On the election debate stage Tuesday night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) turned his back on a promise he made to Floridians after the tragic Parkland school mass shooting four years ago: to raise the age limit on AR-15 rifle purchases from 18 to 21.
The proposed enhanced restriction would be an attempt to make it more difficult for young adults to buy a semiautomatic rifle that can fire bullets as fast as a person can pull the trigger—one with minimal recoil that makes it easier to continue shooting accurately.
The senator revealed his change of heart Tuesday when answering a question from the moderator, who asked if Rubio still sticks by the pledge he made in the days after the Valentine’s Day school rampage.
Although Rubio first dodged the question, WPBF 25 News anchor Todd McDermott pressed on.
“What you said in 2018 is not what you believe is a solution today?”
“Denying the right to buy it isn’t going to keep them from doing it,” Rubio responded.
The revelation came during an hour-long, emotionally charged shouting match with Rep. Val Demings (D-FL).
The 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting by a 19-year-old former student killed 17 students and teachers and injured 17 more in suburban Parkland, Florida. For survivors and the local community, it marked a decisive turning point. The extent and shock of the carnage put the country into a brief period of mourning—just like the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 60 and injured hundreds, the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 and hurt dozens, and the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 little kids and six teachers.
Rubio, who has maintained a strict pro-gun rights stance for years, made headlines when he faced the emotional pleas of his constituents during a televised CNN town hall shortly after the Parkland massacre. Visibly flustered by questions from kids and parents begging him to take some kind of action to restrict the nation’s extremely lax gun access laws, Rubio finally threw them a bone.
“If you are 18 years of age, you should not be able to buy a rifle,” Rubio said then. “I will support a law that takes that right away.”
Rubio, who at that time had a difficult-to-achieve “A+” rating from the unwavering gun rights activists at the National Rifle Association, has since dropped to a “B.” (The former police chief running against him, by contrast, is rated an “F” by the NRA.)
Four years on, the emotional wounds from that act of domestic terrorism are still fresh. Just last week, jurors spared shooter Nikolas Cruz the death penalty—an agonizing end to a four-month trial that featured heart-wrenching testimony from 90 survivors and replaying of video footage of the attack.
But Congress has yet to further restrict access to the weapon Cruz used—or any firearms, despite public pressure to subject buyers to universal background checks. And these politicians have yet to find common ground on so-called “red flag” laws that would allow judges to seize guns from people merely accused of dangerous behavior.
Tuesday night’s moderator, McDermott, brought up the Cruz trial’s recent conclusion when he asked the senator whether he stands by his promise to cut off AR-15 rifle sales to people under 21—a restriction that already exists for handguns.
“Would you still support that federal law?” McDermott asked Rubio.
“Let me tell you why that law doesn’t work, and why that proposal doesn’t work,” Rubio began, as gasps and murmurs were heard in the crowd.
Rubio then explained that instead of trying to raise the age limit, he sponsored a “red flag” law that would “allow cops to go to a judge and remove guns if they can prove you’re a danger.”
“I think the solution to this problem is to identify these people that are acting this way and stop them before they act,” Rubio said.
When the moderator pressed him to clarify whether he was reneging on his promise, Rubio fell back to what’s become a core NRA talking point: that laws are generally empty and useless.
“What makes no sense is that we’re gonna actually pass laws that only law-abiding people will follow and the criminals will continue to violate,” he said. “And these killers who are out there, if they are intent on killing as they are, they have found multiple ways of getting ahold of weapons and causing mass destruction.”
But then he also narrowed his support for red flag laws too, saying the current proposal by Democrats “allows your co-worker who has a grudge against you and can go to a judge and take away your guns.”
Demings responded with rage, raising her voice as she went.
“Every time we talk about responsible gun ownership and legislation that can help protect lives, you pull the Second Amendment out,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. This is about taking dangerous guns out of the hands of dangerous people. And the overwhelming majority of people in our nation want us to do just that! How long will you watch people being gunned down in first grade, fourth grade, high school, college, church, synagogue, a grocery store, a movie theater, a mall and a nightclub—and do nothing?”