On Wednesday night, a raw, emotional town hall about gun control on CNN emerged as a pivotal moment in the debate over gun control.
As a crowd of several thousand cheered and jeered, the survivors and families of the victims of last week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, pushed back on Senator Marco Rubio and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch more than any member of the media has.
This movement is being led by a group of brave and mature-beyond-their-years teenagers who are unafraid to express their fury at an inactive government and the big money that enables them. And it finally feels like this time, finally, something is different.
That it was all broadcast on a national platform like CNN was even more crucial, and it provided a stark contrast to the usual empty talking points that are circulated by six-pundit panels on cable news. While such town halls are often devoid of substance, the students and their tenacity not only broke the cycle of these pointless made-for-TV debates, but also changed the conversation in the process.
Students like Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky have given voice to the anger and grief we’ve collectively felt too many times. They’ve channeled their outrage and exasperation in a way that, though sometimes uncomfortable, refused to let apathy sink in, cracking the shiny facade of cable news and pushing the gun debate forward.
Emma Gonzalez, Sheriff Israel refuse to let Dana Loesch off the hook
Emma Gonzalez has already gained notice for her passionate speech in the wake of the shooting, and on Wednesday night she was one of many students bravely stood their ground against those in power — including NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
Loesch has caused controversy in the past with her pro-gun statements for the NRA, but that didn’t rattle Gonzalez, who not only didn’t blink in the face of one of America’s most (in)famous gun advocates, but wouldn’t let Loesch get away with ducking the question, proving herself to be a tougher questioner than so many reporters have in the past.
Student Emma Gonzalez: Do you believe it should be harder to obtain semi-automatic weapons?
— CNN (@CNN) February 22, 2018
And Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel followed up on Gonzalez’s questioning, refusing to let Loesch off easy for her stance, telling her, “You’re not standing up for [the students] until you say ‘I want less weapons.'”
The one-two combo of a student survivor and a respected law enforcement official — whose jurisdiction includes the school where the shooting occurred — was an undeniable show of unity against an organization that has sunk countless millions into making sure guns like the one used in this (and other) mass shootings remain obtainable.
Cameron Kasky and Fred Guttenberg corner Senator Marco Rubio
When given the chance to directly confront an elected official that is supposed to represent the people, it’s reasonable to think that the heat of your argument might dim a little because of the weight of the moment.
But not in the case of Cameron Kasky. Another student survivor of the shooting, Kasky called Rubio out on his acceptance of NRA campaign contributions and challenged him to start turning them down as cheers from attendees rained down.
The debate around the NRA’s lobbying efforts is another milestone in the familiar cycle of mass shootings. Those lawmakers that accept the NRA’s money are called out, time and again. Yet few of them have had to face down survivors of a mass shooting like Rubio did on Wednesday night in front of a national television audience.
Kasky wasn’t the only one who pressed Rubio hard. Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, told Rubio point blank that statements made by him and by President Trump in the wake of the shooting were “pathetically weak.”
Rubio was forced to look into the eyes of a parent who’d lost his child and address his views. The in-person audience hurled boos at Rubio while an anguished parent lambasted him in a way he’s not used to. It was raw and riveting and beyond any television CNN or its competitors have produced in a long time.
It was also probably the toughest questioning Rubio has ever faced — on CNN or any other news channel. And that it came from a high school student and a grieving parent shouldn’t be lost on us. A new bar for holding politicians accountable has been set.
Sheriff Israel takes the lead
While the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been at the forefront of the renewed debate, they have a powerful ally in the aforementioned Sheriff Scott Israel. That a leading law enforcement member has so vocally backed the students only gives legitimacy to their point of view.
To say that law enforcement has become a lightning rod in our current divisive political environment is a brutal understatement.
But Sheriff Israel has been an ardent supporter of the students’ initiatives since the shooting. Doing so on a national stage, standing with the students in front of a national audience and leaving no wiggle room for those looking to twist his words, was a powerful show of unity to a nation that badly needs it.
The students refuse to go quietly
Perhaps the most cathartic moment came at the conclusion of the town hall, when students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sang “Shine,” an original song written by the students about love and defiance in the face of tragedy.
“You may have brought the dark, but together we will shine a light.”
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) February 22, 2018
While the song features moving lyrics, especially considering the context in which the students wrote it — “We’re not gonna let you win / We’re putting up a fight / You may have brought the dark / But together we will shine a light” — it was the spoken interludes from the students that delivered the biggest punch.
When one student emotionally delivered the line, “We refuse to be ignored by those who refuse to listen,” it was easy to believe her. The fiery resolve was evident to anyone watching the town hall and listening to the song.
So often these events are dominated by politicians who excel at spinning direct questions in banal talking points and by “commentators” who sometimes mean well but ultimately spout the same sound bites over and over, a circle of “analysis” that sounds all too familiar.
But the students and their allies — law enforcement, teachers, the parents of their slain classmates — made the most of the platform they were given Wednesday night, transforming the typically made-for-TV event into something rawer, more emotional and, ultimately, more powerful than anyone could have possibly imagined.
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