Last night, CNN hosted a nearly two-hour-long "town hall" that gave a platform to students, parents, and others directly affected by last week's mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Hosted by Jake Tapper, the event also brought a number of high-profile politicians, gun-control activists, and defenders of gun rights into mostly heated conversation.
Here are the key takeaways from the town hall:
- Like President Trump's "listening session" at the White House, this was as much about grieving as anything else. CNN's overall coverage of the mass shooting doesn't mask its interest in giving students air time to vent their anger, frustration, fear, outrage, and demands for gun control. Despite being a strong defender of Second Amendment rights, I don't mean that as a criticism, but simply as an observation. I watched the town hall while following Twitter at the same time and all the people who were crowing about teenagers "dunking" on Marco Rubio and National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch (more on that in a moment) were missing a crucial dimension. After a traumatic event such as a school shooting, the act of being able to express anger and rage is ultimately less about what shape the future will take and more about processing the immediate past and present. Donald Trump's White House event was vastly different in temperament and tone for all sorts of reasons, but it served the same essential function of giving survivors a place to grieve and mourn in public.
- A shared gun-control agenda focused on bump stocks, databases, and mental health is coming into focus. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he remained a strong gun-rights advocate but agreed with increasing the age for rifle purchases, which is currently 18, to match that of handguns, which is 21. He's reconsidering reducing the size of magazines and actively supports the idea of "gun violence restraining orders," which would make it easier for law enforcement, family members, and mental-health professionals to at least temporarily void gun rights of individuals. Those are not small concessions, especially from a Republican, but it's far from clear that he will be joined by many GOP members of Congress. Everyone, including NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, is on board with banning bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to approach the firing speed of fully automatic weapons (which are mostly illegal). The databases comprising the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) are seriously incomplete and need better compliance. This wouldn't represent an expansion of background checks but a fulfillment of the original intent. While having more complete databases wouldn't necessarily disarm mass shooters, the failure to get even close to full participation by states, the military, and other reporting entities is deeply troubling. According to a 2013 FBI report, "at least 25 percent of felony convictions" are absent from NICS and last fall's Sutherland Springs shooting by a former member of the Air Force disciplined for domestic abuse underscored the military's lack of compliance. Finally, everyone agreed that "mental health" is at least either the problem or a major contributing factor. If you draw a Venn diagram of agreements last night, people with "mental illness"—a notoriously slippery and self-interested category under the best of circumstances—are facing heightened scrutiny in a way that should worry all civil libertarians.
- Forget the poundings that Rubio and Loesch took from the angry crowd, the worst onstage participant was Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Both in the hall and on Twitter, Rubio and Loesch clearly took the most abuse, despite their willingness not only to be present but to engage in good-faith debate and discussion. Israel, who appeared in a segment with Loesch, embodied why trust and confidence in law enforcement and the criminal-justice system has been erratic at best since Ferguson in 2014. In 2015, Gallup found confidence in cops dropped to a 25-year low. It's since rebounded somewhat but remains below its recent highs. Israel constantly invoked Florida's "Baker Act," which lets police and others force individuals deemed to be a threat to themselves or others to undergo involuntary psychiatric evaluations, as a means by which alleged shooter Nikolaus Cruz could have been stopped and as a reason he wasn't. He brushed off reports that agencies had been notified 39 times over the previous seven years about Cruz as irrelevant while bluntly stating that the police "need more power." At no point did Israel concede that failures of law enforcement were at work and seems to live in a world where the cops never abuse power. The only thing you can say about him is that he at least showed up. Unlike the FBI, which said it couldn't send anyone because its investigation of the shooting was ongoing.
- The Florida shooting is unlikely to seriously alter the historically high consensus that law-abiding individuals have the right to own and carry weapons. Again, the event's main function—a good one, I think—is to give a forum for people to express their anger, sorrow, and even despair. But that's primarily about mourning, not setting new policy. Since the mid-1990s (and even after Columbine inaugurated the current era of school shootings in 1999), Americans have become more, not less, supportive of gun rights. In 2000, according to Pew, 29 percent of Americans thought the government should "protect gun rights." By last year, that figure was 47 percent. And the feeling is actually stronger among millennials than older people. Despite the intensity and outpouring of grief and energy right now, there's no reason to expect it to sustain major gun-control legislation, and possibly not even any of the proposals outlined above.
- Jake Tapper is cable news' indispensable man right now. If the public is losing confidence in government in all its emanations, we are even more skeptical of the news media. Yet CNN's Jake Tapper, who once worked at what is now The Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence, is nothing less than inspiring in his genial-yet-tough fairness and decency. We don't need another Walter Cronkite (who was never the "most-trusted man in America" anyway), but it's good to see a thoughtful, well-informed news anchor and interlocutor who consistently asks difficult questions of all his guests and also gives them the time to answer. Even though the crowd was particularly hostile to the NRA's Loesch, he made sure she was given opportunities to make her points. Like Chris Wallace at Fox News and Brian Lamb at C-SPAN, Tapper is that rare breed who surely has a personal point of view but nonetheless is rigorous and fair. And unlike Wallace, Tapper, who wrote for early webzines such as Salon and Suck.com back in the day, is fully immersed in social media, maintaining one of the liveliest and wide-ranging Twitter feeds in media. I like subjective and point-of-view-driven media, but we all benefit from having down-the-middle types who can facilitate ideologically inclusive conversations.
Watch the entire town hall below. Go here for shorter clips.