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Facing jeers and boos, Rubio shifts on guns during tense forum

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky poses a question to Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall meeting at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Feb. 21. | Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

It was a striking turnabout for Rubio, who never met a gun-rights bill he didn’t vote for in the Florida Legislature and in Congress.

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The mass shootings in Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas and even Fort Lauderdale didn’t get Sen. Marco Rubio to seriously reconsider his position on guns.

But Rubio shifted on firearms Wednesday night as he weathered the righteous anger of a parent and of the students who survived the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and then faced him onstage at a CNN town hall in purple Florida’s liberal bastion of Broward County.

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Jeered and booed by the crowd, buffeted by tough questions, Rubio stood alone as the only Republican onstage. He broke with President Donald Trump on whether to arm teachers. Rubio said it was a bad idea. He said he would favor raising the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21. And he said he would consider restricting the size of magazines for firearms.

It was a striking turnabout for Rubio, who never met a gun-rights bill he didn’t vote for in the Florida Legislature and, later, in Congress. But Rubio said he wanted to prevent another massacre and that it was time for everyone to start rethinking their positions.

The crowd, though, didn’t seem to agree.

At one point, Rubio’s colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson, tried to throw him a lifeline when the Democrat credited the Republican for showing up — unlike Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Nelson’s likely opponent in 2018.

Rubio insisted he was trying to find common ground and wasn’t going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, particularly when it came to his position on high-volume magazines.

“It may not prevent an attack, but it may save lives in an attack,” he said, suggesting that three or four lives might have been saved in Parkland had there been some restriction on magazine size.

Rubio said he would leave it to law enforcement to suggest what the right magazine size would be.

That wasn’t enough for the audience, even as Rubio chided them that politicians should be allowed to change their minds. And it wasn’t enough for the other people on stage.

“The time for talking in Washington about to do about guns is over. It’s over. We know what to do,” said Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch , who represents the district where the school is located, in the city of Parkland.

But Rubio steadfastly refused to consider banning semiautomatic rifles outright. And he said he would not refuse money from the National Rifle Association, which has steered $ 3.3 million in contributions to him over the course of his career and given him an A+ rating — support he might not be able to count on after Wednesday night.

In June 2016, Rubio cited the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando as a major reason he leapt back into his Senate race, which he’d been weighing doing for months after failing in the presidential primaries. Rubio said that massacre had “impacted” him and made him feel he had to return to the Senate. He won, with NRA support. But in the nearly two years since, he has not championed any new gun legislation in Congress.

The subject of Rubio’s NRA contributions was the low part of his night and the highlight for the crowd when CNN’s Jake Tapper gave high school junior Cameron Kasky the opportunity to confront Rubio.

“Sen. Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future?” Kasky asked.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ted Deutch are pictured. | AP Photo

The room erupted with cheers and applause.

Rubio didn’t immediately answer.

Kasky then mused about confronting a spokeswoman for the NRA.

“So No. 1,” Rubio responded, “the positions I hold on these issues of the Second Amendment — I’ve held since the day I entered office in the city of West Miami as an elected official. No. 2 — no. The answer to the question is that people buy into my agenda. And I do support the Second Amendment. And I also support the right of you and everyone here to be able to go to school and be safe.”

Kasky cut him off and re-asked his question: “No more — no more NRA money?”

Rubio: “This is the wrong way to look — first of all, the answer is, people buy into my agenda.”

Kasky: “You can say no.”

Rubio said that the influence of the NRA was not its money as much as “the influence … from the millions of people that agree with the agenda.”

Kasky: “In the name of 17 people, you cannot ask the NRA to keep their money out of your campaign?”

Rubio: “I think in the name of 17 people, I can pledge to you that I will support any law that will prevent a killer like this from getting a gun.”

“No,” Kasky responded, “but I’m talking about NRA money.”

The evening didn’t start particularly well for Rubio, either, when he was questioned by Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed last week in school.

Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are pictured. | AP Photo

“Were guns the factor in the hunting of our kids?” Guttenberg asked.

“Of course they were,” Rubio replied. “No. 1, Fred, I absolutely believe that in this country if you are 18 years of age you should not be able to buy a rifle, and I will support a law that takes that right away.”

Rubio was met with applause and went on to say he supports banning “bump stocks,” which can make a semiautomatic weapon fire like a machine gun. He also voiced his support for better background checks and mental health funding.

But when Rubio said an “assault weapons ban” would not have prevented last week’s murders, the boos rained down.

“It is too easy to get,” Guttenburg said. “It is a weapon of war. The fact that you can’t stand with everybody in this building and say that, I’m sorry.”

Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.

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