‘We’re not backing down’: Florida shooting survivor teens go head-to-head with politicians over lax gun laws
Survivors of last week’s Florida school shooting descended on the state’s Capitol, Tallahassee, on Wednesday with one overarching message: it’s time for action.
The pupils received attention and a warm reception, but politicians did not offer specific answers. The students’ biggest wish – banning assault-type weapons such as the AR-15, the weapon used by suspect Nikolas Cruz – was taken off the table the previous day in the House.
“How is it possible that this boy that we all knew was clearly disturbed was able to get an assault rifle, military grade, and come to our school and try to kill us,” one 16-year-old pupil asked the Senate president.
Later, after the visit, Republican legislative leaders promised to move ahead with a “sweeping” bill in response to the shooting – although whether that would include restrictions on gun purchases was yet to be decided.
The legislation proposed by Republicans will include substantial increases in money spent on mental health programmes and school resource officers.
Lawmakers are also considering a programme promoted by one Florida sheriff that calls for law-enforcement training and deputising someone who is allowed to carry a weapon on campus.
They may also enact a waiting period for rifle purchases and raise the legal limit from 18 to 21. Florida now has a three-day waiting period for handguns.
But many of the students who spoke to them on Wednesday had wanted much more.
The students had entered a gun-friendly political climate in Tallahassee, where lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999.
The teens split into several groups to talk with lawmakers and other state leaders about gun control, the legislative process, and mental health issues.
Some tearfully asked why civilians should be allowed to have weapons such as the one fired in the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one week ago.
When Florida’s Senate President Joe Negron heard the question, he did not answer directly: “That’s an issue that we’re reviewing.”
When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the pupil broke into applause.
The Florida Senate opened its session by showing pictures of all 17 victims in the attack.
“There are some really harrowing tales here,” said Democratic Senator Lauren Book of Broward County, who helped organise busloads of pupils who arrived at the Capitol late Tuesday.
She stayed overnight with the students in Tallahassee’s civic centre and said they stayed up until 5am, researching, writing and preparing to talk with politicians.
“It has been a very, very difficult, tough night. It’s in those quiet moments that the reality of this stuff, without all the noise sets in. In any given moment, there’s tears. It’s raw and it’s there.”
About 100 students from the high school made the 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip on three buses. They told the 500 pupils and parents waiting for them that they were fighting to protect all students.
“We’re what’s making the change. We’re going to talk to these politicians. … We’re going to keep pushing until something is done because people are dying and this can’t happen any more,” said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior.
Despite their determination, the students and their supporters are not likely to get what they really want: a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles.
Republican lawmakers are talking more seriously about some restrictions, but not a total ban.
Instead, they are discussing treating assault-style rifles more like handguns.
That could mean raising the minimum age to purchase the weapon to 21, creating a waiting period and making it more difficult for people who exhibit signs of mental illness to buy weapons even without a diagnosis.
Later, as lawmakers were in session, several hundred people protested outside the House of Representatives.
The crowd burst into chants of “vote them out” and “we’re students united, we’ll never be divided.” The noise could be heard inside the chamber but business went on uninterrupted.
Democrats had attempted to get a bill to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor on Tuesday. Republicans, who dominate the chamber, dismissed it.
Scott organized three committees to look at school safety, mental health and gun safety issues.
The committees had met on Tuesday and vowed to make changes. While Scott told reporters several times that “everything is on the table,” he did not answer whether his proposal would include any bans on any type of weapons.
Instead, Scott said he is interested in making it harder for people who are temporarily committed to obtain a gun. He also pledged to increase spending on school safety programmes and on mental health treatment.
Authorities said Cruz, 19, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion.
Police were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. His lawyers said there were many warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally bought a semi-automatic rifle.
Diego Pfeiffer, 18 was realistic about achieving changes in the law before the Legislature goes home March 9, but he said anything is a good first step.
“The best-case scenario is we move a step forward and that’s all we’re asking here. We’re asking to help save student lives,” he said.
“Whether it’s funding or mental health or gun safety or any of that sort of stuff – I am pro any of that.”
Before the meetings, Pfeiffer said: “Some of us enjoy going out there and making a change. I know a lot of people are thinking about changing their majors when they go off to college.
“I know that there are different perspectives on this issue, and of course this is a big, radical issue with so many different people saying what they want. But what we want is children’s lives.”
They are now organising a march for next month in Washington DC, appearing on national media, and – in the case of Pfeiffer and 100 others – pushing state lawmakers for change.
Many of the students went straight from the funerals of Carmen Schentrup, 16, and Gina Montalto, 14, two of 17 students and teachers killed on February 14 at the Parkland school.
The students said they had gained a quick education on gun issues over the past few days through internet research and talking to their parents and the local legislative delegation.
Their priorities: make it difficult to buy semi-automatic weapons and make background checks for gun buyers “very extensive,” Grady said.
“We don’t want to take away people’s guns,” said Jose Iglesias, 17, a senior. “But no one needs an AR-15. They are only used to kill.”
Two members of a Pulse nightclub massacre support group came to the buses, which left from the Publix car park at Heron Bay, to wish the students well and show support.
Sylvia Serrano was a guest at the club that night in June 2016 and Enakai Mpire was a club performer.
“We’re hoping these kids will change things,” Serrano said. “If our voices weren’t loud enough, maybe the legislature will listen to the voices of our future.”
Junior Charlotte Dwyer, 17, said the students are resolute and plan to stay in touch with the legislators and remind them they will be voting soon.
“We’re not backing down,” Dwyer said. “Usually it starts to die down around now. We’re not little kids. We’ve had to grow up so fast in the past week.”