WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio has a message for critics after the Parkland school shooting who say he's bought and sold by the National Rifle Association: The gun lobby buys into my agenda, not the other way around.
But Rubio's legislative agenda on guns is light.
Since coming to Washington in 2011, the Florida Republican has introduced 463 bills, of which only one, introduced twice, directly involves guns. Rubio's Second Amendment Enforcement Act was first introduced on March 26, 2015, 18 days before he announced a presidential bid.
When Rubio introduced his bill, which would overturn most of Washington D.C.'s strict gun laws, his NRA grade was B+, a lower rating than all but two of his fellow Republican presidential contenders at the time. Rubio's less than perfect rating stemmed from his time in the Florida legislature where he wavered on an NRA-approved bill that allowed people with concealed-carry permits to keep their weapons in their vehicles while at work.
A few weeks later, Rubio's NRA grade went up to an A, and it has stayed there ever since. Since entering the Senate, he has consistently voted in favor of policies and co-sponsored legislation the NRA supports, arguing that restrictions on guns hinder the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.
Rubio's office said he decided to introduce the bill in 2015, and not when he entered the Senate in 2011, because a young woman who began working for him in 2014 wanted to bring two legally acquired handguns to D.C. to protect herself after a shooting near her building. The process to legally own a gun under D.C. law was so "unreasonable and complicated" that she had to take time off work to complete it, Rubio spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said.
"Based on this real-life story he witnessed firsthand, he introduced the bill so that D.C. law would be in line with federal law," Perez-Cubas said in an email. "He also sent a letter to his colleagues asking for support on the measure."
But it doesn't appear that Rubio did much to push his legislation.
Rubio didn't gain any cosponsors for his 2015 bill, and he hasn't gotten any cosponsors after reintroducing the legislation in 2017. A nearly identical bill to Rubio's measure had already been written and introduced by John McCain in 2010. McCain's bill garnered 18 cosponsors, including three Democrats. Neither Rubio nor McCain's bill received a hearing or markup in committee, or a vote on the Senate floor.
One of Rubio's presidential rivals, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, attempted to push similar legislation as an amendment to a bill in December 2015. The amendment failed to get the necessary 60 votes, though Rubio voted for it. Rubio never attempted to pass his gun legislation as an amendment.
Rubio did tout the bill in a 2015 NRA speech, three days before announcing his run for president.
"It is inexcusable that in Washington, the seat of our people's power, the Constitutional right to bear arms is constantly in jeopardy," Rubio said. "And that's why I took action last month to roll back these restrictive gun laws."
Congress has the power to overturn D.C. laws like the current assault-weapons ban enacted by local elected officials because it has exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.
"As we fight to preserve D.C.'s public safety and right to self-government, it is critical that not only D.C. residents, but also a Member's own constituents, are aware of and help push back against interference in another jurisdiction's local affairs," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia in Congress but cannot vote on legislation. "This is especially true of gun laws, when each jurisdiction is evaluating their own profoundly local concerns for the safety of children."
A week after the Parkland shooting, Rubio's views on guns appeared to change. He told the father of a teenager who was killed in the worst high school shooting in U.S. history that he would "support a law" that raises the minimum age to purchase guns to 21 from 18. Rubio also said he was "reconsidering" his position on large-capacity magazine clips.
But neither proposal was part of Rubio's legislative response to Parkland.
"These reforms do not enjoy the sort of widespread support in Congress that the other measures announced today enjoy," Rubio said on the Senate floor. "In order to successfully achieve passage of these ideas, they will need to be crafted in a way that actually contributes to greater public safety, while also not unnecessarily or unfairly infringing on the Second Amendment right of all law-abiding adults to protect themselves, hunt or participate in recreational shooting."
Instead, Rubio is pushing five measures that would fund school security measures, implement gun violence restraining orders, improve communication between school districts and local law enforcement, tweak the federal background check system without expanding it, and prosecute people who try to buy guns when they are barred from doing so.
Rubio says the $3.3 million in political help he's received from the NRA since entering Congress is due to his support for the Second Amendment and the fact that the powerful lobbying group didn't like his opponents. He has also said the current debate on guns, led by a group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, is part of a mud-slinging contest on both sides that has "infected the next generation."
Rubio has been through a nationwide debate on guns after two other mass killings in Florida, the 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a tragedy that he said led him to reconsider his leadership role after initially saying he wouldn't run for reelection to the Senate.
"I think when it visits your home state, when it impacts a community you know well, it really gives you pause to think a little bit about your service to your country and where you can be most useful to your country," Rubio said in 2016 after the Pulse shooting left 49 dead and dozens injured.
Rubio didn't shift his views on high-capacity magazines or expanding the nation's background check system after the Orlando or Fort Lauderdale shootings, though Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been vocal about changing the nation's gun laws after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, said he's been "impressed" with Rubio's response to Parkland.
"My sense talking to Senator Rubio is that he's very emotionally connected to this issue," Murphy said. "For Republicans that have been voting the same way on guns for decades I understand that it's hard to change your position or change your vote, I totally get that. I've been impressed at how Senator Rubio has emotionally connected into this issue and I hope eventually he finds a way to get to the place where the majority of his constituents are."
Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.