Nicholas Hernandez was recounting the frightening moment he heard knocking on the door of his classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day.
“When we found out, this is not a drill,” Hernandez said late Wednesday night, “it’s almost like the world came crashing down and souls died in a way. It was a near-death experience. I’d like to think that keeping calm saved lives. But it was him. It was him at the door.”
Hernandez and his friends saw things no student should that day. Hernandez is a 15-year-old freshman and a mass murderer took the lives of 17 of his friends and teachers.
And so Hernandez showed up at the BB&T Center for CNN’s televised town hall, hoping not only to show solidarity with classmates, but also to hear out two senators, a representative, a sheriff and a spokesperson for the NRA about what might change.
Like many of Hernandez’s Douglas classmates, he declared mixed feelings after the event, in which students, parents and teachers were among those who came face-to-face with policy-makers.
“I think that so many good points were aired, but the reactions from the government officials weren’t up to par,” Hernandez, 15, said. “I feel like they need to know what we need and how to give us what we need in an appropriate way. I think that the NRA official really needs to open her eyes and realize that if we continue with these policies and the way they are now, we are never going to receive change. And we’ll just continue to have these mass shootings.”
Several students said they did not believe spokesperson Dana Loesch of the National Rifle Association or Senator Marco Rubio answered some direct questions in a direct manner.
“I am angry,” said Douglas freshman Haleigh Gross. “There weren’t a lot of questions answered completely. And a lot of questions were avoided. And that just makes me angry. I still want to know what can be done to keep the kids more safe in schools.”
“When they didn’t answer the questions directly and they kind of went off topic, that’s very frustrating,” Douglas junior Emily Bernstein said. “Especially since these people were brave enough to ask these questions, they should be willing to answer them.”
“More frustration than anything else, I would say,” Douglas freshman Olivia Blaker said. “Because many questions were not answered very clearly, simple yes or no questions.”
Several students said the most memorable moment of the night was when student Cameron Kasky asked Rubio if he would turn down future donations from the NRA. Rubio did not say he would.
“That really got me into my emotions,” Hernandez said. “Because I felt like as a government official, in this situation, especially in the state of Florida, it’s almost your obligation to say, ‘No, I will not accept donations.’ It would have made me feel better if he had said, ‘No, sorry, I am going to accept it.’ I would have been like, ‘OK, he needs their support.’ But instead of being direct with us, he simply dragged on and on and didn’t answer the question. And that infuriated me.”
Several students did say that they were a bit encouraged that Rubio at least appeared to show a bit of flexibility in potentially altering his stance on some gun control laws.
“I think some of the questions really opened up Rubio’s mind,” Douglas senior Jenna Korsten said. “I think you saw he was saying he’d compromise. The other lady (Loesch), I don’t think so. I don’t think she was open-minded at all. I think people kept booing her because she wasn’t open-minded. And wasn’t listening. There were people asking her questions and she just wasn’t giving an answer.”
Douglas freshman Kayla Sibble added, “I wish that the person from the NRA had answered the questions about if she thought guns were the problem. She totally deflected the question, in my opinion, and never answered it.”
Some students seem to realize how difficult a challenge it might be to see a ban on most or all semi-automatic weapons in the near future.
“They can do just as much harm as any other weapon,” Hernandez said. “And it just angers me that there are these lethal death weapons. These are not hunting weapons, they’re weapons to kill, and they are getting in the hands of a 19-year-old? If it was my choice, they wouldn’t be in the hands of anybody, except for law enforcement.”
Despite some frustrations, many students said they continue to believe they will be the group that finally ends the spate of mass school shootings. And they appreciated that CNN gave them an opportunity to continue to take their demands for change to the world.
“I feel powerful,” Bernstein said. “I feel like with all these people around me, we could really make a change. And I think that everyone had really good, quality questions. I think they definitely messed with the wrong city and the wrong school. Parkland and Marjory Stoneman Douglas are going to do something about this. We’re going to be the last people that this is going to happen to.”
“I am very positive about this,” Sibble said. “Because we’re not a generation to stay silent. We want action and we’re not going to stop until we get it.”
“I would say I’m really glad that this town hall happened, especially in such a big arena, where so many people could attend,” Hernandez said. “Because I think it gives the government, and the whole nation, since it was televised, a piece of what we need as a community. More shootings can happen. We really do need to see a change in this country.”