I woke up this morning to a barrage of headlines in my news feed about last night’s CNN town hall, almost all of which pertained to Marco Rubio–the superstar Republican senator from Florida–being jeered, booed, and castigated for his “pathetically weak” response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It’s easy to see why the focus was on Rubio. A former presidential hopeful and regular figure in the national spotlight had a very rough night at the hands of a crowd that had little patience for half measures and political posturing. But with four other major public figures taking the stage with Rubio last night, a lot was probably missed by drive-by news consumers who catch headlines and soundbites but little else.
1) It’s not too soon to talk about guns. It’s too late.
Rep. Ted Deutch gave voice to the most universal sentiment of the crowd in his opening salvo. With great conviction he delivered an increasingly familiar counterpunch to the tired voices in the national discourse who assume a mock moral high ground in the aftermath of a tragedy to chide reformers with the refrain, “Now is not the time to talk about guns. Now is the time to mourn. How dare you politicize this.” The students, teachers, and families of victims last night were having none of it. They echoed Deutch all night just as they have been laying heavily into lawmakers and pundits in the last week: why didn’t we talk about guns after Sandy Hook, why didn’t we talk about guns after the Pulse shooting, why is it never the time to talk about guns? Deutch minced no words and drew thunderous (speech obscuring) applause when he declared: “The folks in our community don’t want words, they don’t want thoughts and prayers, they don’t want discussions, they want action and we owe it to them [inaudible].”
The criticism spread out like buckshot to an almost infinite host of naysayers who tried to speak on behalf of the victims’ need for peace not politics. Deutch and the crowd together believed that political change was the best hope for peace.
2) The absentees were more significant than the attendees
Deutch’s words must have at least in part been directed at Gov. Rick Scott, who sent his heart out to everyone Wednesday night but refused to talk about reform. When peppered with questions about gun control, Scott said “there is a time to continue to have these conversations” but it apparently isn’t now. No wonder then that he declined to make his way to the town hall (or even to join remotely), given that his presence would have likely been even more grating than that of Rubio.
CNN also noted that the president declined to participate, an inclusion that seemed calculated to try to embarrass the president for being absent. But frankly, I doubt his presence could seriously be expected (given that he didn’t already happen to be at Mar-a-lago at the time) and would probably have been neither appreciated nor productive.
More significant, by far, was the absence of any state legislators. They were too busy, as it turns out, refusing to publicly debate gun control legislation (something the news seemed to find particularly ironic given that the same session declared pornography a public health concern). Given the tremendous latitude that individual states have to enact meaningful gun control–both in terms of restricting purchasing and strengthening enforcement–and the comparative responsiveness of state governments compared to the federal government, the absence of any state lawmakers is perhaps the most important feature of last night’s line up.
The best evidence shows a strong correlation between state level gun laws and a reduction in gun deaths. Gun control activists should stop trying to reproduce Australian gun control in the US and start focusing their attention where it might have results. The absence of Scott and other state level officials should be an embarrassment to them, but it also represents a key weakness in the tactics of gun control advocates.
3) The mundane courage of Marco Rubio
In comparison, at least, Rubio is to be commended: at least he showed up. And, to their credit, the crowd and panelists made sure to give him his due on this before excoriating him for his positions. When fellow Florida senator Bill Nelson (D) reminded the audience of the courage it took for Rubio to show up when no other elected Republican officials would, Rubio protested that he was no hero.
They’re both right. It shouldn’t take any special measure of bravery for an elected official to stand up before his or her constituents, but unfortunately it does. Yet it seems that most politicians don’t have even this mundane level of courage. One reason the president would never be in a meeting like the one last night is because he cannot stomach the perception that he speaks to anything other than massive adoring crowds of red-capped devotees. Even moderate support is considered to be an embarrassment, so that crowd sizes and TV ratings have to be inflated to sustain the illusion of unwavering popularity. The optics always have to be just so.
Maybe Rubio didn’t care about the optics. Maybe he was arrogant enough to believe that he could spin them to his favor. Maybe he genuinely wants to make a turn away from politics to public service. (But probably not.) Whatever the case, he seems to genuinely be walking the walk to go with his big talk of speaking with those who disagree with us, being open to public challenges, and resisting the insularity of the tailored media.
Even if in saying it, he sounded more like he was gearing up for another presidential run than addressing the problem at hand. An especially uncomfortable exchange with a victim’s father had Rubio deploy a reframing tactic–“Fred, first of all, let me explain what I said this week, and I’ll repeat it”–that was better suited to a presidential debate than the public expression of personal and civic grief that characterized the town hall.
4) Jake Tapper misreads the room and misunderstands his role
If Rubio occasionally seemed to forget this was not a town hall on the campaign trail in 2016, he was not the most egregious offender. It wasn’t even the NRA representative, who behaved exactly as everyone wanted and expected her to behave. No, the most out of touch was Jake Tapper.
I like Jake Tapper, most of all for his level-headedness and his willingness to (if you’ll excused the mixed transportation metaphors) right the ship when things go off the rails. That’s also precisely the reason why he was a terrible choice to moderate this town hall. Repeatedly throughout the night he tried to rein in the excesses of a boisterous crowd, excuse panelists from answering loaded or misdirected questions, and ensure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard.
At one point early on he said, “I’m not going to tell anybody in this room not to feel strongly and – – and not to feel emotional. The only thing I will tell you is…” The line was cringe-worthy, like standing up at a meeting of the NAACP and saying, “Now, I’m not going to say I know what its like to experience racism, but…” Nothing that comes after the “but” (or Tapper’s more characteristically verbose “the only thing…is”) can ever overcome the weight of the introductory clause.
This was not a debate, something that Tapper and the panelists continued to reiterate; it was a corporate act of catharsis. That’s why a substantive engagement with Nelson or Deutch mattered less to everyone involved than venting their white-hot grief at Rubio and the NRA. In that context, the moderator’s job is not to provoke meaningful discussion but to carve out meaningful space for the students, teachers, and families–on a national platform with the icons of their most seething anger right in front of them–to give a distilled voice to the overwhelming sentiment of a nation.
In this, Tapper repeatedly failed, being too true to himself and (in consequence) false to the people who needed that forum most.
5) The NRA did just fine
The real star of the night was not Rubio, who acted as a kind of Journey cover band opening for Bono. Before she ever arrived, Dana Loesch (“the NRA lady”) was already at center stage in everyone’s mind. The NRA (rightly) gets much of the blame for mobilizing the political forces against gun control on a national level. Yet Loesch deserved arguably more credit than Rubio for showing up (particularly since the senator may have been her only constituent in the room) and she made her arguments well to an even more hostile crowd than had faced Rubio.
In the bulk of their substance, moreover, her argument were true, at least as they pertained to this particular case. That is one of the features of the NRA’s genius, to undercut the general argument for gun control with specific arguments about an instance of gun violence. Yes, law enforcement failed to stop what should have been an easily identifiable killer…in this case. Yes, better mental health screening would have prevented the killer from owning a weapon…in this case. Yes, better reporting of state officials to national background check databases would have made it harder for someone to buy a gun…in this case. She was right at almost every turn.
The crowd, of course, didn’t care. They knew that their movement was not about preventing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. That had already happened. They needed to stop the next tragedy, the one we aren’t predicting yet, with general laws that will have a general reduction on violent gun crimes. And they’re willing to start just about anywhere. When Rubio told a father that the assault weapons ban would remove 200 gun types from circulation but leave 2,000 similar weapons out there, the father responded, “Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Rubio was not. He was saying that the only solution is the (to him) patently absurd suggestion that we “literally…ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in the U.S.” Wouldn’t you know it, that was the biggest applause line that Rubio or anyone got all night. (Oops.)
Bonus: A little something for history teachers
My favorite moment of the evening came much later, when a social studies teacher rose and, to roaring applause and laughter, posed a question to Loesch in the form of an exam prompt: Define “a well regulated militia,” and “using supporting details” explain how a teenager with a military weapon fits into that definition.
As a history instructor, a found the moment unspeakably fulfilling. Nothing more truly embodies the absurdity of the fact that politically empowered adults need to be led by adolescents to make meaningful progress on gun control. If we’re going to revese the normal order of things, why not hold public figures to at least the same standards we hold high school and college students. In that spirit, I offer these notes to Loesch on her response (as if she were one of my students):
- Too much fluff in the introduction; don’t try to pad your word count with unrelated information.
- The reference to George Mason’s definition of a militia is historically rooted but logically unsatisfying (as a primordialist appeal to authority rather than a coherently developed argument)
- The projection of gender equal language onto the revolutionary period is anachronistic. It suggests the whole argument rests on an unsustainable attempt to collapse the present and the past
- Answer the entire prompt the first time; I shouldn’t have to direct you to produce a complete answer
- Strong, self-consistent second half of the answer (once given), but it is unclear how it relates to the initial part of your response.
To see the town hall or read the transcript, click here.