Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-Fla.) is facing a pivotal moment in his political career amid the nation’s heated fight over gun control.
The shooting at a Florida high school has placed Rubio back into the national spotlight after his failed 2016 presidential run.
On Wednesday, he was repeatedly confronted during a CNN town hall event by relatives and classmates of the 17 students and faculty killed in last week’s shooting. The father of a young girl killed in the attack called his comments “pathetically weak” while a student from the school said it was “hard to look at you.”
Amid the onslaught of anger and frustration, Rubio received some praise for attending an event skipped by President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).
He also acknowledged his own positions on gun control were evolving even as he explained his opposition to broad bans on semi-automatic guns.
“American politics is the only part of our lives where changing your mind based on new information is a — is a bad thing. We do it in every other aspect of our lives. And we've got to and we have to stop doing that as well,” Rubio said.
Rubio offered support for raising the age limit on purchasing a rifle from 18 to 21, and said he would consider new regulations on the size of magazine clips. He also broke with Trump in saying he opposed arming teachers.
The policy proposals represent a significant shift for the 46-year-old senator, who has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). The powerful gun lobby has donated more than $3 million to Rubio over his political career.
Rubio has touted himself as a gun-rights Republican since his days in the Florida legislature. And while accusing the media of distorting his views following the shooting, he has questioned from the Senate floor if tougher gun laws could have prevented it.
The only Republican on stage, Rubio was booed and jeered during the event, but even some critics said they were impressed he had shown up.
Allies said it made sense for Rubio, who won a new six-year term in 2016, to show up.
“I think he acquitted himself very well and clearly reminded a lot of people about what a talented, authentic leader he is last night,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former Rubio aide. “He thought it was important to go and it's a grieving community and it's his constituents.”
Conant added that he was hearing from people for the first time since the 2016 presidential campaign who were reaching out to say “how proud they were of him.”
Rubio was at time reduced to solemn-faced nodding and repeated “yes, sir”s.
Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA adviser quits after request to change name of James Webb telescope denied NASA won't rename James Webb Space Telescope despite controversy FAA unveils new system to reduce planes' times on taxiway MORE (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection this year and may square off with Scott if he chooses to enter the race, even came to his colleague’s defense, saying he had “guts” for coming to the town hall held in Broward County, one of Florida’s most Democratic-leaning precincts.
“And I want you to know that I told him before we came out here tonight that he had guts coming here,” said Nelson, who pointedly noted Scott’s absence.
Rubio downplayed his decision to show up and lamented the current state of the national discourse, accusing both sides of retreating into their own corners and not talking enough. But his decision runs in contrast to the increasingly entrenched, partisan lines in Congress, where members frequently talk past each other and a growing number of lawmakers refuse to field questions from reporters around the Capitol.
As such, the town hall was a moment for Rubio, who at the age of 46 may have another presidential run in him, to look like a different kind of politician.
“There's not a lot of politicians that would stand in the middle of thousands of people who are booing and angry and respectfully take all of their questions,” Conant said.
Rubio has received criticism in the past for being too risk averse and scripted.
During a GOP New Hampshire primary debate in February 2016, Rubio was mocked after he repeated the same line four times.
Wednesday also wasn’t the first time he’s taken a potentially risky approach to a hot-button issue.
He initially worked on the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, only to distance himself amid backlash from conservatives, who considered it to be “amnesty” for immigrants.
He also took part in the Common Sense Coalition discussions this month to find a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. Rubio voted against the narrower deal that the group offered last week.
Rubio’s stance on raising the minimum age for buying a rifle puts him at odds with the NRA. Asked about Rubio’s comments, Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, noted that the organization would consider raising the minimum age to 21 an infringement of the Second Amendment.
“It's not the position of the NRA because I think that if we are asking young men and women to — to go and serve their country, that they should be able to also have a firearm,” she told CNN.
But Rubio could get cover from Trump, who floated a litany of options following the school shooting including arming teachers, “comprehensive” background checks and raising the age to buy a gun to 21.
GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donating unused campaign funds to Arizona nonprofit focused on elections: report Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report MORE (Ariz.) has also backed raising the age limit. GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Republicans are today's Dixiecrats Biden's push for unity collides with entrenched partisanship MORE (Maine) told NBC that she was open to the idea and GOP Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Bob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm MORE (Kan.) told a Kansas publication that he would support age restrictions on an AR-15, the gun used in the Florida shooting.
“I think we’re ready as a Congress to actually pass something and I think it’s going to be better background checks. Certainly nobody under 21 should have an AR-15,” he said.
Gun control advocates were quick to highlight Rubio’s comments and warn that any other lawmaker who supported the NRA should face a similarly rocky reception as the GOP senator did on Wednesday night.
“We were hopeful to hear Sen. Rubio's willingness to reconsider his opposition to common sense gun laws, but if politicians choose to side with the NRA against policies like background checks on every gun sale … then they should expect that their constituents will hold them accountable,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
But asked if they were optimistic that Rubio would stick by the positions he outlined on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the group declined to comment.
At the town hall, Rubio appeared to suggest that senators would go to the floor as soon as Monday to try to pass legislation bolstering the background checks system.
He also predicted legislation banning bump stocks, which are devices that allow semi-automatic guns to fire more rounds with the pull of a trigger, would pass, and that raising the minimum age to buy a rifle could potentially get 60 votes — enough to break a filibuster.