Parkland students demand gun law change at huge rally at state Capitol

Updated Feb 21, 2018
Protesters rally against gun violence on the steps of the old Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday, Feb 21, 2018. Students at schools across Broward and Miami-Dade counties in South Florida planned short walkouts Wednesday, the one week anniversary of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

Thousands of students and supporters swarmed the state Capitol Wednesday to demand that legislators implement stronger gun control laws  just a week after 17 were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

In one of the largest crowds at the Capitol since 10,000 converged here during the 2000 election recount, students, gun-control activists and Democratic lawmakers chanted, “We want change,” “Not one more,” “Throw them out,” and “Never again.”

» RELATED: Post coverage of the Broward County shooting

In the crowd, which early estimates put at 5,000, were about 100 survivors of the mass shooting, who traveled seven hours by bus to Tallahassee on Tuesday and slept overnight at the David C. Tucker Civic Center at Florida State University. Joining them were Leon County public education students, hundreds of college students from Florida State University and Florida A&M University, Broward County teachers union members and others.

“This tragedy has taught us to be fearless, because we now know what it feels like to be afraid,” said Rachel Catania, 15, one of several Douglas High students to speak at the midday rally. “How many more innocent people have to die before we make a change? Change is overdue. And we are the change. When leaders act like children and children act like leaders, you know something is about to change.”

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But before the rally on the steps of the Old Capitol building, the Douglas High students spent the morning meeting with legislators, who warned them not to expect immediate change.

“I just want you to understand that we are moving as quickly as the system allows, with the urgency that is deserving of the emotion and the concern that I hope that you understand that – I speak for myself – that I feel,” Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chair of the Senate’s appropriations committee, told students in one meeting.

And Democratic Rep. Christine Jacobs acknowledged the students’ passion at a press conference but cautioned them that “things don’t happen immediately.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “We know the way to get there is small steps at a time.”

Still, students like Douglas High survivor Dimitri Hoth persisted that now is the time for change.

“As students, we should not have to fear for our lives,” Hoth said during a student press conference inside the Capitol. “We should not have to run for our lives. We should not have to hear the screams from friends, teachers, and mentors.”

Faced with the protest and Democratic pressure, the Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday postponed votes on two gun-related bills backed by Second Amendment advocates — one (SB 1048) that would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns at churches and other religious institutions that share property with schools and another (HB 55) that would allow people to use credit cards to make payments for background checks on firearm purchases.

People with concealed-weapons licenses can carry guns at churches and other religious institutions, but they currently can’t do so if schools are on the property. SB 1048, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, would allow guns on religious institutions with schools, but would include restrictions, such as a prohibition on carrying guns during school hours or when school extracurricular activities take place.

Baxley said it was a good to “pause” as lawmakers come face to face with students grieving after the mass shooting last week that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Also, lawmakers await a proposed legislative package from Gov. Rick Scott, based on several workshops he convened Tuesday.

“Right now, we understand what this week is. It’s very enmeshed in what do we do to make students safe,” Baxley said. “We understand that atmosphere, and that’s why some of these things just need to be put off.”

Baxley’s measure also faced pressure from Democrats, who filed amendments intended to bog down the proposal and spur a gun-control debate. The amendments proposed such things as expanding background checks on gun purchases, specifying how firearms should be stored and banning the sale of civilian versions of “assault” weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“These bills quintessentially reflect how out-of-touch our state Legislature has become,” Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said of Baxley’s proposal. “If you stand for life and family values, how can you sit idly as children are being slaughtered and lives are being forever shattered? How can we, as lawmakers charged with the safety and well-being of our state’s citizens, continue to do nothing?”

Earlier, the Douglas High students attended the start of the Senate session, which opened with a display of the victims from the mass shooting at their school.

Their trip to Tallahassee was facilitated by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and former Florida Democratic Party chair Allison Tant, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Book told Politico she personally paid for the buses and the students’ meals.

Also Wednesday, some of the Broward County students met with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land-O’ Lakes, who told them the tragedy left him “tremendously heartbroken,” and others met with state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, an appointee of Scott, where they pressed the need for teachers to be able to lock their classrooms from the inside.

“Teachers shouldn’t have to go on the outside to lock the door, because that takes so much time,” Melissa Camilo, 15, a freshman who said she was in the building when the shooting happened, told Politico. “Within those seconds, someone could get hurt.”

Hoth, who spoke at the Capitol press conference, was one of a dozen survivors who shared their experiences with Rep. Carolos Trujillo, R-Miami.

“At the end of the day, we failed that kid,” Trujillo, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told the students, referring to alleged gunman and former Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz, 19. “We failed him and we failed you.”

Trujillo said lawmakers are committed to providing “whatever resources are necessary for change.”

But it was clear that partisan differences remain on what that change should be.

Democratic Rep. Al Jacquet, of Lantana, said he wants “an outright ban on assault weapons.”

“Anything less is not a victory for these young people,” he said. “The first thing the governor and the Legislature can do to honor the 17 massacred last week and to show respect to their loves one is to stand with the people and ban assault rifles.”

Scott, though, has said only that “everything’s on the table” when asked if he would support such a ban or even a three-day waiting period on the sale of assault weapons.

And while Trujillo promised a “comprehensive plan” by Monday, he said it would address school safety and mental health.

Students wanted more than that.

“I understand people have jobs and there are some platforms they can stick to, but after seeing us and hearing us, I would hope that wouldn’t happen,” said Douglas High student Emily Wolfman, 16, who said now is time to tighten gun laws.

“I’m not saying take away the Second Amendment,” said South Broward High School student Emilie Smith, 18. “I’m saying we need a change.”