end of the story.
Less than three weeks after the Parkland shooting, Rubio, along with 11 other senators, co-sponsored the School Safety and Mental Health Services Improvement Act. The day after the bill was introduced on the Senate floor, I (Kyle Kashuv) met with Rubio, to discuss a way forward to protect schools. That discussion fueled my desire to be a conservative activist for gun safety and what ultimately led to an ongoing conversation that we have had with Rubio.
As we continued to talk with the senator, he’s reflected on the difficulty navigating the media to reach constituents on what Congress is doing to keep schools safe as well as what certain realities are when it comes to the gun debate. Referencing the Parkland shooting, the senator felt that largely the “media didn’t do a good job with the facts” as if they were “promoting an agenda.”
He contrasted coverage of Parkland to that of the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, saying it makes “you wonder because it wasn’t an AR-15 – or fit the narrative” that it didn’t receive comparable coverage – perhaps it might have illustrated that “you can kill a lot of people with a revolver and shotgun.” Rubio also suggested it seemed like weeks before Kashuv, a conservative Parkland student, received media exposure while the more liberal, gun-control student activists were regularly featured on CNN and MSNBC.
The most instructive parts of our conversation was about the role of the Second Amendment and the future of conservatism.
In regards to the Second Amendment, Sen. Rubio is a firm believer in the right to self-defense codified in the Bill of Rights. As we discussed the balance of school safety and self-defense, the senator added that “no right is unlimited” as criminals break laws and the body politic has to account for that. He cited what happened in New York after one of their several assault weapons bans that “specific bans don’t work.” New guns are created and enter the space left by the banned weapons with merely “different names or cosmetic changes.”
In reference to Parkland, Rubio criticized Broward County leadership for their failure to properly address the numerous red flags raised by the shooter’s behavior, saying that the school system had a “culture established that we don’t want to arrest young people.” While critical of particular failures, Rubio drove the conversation to offer solutions beyond the talking points shared by many of his Republican colleagues.
Sen. Rubio offered a way forward on the gun debate for Republicans. He provided many reactive steps to gun violence such as his safe schools legislation, ideas to secure school buildings, and calls to strengthen red flag laws as examples of his plans to reduce gun violence in schools. He also advocated that “we need to prosecute straw purchasers,” saying that far too often, these cases are unprosecuted and require a more focused lens on the illegal practice.
Rubio went further, however, with proactive approaches noting that real research and introspection needs to be done to decipher the “fundamental issue [which] is that there are people – young males – in this country determined to kill other people.”
At the heart of his internal views on guns, Rubio is balancing the right to self-defense weighed against the “core issues [that it] isn’t the instrument it’s that people want to kill people.”
Beyond guns, Sen. Rubio had a message of promise and hope for young people in this country, where there are competing philosophies in America: “you either believe that America is an incredible country or you believe America is a country deeply flawed.”
Rubio adopts the view that “conservatives believe that while America might be flawed,” in any number of our failures and indiscretions from our history, we are remedying those wrongs as “we are actually fulfilling the promises made in the Constitution not despite [the Constitution].”
There is little doubt to Rubio that “America is the greatest country in the world… we are constantly fulfilling the promises written by the Founders.”
At the broadest level, he hopes to champion and satisfy those promises on the Hill through the goal of sustaining a government that is “limited in scope and power” to forever secure freedom for “work, family, community, sense of citizenship.”
Rubio embodies much of what we hope for in our leaders. A crisis, a tragedy, or an injustice occurs and rather than merely giving lip service to a problem and letting the next news cycle sweep the past away, he has taken decisive action to protect our society and affirm our liberties.
Standing before those hurting at Parkland, he responded to heartache and frustration with a promise for a safer future. He rejected hyperbole and held firmly to his notion that America is stronger when we face one another and debate ideas and perhaps take an uncomfortable or politically risky path forward.