Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stood alone in his defense of gun rights during a CNN Townhall hosted Wednesday night, criticizing the shortsightedness of restrictive laws banning “assault weapons.”
Rubio appeared on stage at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida — less than a 20 minutes drive from Parkland, where a 19-year-old former student gunned down 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one week earlier. The only Republican who accepted CNN’s invitation to appear — both President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott declined — Rubio fielded questions from a grieving community alongside U.S. Sen. Bill Neslon and state Rep. Ted Deutch, both Democrats.
“I’m saying that the problems that we’re facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone,” Rubio said during a line of questioning about banning AR-15s and similar rifles. “If I believe that that law would have prevented this from happening, I would support it.”
Rubio waded into the specifics of the 1994 assault weapons ban, describing how the flawed language of the legislation outlawed roughly 220 semiautomatic rifles, while leaving 2,000 similar firearms untouched.
“It allows legal 2,000 other types of gun that are identical,” he said. “Identical, in the way that they function and how fast they fire and the type of caliber that they fire and the way they perform. They’re indistinguishable from the ones that become illegal.”
Rubio said in states where such a ban already exists — such as New York and California — skirting the law takes about 15 seconds. “They just take the plastic grip off of the front or the back,” he said. “The same gun and it becomes legal, performs the exact same way.”
Rubio suggested instead shoring up the existing federal background check system through the Fix NICS Act — a proposal that rewards states and agencies for updating criminal databases feeding the system so gun dealers aren’t blind to a buyer’s potential prohibited status.
Deutch and Nelson interjected, arguing instead for universal background checks and a more comprehensive assault weapons ban with clear definitions — similar to a proposal Nelson co-sponsored in Congress.
“If there was a problem with the way that was written, if there were too many loopholes … then let’s bring up the assault weapons ban and close all those loopholes so that we have bill that keeps people safe,” Deutch said. “I believe that the idea that a gunman like this could march down the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School and fire off 150 rounds in six or seven minutes, that gun should be banned. There is no reason why anybody should own one of those.”
“It can in fact be defined if you’re very specific,” Nelson said of his bill, which he said targets AK-47s and AR-15s, among others.
Rubio conceded support for gun violence restraining orders and offered to reconsider his stance on limiting magazine sizes. He also favors banning bump stocks and raising the legal age limit for owning a rifle to 21, even expressing confidence Senate Republicans would follow him on those policy changes.
“So there are things that we can begin to do on issues that there is consensus on,” he said. “My biggest fear remains, that our attention span in this country on virtually every issue is seven to 10 days and then we pivot. You know, we’re one tweet away or one story away from focusing on something else, and we cannot continue on an issue of this importance to allow that to happen. And so, I do think we can make progress.”