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Parkland Survivors Speak, Students Discouraged; Action on Guns in Congress; Trump Open to Background Check Changes; Americans Want Background Check Changes. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I'm Wolf Blitzer here in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

As you see students from Florida Stoneman Douglas High School, they've converged on the state capitol in Tallahassee.

And they're demanding action, immediate action, on gun violence here in the United States, after the slaughter of 17 students and staff members at their school, by a shooter with an assault-style weapon.


KEVIN TREJOS, STUDENT, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: We are old enough to understand why a senator cares about re-election or not. We are old enough to understand why someone might want to discredit us for their own political purposes.

But we will not be silenced. It has gone on long enough that we -- just because we are kids, we are not allowed to understand.

But trust me, I understand. I was in a closet locked for four hours with people who I would consider almost family, crying and weeping on me, begging for their lives.

I understand what it's like to text my parents, good-bye, I might never, ever get to see you again. I love you. I understand what it's like to fear for your life.


BLITZER: Mark Preston is joining us right now. He's in Florida getting ready for tonight's very important CNN town hall.

Mark, these remarks, these speeches by these students, these survivors, have been so moving, so powerful. They clearly will have an impact.

But set the stage for what CNN is about to do later tonight.


You know, when we look back at other tragedies, these shooting tragedies that we've seen at schools, there have been outcry and outrage over, you know, a few days, several days, perhaps a week.

But it's nothing quite like what we're seeing here right now down in Florida. The activism of these kids have really carried this message.

We see it in Tallahassee. There are folks up in Washington, D.C., speaking to President Trump.

But here, tonight, at the BB&T Center just outside of where this occurred, right down the street from the high school, we're going to see thousands of people here behind me, talking to their lawmakers, Wolf.

They're going to talk to the likes of Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Bill Nelson, Congressman Ted Deutch, who represents the district. They're all going to answer questions of the folks about what can be done -- what can be done in Washington to try to prevent this from happening again.

In addition to that, we have the sheriff as well, Scott Israel, who has become a national spokesperson, a celebrity in some ways, talking about this issue, specifically about mental health.

And the National Rifle Association, Dana Loesch, the National Spokesperson, is going to be here as well. The NRA has come under, as we know, an incredible amount of pressure and criticism for their stance on gun rights.

But the NRA is sending a representative here tonight, Wolf, as well, to talk to the folks in the building.

BLITZER: I know, Mark, that CNN invited the president, President Trump, to join in this town hall tonight. Also invited, the Florida governor, Rick Scott, to participate.

Both have declined. Why did they say they didn't want to be part of this very important town hall tonight?

PRESTON: Well, it wasn't just those two. But let's first start with President Trump. From my understanding, it was his schedule, Wolf. That he said he was unable to attend, to come down here.

He's holding his own listening session with a very small group up in Washington, D.C., as we speak, today.

But Governor Rick Scott said that he has only two weeks left in the legislative session. He said he needed to focus on the legislation.

But it wasn't just those two folks, Wolf. We also asked the state Senate president as well as the Florida House speaker to come.

We invited them to come, address their constituents directly. They, too, said they were tied up with business in Tallahassee -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. They -- I know we also offered them an opportunity to appear via video link-up, via satellite to this town hall, and they declined that as well. Stand by, Mark. I'm going to get back to you.

Dianne Gallagher, our Correspondent on the ground in Tallahassee. The students, I take it, Dianne, they were pretty disappointed, discouraged by their meetings with lawmakers. Is that right?

Dianne, I don't know if you can hear me. Can you hear me, Dianne? Yes, we're going to try to reconnect. We're going to try to connect with Dianne.

Unfortunately, we lost her. She's on the scene. She's been covering all of these dramatic moments and very, very powerful words, very powerful words, from these students who survived that massacre just the other day.

[13:05:00] Tonight's town hall, CNN's town hall, comes just hours after Florida's Republican-controlled House refused to debate a ban on assault weapons, like the AR-15 style rifle that was used to kill 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida.

And today's students from Parkland, they're demanding answers.


RYAN DEITSON, STUDENT, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: I know I've been walking into office after office after office, and I've maybe only spoken to three representatives, two of which already agreed with me.

I want to see those people who have spoken out against this. I want to see those people who shot down that bill, who did not let it get past committee. I want to see those people.

I'm not here for a fight. I'm not here to argue with you. I just want to speak. I just want to see your face and know why.


BLITZER: And joining us now, Republican Florida State Representative Chris Latvala. He's among those who voted against beginning debate considering the ban on assault weapons.

Representative, thanks so much for joining us.

But what do you say to those students now, those surviving students who are there in the state capitol of Tallahassee, who don't understand why you don't even want to consider a serious debate on this matter?

REP. CHRIS LATVALA (R), FLORIDA: Yes, sir. I had the privilege this morning of meeting with a couple groups of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And it's -- they're meetings that I will not soon forget. And it was a very sad time. And it's a very sad time in Florida.

And I didn't have the words to say to them. I tried to listen to them more than I spoke.

But the vote yesterday was a procedural vote. The gentleman, Representative McGee, who's a friend of mine, is the incoming Democratic leader.

His procedural thing that he did yesterday, there are many Democrats that weren't aware he was doing that. None of the Republicans that I spoke to knew that he was doing that.

He -- you know, his job as the incoming minority leader is to win seats for his caucus. He's a good man. He's a friend of mine.

But there are discussions being had with Republicans and Democrats to try to come up with some ideas and some solutions.

And I would point out that the Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz, who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who's been very outspoken the last week, he's a Democrat. And he spoke out this morning at the antics that Representative McGee had.

And I believe he may be --

BLITZER: So, let me as you this. So, what about Congress -- Representative, when do you want to begin a debate in the Florida state legislature to ban assault weapons?

LATVALA: I think that, you know, there are other discussions that we're having. And I serve on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee. And, frankly, I would have liked to have heard that bill, have the opportunity to make amendments to it, make some changes.

But just to do a stunt, you know, like was done yesterday, I think is a completely different -- you know, different thing.

I'd like to point out, I'm the only Republican co-sponsor to some control -- some gun control legislation. I co-sponsor the Red Flag bill that would allow family members and law enforcement personnel to do risk-protective orders.

Representative Berman is a Democrat from South Florida. I think that's a great bill.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you this.

LATVALA: What that would do is --

BLITER: Representative, when -- do you -- first of all, do you want to ban assault weapons in the state of Florida?

LATVALA: I think that that's something that we certainly can look at. I think that, for instance, in Florida, to buy a pistol, you can be 20 -- you have to be 21.

To buy an AR-15, you have to be 18. I think something like that should be changed immediately, to raise that age to 21. I think there needs to be more background screenings, more background checks. I think once somebody starts to lose their mental capacity or they make violent threats, you know, their weapons need to be taken from them.

BLITZER: So, when will the debate begin on banning assault weapons, on stricter gun control in the state of Florida, in the aftermath of the massacre that happened last week?

Realistically, you're a representative, when will that serious debate actually begin? And assuming the debate is not going to go on forever, when will there be an up and down roll call, a vote, on what to do?

LATVALA: I think that there's going to be legislation that will be released this week that will be bipartisan in nature, both Republicans and Democrats coming together for some common-sense gun control measures.

[13:10:02] And I think you'll see that as early as tomorrow.

BLITZER: So, you want to -- you want to ban the sale of any guns for anyone in the state of Florida until that person reaches the age of 21. You have to be at least 21.

Because it's been well pointed out, in Florida, you can buy an AR-15 style rifle at the age of 18, with a very limited background check. You've got to be 21 to buy a pistol or a handgun. You've got to be 21 to buy a can of beer.

LATVALA: Yes, sir. I think that there's a big difference between a rifle that you have to put a bullet in each time. The age for that's 18. There's a big difference between that and an AR-15. An AR-15, I believe, somebody should have to be 21 years old to buy in the state of Florida.

BLITZER: What about a rifle?


BLITZER: How old should someone be to buy a rifle?

LATVALA: Currently, that's 18 years old. I'm not sure whether that will be changed. I'm certainly open to looking at that. I think that, especially in northern Florida in rural areas, there's a hunting tradition that people 18, 19, 20 years old, responsible gun owners, you know, that use rifles for hunting and other purposes.

But, to me, there's a big difference between a traditional long gun, a rifle, and an AR-15.

BLITZER: How many of your fellow Republicans --

LATVALA: And I also --

BLITZER: I know, on this issue, you're considered a moderate Republican, Representative. But how many of your fellow Republicans, in Tallahassee, are with you on this?

LATVALA: I think -- I think there's quite a few, actually. I'm proud to be the lowest rated Republican by the NRA. I have a D rating.

But I think there are numerous, you know, conservatives -- numerous Republicans that, you know, see these common-sense gun measures and they certainly will support them.

And I think that the bills that you will see introduced this week will be bipartisan in nature.

BLITZER: The student survivors say that you and other representatives, they've danced around the questions they're asking. So many of them, and we just heard powerful words from them, say they're discouraged by the meetings that they've had over the past few hours in Tallahassee.

Did -- you say you met with them. You say you were moved by them. Will your colleagues be moved by them as well?

LATVALA: I suppose -- I would believe so. I serve with honorable people, both Republicans and Democrats.

You know, one of the things I told the students that I met with this morning was that the Vietnam protests were led by students. The civil rights protests were led by students. And now, they're leading their own movement for gun safety and gun control and school safety. And I applaud them for that.

And they're an absolute inspiration. And it was an honor to meet them this morning.

BLITZER: Some of the right-wing Web sites -- far right-wing Web sites, they've been publishing these crazy conspiracy theories about what happened at that high school. Alleging that some of the students aren't really students but they're actors which is, of course, verifiably untrue. Others have said they're being coached or coopted by various liberal groups.

What's your reaction to those conspiracy theories?

LATVALA: I think the people peddling the conspiracy theories are absolute idiots, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

You know, these students -- you know, I have no question of their motives. And the people that would attack these students should be ashamed of themselves.

You know, these are 14, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids that are trying to make a difference. I, frankly, am inspired by them. And I think that anybody that would question their motives should look in the mirror.

BLITZER: That's a fair point you're making. Well said.

Representative Latvala, thank you for joining us and good luck.

LATVALA: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: I got to tell you, the whole nation, indeed much of the world, is watching what's going on in Florida right now.

And an important note to our viewers. Be sure to watch later tonight for the CNN town hall "Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action." It starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Our own Jake Tapper will moderate. That's coming up later tonight.

We have more than on the breaking news. We're going to hear more emotional stories from the student survivors and why President Trump may now be considering an age limit involving assault weapons.

Plus, we're seeing more walkouts underway right now in schools across Florida. We'll update you on that and all the important news right after this.



[13:18:54] BLITZER: Students are taking a stand on guns. They're marching, they're demonstrating, here in Washington, down in Florida as well. We're seeing survivors from last week's tragic shooting making sure their local lawmakers are hearing their voices, hearing their demands.

Let's discuss this and more.

Joining us, our CNN political analyst, David Gregory, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

You know, Gloria, there's a very important CNN town hall later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, "Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action."

Are we going to see action, for example, on a federal level here in Washington?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I really wouldn't hold my breath about that right now. You saw what the president did yesterday, saying, you know, I'm ordering the Justice Department to enact this rule on bump stocks, which didn't go to Congress. It was a rule because Congress didn't want to act on it.

I think what you have, particularly in the House, is you have a bunch of members who are afraid of getting primaried on the right, not on the left, not a general election. And if they're going to get primaried on the right, if you're a Republican, one of the issues that people will come after you on would be gun control. Second Amendment issues. If you're not 100 percent pure.

[13:20:05] And so you have a large group of members who don't want that to happen to them. So, you know, I would have to say that on a federal level, without extreme leadership at the top, I wouldn't be particularly optimistic.

BLITZER: But the president did indicate, President Trump, that he would -- might be open to more thorough background checks --


BLITZER: Might be open to raising the age limit to 21 to buy any kind of assault weapon. For example -- not assault weapon, any kind of weapon, for that matter. Might be open -- he sent it over to the Justice Department for these bump stocks to be banned, which could take a rifle and make it into effectively a machine gun. He's open to certain steps.

Even the National Rifle Association is open to some steps.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And I -- that's a positive sign, but to disagree a little bit with Gloria, presidential leadership has shown not to be effective in this realm. And, you know, you saw that with President Obama after Newtown. And they weren't able to get it done.

States have had a little bit more success trying to take these issues on. But the National Rifle Association is very powerful there.

I think there's a couple of things at work here. There's got to be opportunities to do something that has some bipartisan appeal, strengthening background checks, raising the age, which is applicable in this case, not always applicable in other cases. And I think it's got to be -- it's got to flow from power.

These young people who are so poised, who are getting this incredible lesson in democracy, including the ugly parts of it too, where you become the subject of conspiracy theories and Twitter hate, that's all part of it, unfortunately, today, they've got to understand that power and registering voters, that's -- to be -- to make guns a single issue for voters on the left, like it is for those on the right, that's where the momentum will shift. Until then, you know, even President Trump's support, he made some of these signals on immigration, too, and we didn't see it come to pass.

BORGER: It's not strong.

BLITZER: Ninety-seven -- this new Quinnipiac poll, Gloria, you've seen it --


BLITZER: The 97 percent of the American public, according to this Quinnipiac University poll, say they do support more stringent background checks.

BORGER: Sure, they do, but you have to look at how you get it through the Congress. And, again, I go back to the point about political survival. And survival for a lot of the Republicans is that they are in very conservative districts where there is no give on Second Amendment issues whatsoever. Forget funding from the NRA for a moment. This is about them getting

primaried on the right. And so if the president were to send a signal that this is OK and deal with the NRA on it and make it acceptable to these members, then maybe he could have some kind of an impact.

I mean Barack Obama lost a handful of Democrats when they were doing reform after Newtown because those Democrats in red states were afraid. They were afraid.

GREGORY: But I think it's so important that we do think about the fact that the country is awash in guns. Access is too easy. And there are people who have mental health issues or sociopaths alike who see this kind of blaze of glory and targeting students as what they want to do to get their attention. That has to be dealt with as a specific -- you know, my kids are of an age where they have now grown up with active shooter drills. That's a part of their reality. There has to be some specific work done on campuses. So it's got to be a fulsome approach.

And I think the left still has to realize, for many people who support gun rights, they see it -- any attempt to erode it as really federal overreach. It's a proxy fight for overreach of the federal government. In the same way as Peggie Noonan pointed out in "The Wall Street Journal" over the weekend, that the left -- a lot of the left sees any encroachment on abortion rights as a slippery slope as well. So we've got to kind of get beyond that and maybe these students who are so poised, as John King was saying, we were talking for -- he said whether you agree with them or disagree with them, they're incredibly poised.


GREGORY: They are different. It's a different voice.

BLITZER: And we'll see if the president is at all willing to risk antagonizing the NRA, the National Rifle Association, even though they gave him overwhelming support in his bid for -- in his bid for the White House.

GREGORY: And he was a lot more moderate on this issue, then he became a candidate, right?

BLITZER: He used to be. He used to be.

BORGER: Right. And then in our -- in our town hall tonight, you have a representative from the NRA who will be there --

GREGORY: Oh, they'll show up to state their case, for sure.

BORGER: Right. But they've been kind of quiet on this. And so it will be interesting to see --


BORGER: Whether they will let some legislation go that sort of nibbles around the edges.


BORGER: And if they give it their (ph) premature, then these members in these conservative districts will breathe a sigh of relief because they want to get "a" ratings and not "c" ratings.


BLITZER: Everybody stand by.

There's more news we're following, including a pretty stunning tweet from the president of the United States, challenging his own attorney general to investigate former President Barack Obama. Yes, you're going to hear why.

[13:25:07] Plus, more on the breaking news. Student survivors and lawmakers, they're meeting in Florida as the teens make demands over guns. I'll be joined by a survivor and a congressman. That's coming up.


BLITZER: Live pictures coming in from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. You see the students. They are demonstrating outside. We're told that a few other local high school students are walking out. They're walking towards Stoneman Douglas themselves to protest the situation involving guns here in the United States. To protest what happened at Stoneman Douglas last week. We're going to have continuing live coverage of that. Stand by.

[13:29:56] In the meantime, President Trump is now calling for an investigation -- a criminal investigation into the former president of the United States, Barack Obama, over Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Here's the amazing tweet from the president earlier today.