The sheriff of the Florida county where a rifle-toting teen gunman killed 17 people told a crowd of young people Wednesday that "America is watching you" and that students should continue to push hard for gun control reform.
Sheriff Scott Israel of Broward County told a cheering audience at a CNN town hall broadcast that elected officials will have to make decisions that keep the community safe or “they are not going to hold office."
Israel told the crowd of about 7,000 people that he walked through the crime scene of a “horrific killer” 30 minutes after last Wednesday’s attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. He said he told himself, "Never again . . . There will be change."
The town hall broadcast began with a three-minute video showing family pictures of several of those who died.
Ryan Schachter, who brother Alex was killed in the assault, asked lawmakers attending the town hall what they plan to do to make schools safe.
"My friends and I are worried that we're going to be murdered in our classrooms," Ryan Schachter said. "What assurances can you give me and what specifically are you going to do to make sure that we won't have this fear?"
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., responded that legislation needs to be introduced that makes the deadliest assault weapons illegal. He also told the crowd that it's not too soon to talk about gun law reform.
"It is not too soon, it is too late," Deutch said, noting that "weapons of war are in our communities . . . It is too late for the grieving families. The folks in our communities don't want words. They don't want thoughts and prayers. They don't want discussion. They want action. And we owe it to them to provide it."
The National Rifle Association's national spokeswoman Dana Loesch told students at the meeting that the killer in the Florida attack should have never been allowed to obtain a firearm.
"I don't believe that this insane monster should have ever been able to obtain a firearm," Loesch said. "I do not think that he should have gotten his hands on any kind of weapon. This individual was nuts."
Samantha Grady, a student who was shot twice in the assault, said "My best friend was killed right in front of me. And the experience that I had can never be taken away from me no matter how much I want it to be." She asked lawmakers what they planned to do to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he wants to see assault rifles like the AR-15 off the streets.
"I'm a native Floridian, I grew up on a ranch, I've always had guns," Nelson said. "I've hunted all my life. I still hunt with my son. But an AK-47 and an AR-15 is not for hunting. It's for killing."
Both President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott turned down CNN's invitations to participate. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was the most prominent Republican lawmaker to attend.
"With only two weeks left of our annual legislative session, Governor Rick Scott will be in Tallahassee meeting with state leaders to work on ways to keep Florida students safe, including school safety improvements and keeping guns away from individuals struggling with mental illness," a spokesperson for the governor previously told CNN.
Rubio was confronted at one point during the meeting by Frank Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime Guttenberg was killed.
Guttenberg told Rubio that his comments about the shooting “and those of your president this week have been pathetically weak.”
People stood up and cheered Guttenberg as he challenged Rubio to tell him the truth, to acknowledge that “guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids.”
Rubio responded that the problems laid bare by the shooting rampage “cannot be solved by gun laws alone,” drawing jeering whistles from the crowd. Rubio responded that he would support laws barring those 18 and under from buying such weapons, support changing the background checks system and getting rid of bump stocks.
He said that if he believed an assault weapons ban “would have prevented this from happening, I would have supported it.” That drew jeers. Visibly angry, Guttenberg responded: “That is a weapon of war.”
Michelle Obama tweeted Wednesday that she thinks the Florida student movement is inspiring.
"I'm in total awe of the extraordinary students in Florida," Obama tweeted. "Like every movement for progress in our history, gun reform will take unyielding courage and endurance. But (Barack Obama) and I believe in you, we're proud of you, and we're behind you every step of the way."
In a wave of demonstrations reaching from Arizona to Maine, students at dozens of U.S. high schools walked out of class Wednesday to protest gun violence and honor the victims of last week’s deadly shooting in Florida.
The protests spread from school to school as students shared plans for their demonstrations over social media. Many lasted 17 minutes in honor of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Hundreds of students from Maryland schools left class to rally at the U.S. Capitol. Hundreds more filed out of their schools in cities from Chicago to Pittsburgh to Austin, Texas, often at the lunch hour. Thousands walked out in Florida.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.