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Parkland Survivors Rally, Demand Reforms At State Capitol; Trump: We Must Now Focus On Background Checks; Poll: 97 Percent Of Americans Support Gun Background Checks. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2018 - 11:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there, I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan.

United in grief and driven by anger. Teenage survivors of last week's school massacre march on the state capitol demanding tougher gun laws. About 100 Parkland students are rallying in Tallahassee this morning, talking to lawmakers and calling for reforms.

But lawmakers also sent a message of their own. As one student survivor broke down in tears the statehouse refused to even consider a ban on assault weapons. For every lawmaker who wanted that debate, two said no. Students are well aware of the fight they face.


KYLE KASHUV, SURVIVED SCHOOL SHOOTING: It happened, and we just have to move forward and make sure that we're here to make a change. And we really have to hit home specifically on what we can reasonably accomplish. I think that 100 percent definitely we have to be mentally stable to acquire a gun and we have to have deeper backgrounds checks, and I think that is 100 percent accomplishable.


KEILAR: Also, this morning, thousands of high school students in South Florida are holding walkouts to underscore their demands for gun reform. At some schools, students are remaining outside for 17 minutes, one minute for each person killed in Parkland.

Tonight, a national discussion on gun violence and school safety as CNN host a televised town hall with Parkland students and parents. They'll have the opportunity to speak directly to state and national lawmakers who are on opposing sides of this gun control debate.

We're covering all of the angles of this developing story. We have Kaylee Hartung for us in Sunrise, Florida for tonight's town hall. I do want to begin, though, in Tallahassee where we have CNN's Dianne Gallagher. Dianne, tell us, what are we going to see today? What are you seeing there right now? DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if this is any indication behind me, Brianna, I want to step-out so you can take a look at it. We're going to see quite a large crowd showing up to support those Stoneman Douglas students.

Those students about 100 that I rode up here on buses with from the Parkland area, they are inside right now meeting with lawmakers. They've been in those meetings since about 8:30 presenting their demands, presenting their concerns and telling their stories.

About 70 meetings, 10 kids per lawmaker talking to them, Republican and Democrat, about gun control, mental health and really, Brianna, just telling the story about what happened one week ago today in their high school.

They are going to have a press conference in about an hour. That's when this rally is supposed to kick off in support of them. The people who are out here are parents, teachers, and we have teachers unions from Broward County, where their school is located who came up here.

Other students from Parkland who went to different schools showing their support and here in Leon County, in the Tallahassee area, a lot of the students were told they could take an excused absence if they felt the need to come and support their fellow Florida students.

Later today at the press conference, through this rally, we're going to hear from Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot several years ago in the head.

There are going to be Pulse Nightclub survivors who are going to speak out. Some came on the buses before they left, Brianna, and said we love you, we see you, we hear you, and we support you.

They passed out letters from Las Vegas shooting from those survivors saying the same thing, we are with you. And really, you hear the chanting here. Each of those 100 students who came with me sort of had individual requests of the lawmakers.

They want a dialogue, Brianna, and they understand they say it's not going to happen overnight but instead of like in the past, they believe that America has just forgotten the victims of these mass shootings in about a week or two.

They say they are not going away. They know how to use social media and know how to get their point across and say we're privileged because we come from an affluent, well-educated community, and we're going to use that privilege to make sure that other students of other schools don't have to go through what we've gone through.

Brianna, before we left on those buses, there are kids who attended funerals of their classmates and then went straight from the funeral to get on a bus to come here. The Stoneman Douglas students are not going to be at the rally. They are going to hold their own press conference because they came to work. They didn't come here to rally. They appreciate everyone supporting them and want them to continue doing so, but they have a job to do here today and they want to focus on that.

KEILAR: They, though, have already met, Dianne, with one disappointment after a vote in the statehouse last night.

GALLAGHER: Yes. That's right. We were on the bus, Brianna, when that happened, when that news broke. There was disappointment and anger and tears, but most of the students I spoke with said it's OK, you know what, that's our first defeat, our first setback.

We have a fire within us. We're going to use that to light that fire even larger and make sure we use that to persevere. They say they are inspired.

[11:05:07] They are doing this in the name of those 17 friends and teachers who died a week ago today and that they want to continue. They again they understand this is going to be a year's long process.

I've had kids talking about, I'm 15, I get to vote in three years. I'm going to remember what happened. Kids who are 18 years old now say I'm going out and getting my friends and making sure they are voting, registered.

We're paying attention on a local and state level. We're moving to a national level next, but we realize that all politics is local as many of us know and they seem to get that, and they are going to try to make a change from their home before it comes to the nation.

KEILAR: As they watch that vote, heard about that vote 2-1 against considering an assault weapons ban, they said they are going to press on in other directions. Dianne Gallagher for us in Tallahassee, thank you so much for that report.

I do want to go live now to the site of tonight's CNN town hall. We are bringing shooting survivors face to face with Florida politicians and the NRA on a national stage for stand-up. The students of Stoneman Douglas demand action.

CNN's Kaylee Hartung is at the venue for us in Sunrise, Florida. So, Kaylee, tell us about the plan for this.

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, some of those students with Dianne in Tallahassee now and many more will be bringing their passion and their outrage here to the BB&T Center tonight. More than 5,000 people have confirmed that they will attend.

CNN's production staff now conducting an audio check to get ready for the 9:00 p.m. event behind me. But what you can expect to see here tonight, those students and those survivors from Stoneman Douglas as well as their parents, teachers and administrators having the opportunity to begin a conversation with elected officials and even a spokesperson from the NRA. On that stage tonight, I mentioned elected officials but most notably, Senator Marco Rubio, a man who has taken more money from the NRA than any other politician in the state of Florida.

Also, someone who in the last week has said he doubted that the proposed gun laws would have prevented the massacre at Stoneman Douglas. We've heard students with very strong words for him over the past week, not afraid to call him out for taking what they call blood money.

I wouldn't expect for those students to hold back their emotions when they question him and that national spokeswoman from the NRA tonight. Also, on the stage, you'll see Congressman Ted Deutsche, the Democratic representative of this community in the United States Congress.

He, Brianna, as many students have told me has been a wonderful resource for students in the past week and will also see Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. We should mention that President Trump as well as Florida's Governor Rick Scott were offered invitations to be here. They declined that as well as the opportunity to appear via satellite.

Brianna, we expect an emotional and powerful event right here in the BB&T Center, moderated by our Jake Tapper tonight.

KEILAR: And despite some of the folks, the president and the governor not coming, it is extraordinary to see that lineup of all of the stakeholders who are going to be in attendance tonight. Kaylee Hartung, thank you so much for that preview of what is going to be a big impactful event.

I do want to bring in one of the students who made the trip from Parkland to Tallahassee. Spencer Blum is a junior at Stoneman Douglas High School. Spencer, thank you so much for talking to us.


KEILAR: So, I want you to tell us, what is your message to the governor and to lawmakers in Tallahassee today?

BLUM: Well, we were talking to them all day yesterday and some of them heard us loud and clear and others not so much. Our goal here is to get a complete ban on assault weapons in the state of Florida. We will not accept anything else.

KEILAR: So, last night you saw this, you talked about this, the Florida House voted 71-36 against even debating a bill to ban assault weapons. What was your reaction to that?

BLUM: Well, I was sitting up on the balcony in the chamber when they made that motion. The first thing I thought was speechlessness. Are you kidding me? This is insane. They -- quite literally introduced us and said with Stoneman Douglas here and in our hearts and they still had 71 people say ney to 36 yay. That's unacceptable. I felt anger, dismay and a drive to really not stop. KEILAR: So, what do you do -- if they won't even take it up to talk about it, what do you do when it comes to assault weapons? Do you turn your focus to other issues pertaining to gun violence? How do you handle that?

BLUM: Well, our main goal is to ban assault weapons, there are other talks about more gun control such as background checks, banning the bump stocks, but what I think we really need to do is vote them out. They were elected to represent us, and they are failing us.

[11:10:11] They are not representing us. This is not what we want. If they are not going to represent us in 2018 in November when the election comes around, we're going to vote them out and replace them with people who will represent us.

KEILAR: And as you know, change can take time on issues like this. You just talked about the setbacks and disappointments as well as your aims. I wonder, have you and your classmates been talking about how you keep your message out there even as what has become a bit of an inevitable thing, which is that the public begins to focus less on what happened to you, it's not quite as salient for them as time goes on. Have you thought about that and how you keep your message alive in the face of that?

BLUM: We have. You know, for LGBTQ rights it took a long time. It took many years, but it got done. We're not stopping. After Sandy Hook, Vegas, Pulse, such a tragedy and we're not stopping. As you can see behind me, there's thousands of people piling in for a rally.

There's a march in Washington on March 24th, where I think it's "March For Our Lives." We're not stopping. This is a nationwide thing, going to go international and we're not going to stop. We're not going to stop with the walkouts and the marches and not stopping with the rallies until we get what we want.

KEILAR: Spencer, I think it's -- I wonder if it's hard for you to believe, I know it's hard for certainly me to believe and a lot of viewers it's only been a week since the shooting at your school. How are you holding up?

BLUM: You know, the first few days were for grieving. There was the vigil in Parkland at the amphitheater the next day. Those few days were for grieving, but now we're angry and we're pissed and ready for action. We want change. We're going to get change.

At this point, yes, the grieving is still there, and it will come back and hit us at only God knows when. For now, we're angry and fired and pissed, and we're ready to make ourselves be heard.

KEILAR: Well, Spencer, we know this is going to be a process for you as just said and we're thinking of you and thinking of your fellow students and entire community as you go through this and keeping an eye on what you're doing in Florida. Spencer Blum, thank you so much.

BLUM: Thank you. KEILAR: Now, coming up, President Trump is pledging to come up with solutions to prevent gun violence but what are they? Will he follow through? We're live at the White House.

Plus, Trump once again slamming his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a source tells CNN the president will never get over Sessions recusing himself from the Russia probe. We'll have details ahead.



KEILAR: We're keeping a close eye on Tallahassee, Florida, where some 100 survivors of last week's school shooting are holding a rally outside of the state capitol. They have met with the governor, lawmakers from both parties and they are there demanding tougher gun laws.

It was one week ago today that a gunman killed 17 of their classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the president saying that he's also willing to take steps after last week's massacre.

CNN's Abby Phillip is live for us at the White House with more on this. Abby, what kind of action is the president looking at?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Brianna. These voices of these students are really appearing to make an impact here at the White House with the president yesterday announcing that he has directed his administration to address bump stocks issue, that's an accessory you can attach to a weapon that makes it essentially fully automatic.

The president had months ago said that he was interested in dealing with this potentially looking into a ban on bump stocks, but nothing really happened while his administration reviewed it.

Yesterday he announced that that review is essentially over and that he would direct them to propose new rules banning those bump stocks. We also heard yesterday from the White House that there is some interest in that building to addressing the question of how old do you have to be in order to purchase a semiautomatic weapon like the one that was used at this massacre in Florida?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary said there's some openness to it and there would be some conversations about that going forward. Also, today, the president is going to be sitting down with some of the victims and students of the Parkland shooting and also of some previous shootings, including Newtown and Columbine in what the White House is terming a listening session about violence in schools.

He's going to be joined by Mike Pence, the vice president, and also the education secretary, Betsy DeVos. We expect to see and hear from the president in that forum, even while these students are obviously raising their voices asking for more to be done. And these changes to the sort of administrative side of this, fall short of what some people want. Some folks want the president to push Congress to do more and so far, we have not yet seen the president being willing to address that.

We do know that he's been hearing and soliciting feedback from his advisers inside and outside the White House about how to address this issue. Clearly, Brianna, the pressure is on this White House, they are seeking to do something about it today and in future listening sessions they are planning in the coming weeks.

KEILAR: Very interesting. Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you so much for that. I want to bring in CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, and CNN political analyst and national political reporter at "Politico," Eliana Johnson with us here.

So, there is a new poll out and what's so clear about it is that Americans want background checks for all gun buyers, you have 97 percent overall nearly anonymous across party lines here, 97 percent are Republicans, 99 percent are Democrats, 98 percent of Independents.

And the president tweets yesterday, "Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening background checks." Yet we've covered this so often, and the idea of I think of the gun show loophole in so many states where if you're selling a weapon and I want to buy the weapon, you can sell that to me. There is no background check.

[11:20:10] It's just hard to imagine that that would actually be taken care of. What are you sensing?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, those numbers are extraordinary. I mean, when was the last time we saw a poll asking any question whether they are that high? But as you said, it was almost at that point after Newtown in 2013 and Congress did try.

There was a bipartisan bit of legislation, piece of legislation in the Senate to strengthen background checks, and it didn't go anywhere. So, you know, unfortunately, I think it's not as though the issue has been that there's not a vast, vast super majority of people who want to strengthen background checks.

The question is, whether or not the smaller minority, which is getting smaller of people getting worried about further restrictions on person to person sales as you were talking about or gun show loophole or others are going to take a step back and not be as vocal. Because the problem has been that they are much more vocal, maybe not as passionate --

KEILAR: They vote, right.

BASH: And they are singing issue voters as opposed to people who say background checks, but they -- for the most part might be voting on a whole slew of issues. When we're talking about the small minority of people who don't want to touch the gun laws, they are single issue voters.

KEILAR: Yes. And Eliana, you point out really interestingly in your piece today that two of these actions that the president is considering, background checks and banning bump stocks are two things that the NRA has expressed support for.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, in looking at this issue, I think President Trump is trying to walk a really fine line. There are unanimous calls for him to take action from gun control advocates and he's trying to heed those calls while not angering his pro-gun base which also feels very passionately about this issue.

And doing that I think will require a real high wire act from him, but the two actions that he's looking at taking, modestly strengthening background checks and banning bump stocks are both actions that are supported both by gun control advocates, who support them while saying that they are not enough, they want to go farther.

But they are not opposed by the NRA. So, I think that gives you some insight as to where the president's head is at and why these are two of the legislative or executive actions he's looking to take.

KEILAR: It really is a high wire act though, isn't it? I mean, just, Eliana, as he tries to walk what is a really narrow line on this.

JOHNSON: Yes. Look, a couple of things. Whatever this president does, gun control advocates will say is not enough coming from a Republican president and the second thing is on the bump stock issue in particular, it's complicated because he's come down and asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to write executive -- to take executive action.

The Obama administration looked at this and determined they couldn't lawfully take executive action, that Congress needed to act. Congress hasn't acted on bump stocks despite saying that they wanted to in the wake of the last major shooting.

And so, for conservatives who want to limit executive action, often times say it's not lawful, this will be the equivalent of supporting something like DACA when Obama took executive action and they said this is not lawful, Congress needs to do this.

So, it will be interesting to see how conservatives -- whether conservatives come down on President Trump for this in a case where some people have said, you know, this is a case where Congress needs to act.

BASH: That's true. I mean, but we have seen that there has been a lot of inconsistency on that and that happens on both sides of the aisle but particularly when it comes to this Republican president and executive action.

The whole first, you know, six months of his presidency was executive action after executive action which under President Obama you know, he was dubbed the imperial president by conservatives for doing that.

KEILAR: But he's making this calculation that this is something in a way he's not entrusting Congress to take care of.

BASH: And he's right. He's right to not trust Congress but Congress -- at the end of the day, for this to not be something that is repealable or questionable, it has to be -- statute, it has to go through legislation and has to be signed by the president and I think that the truth is even though the president could do some sort term fixes, if he has the political will, ultimately, people on both sides of the aisle will (inaudible).

KEILAR: After Sandy Hook in Connecticut and Virginia Tech, you really saw the adjustments in gun laws being made on the state level. We're seeing students today and watching them. They are in Tallahassee. There's a rally there as well. Is that where the action is going to be in this? Do you think is it going to be Florida or do you really think, Eliana, that there could be some federal movement?

[11:25:06] JOHNSON: Well, we saw action in Florida yesterday and it came down against the people who are calling for greater gun control measures and we saw these teary-eyed students upset that lawmakers were not heeding their calls --

KEILAR: To consider an assault weapons ban.

JOHNSON: -- to consider an assault weapons ban, and those students are now planning a march on Washington. My sense is that people really do want to see action on the federal level, if only for symbolic reasons, that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are hearing them and are responding.

KEILAR: We will see if that assessment holds. Eliana Johnson, Dana Bash, thank you so much to both of you. Be sure to tune in tonight for "Stand-Up," the special town hall with the students of Stoneman Douglas High School airing tonight at 9:00 Eastern only on CNN.

Coming up, new details on the contentious relationship between President Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump publicly asking why Sessions is not investigating President Obama. We just got a response from the DOJ and we'll have it next.