The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School got a real-life lesson in the perils of high expectations Wednesday as they met with state legislators to discuss their promise of stricter gun laws and left disappointed that the progress that appeared likely would only be incremental.
“We have been to many meetings, spoken to only a few legislators,” said senior Delaney Tarr at a noon press conference. “And the most we’ve gotten out of them is, ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You’re so strong. You are so powerful.’ ”
“We’ve heard enough of that,” she said. “We know what we want. We want common-sense guns laws. We want stronger mental health and background checks to work in conjunction. We want a better age limit. We want privatized selling so you can’t just walk into a building with $130 and walk out with an AR-15. We want change, and we know how to get this change.”
Angry and passionate, the more than 100 students and parents from Douglas High traveled to Tallahassee to spend the day meeting with dozens of legislators, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet officials.
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They came prepared to put legislators on the spot.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me right now that because of guns, I can’t walk into an airport because I’m scared of being shot,” said Tyra Hemans, 19, a senior, at a meeting with Senate President Joe Negron and his top deputies. “I can’t walk my hallway because I am always reminded of the AR-15 military rifle assault weapon shooting my classmates.”
The group, organized primarily by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, traveled in a three-bus caravan to the state capital demanding more gun restrictions, better school safety and more focus on mental health after the deadly shooting that left 17 classmates and staff members dead.
Their energy, which has spawned the student-led #NeverAgain movement, also attracted more than 5,000 gun control advocates who held a massive rally on the steps of the old Capitol as many of the students met with lawmakers inside.
Another group of Parkland students, organized primarily by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, took a more militantly activist tone, wearing blue T-shirts that read: “We call B.S.” and participated in the outdoor rally.
The students came prepared with questions, and demanded answers: Why, since the tragedy at the Sandy Hook elementary school, are assault weapons still sold in the U.S.? What is the need for military assault rifles to be available to the civilian population? Why was the shooter, who had a history of mental illness, allowed to purchase such a weapon?
“Do you have kids?” 17-year-old senior Sammy Feuerman asked Negron in a Senate committee room packed with reporters.
The Stuart Republican answered that he did. “You love them, right?” Feuerman insisted. Negron didn’t answer and instead said, “go ahead.”
Feuerman described how his best friend was shot three times and is alive, but “we didn’t know that for a really long time.”
He urged them “to do something to make sure this never happens again” and finished: “Thank you for your time.”
Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran devoted much of the morning to listening to the students, opening their meetings to the media, as reporters from across the globe chronicled their unease.
“You have to be very careful of what authority you give the government,” said Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, to the students and their parents gathered in the House Chamber. “I’ll be honest with you — me personally, I don’t believe [banning assault weapons] is the solution.”
It was an answer many students were not happy to hear.
“I’m extremely, extremely angry and sad,” said Alfonso Calderon, 16, a junior, after spending the morning meeting with House and Senate leaders. “I don’t know if I’m going to be traumatized because of this. I don’t know if I’m going to have faith in my state and local government anymore because what I saw today was discouraging.”
“We aren’t being taken seriously enough,” he said. “Although we are just kids, we understand. We are old enough to understand why a senator cares about reelection or not. We are old enough to understand why someone might want to discredit us for political purposes.”
Lewis Mizen, 17, a senior, urged the lawmakers to dismiss attempts by activists on both sides of the debate to discredit the students as “pawns” for someone else’s agenda.
“I just want to clarify, we aren’t a radical, left-wing agenda being pushed by gun-hating liberals to take away everyone’s Second Amendment rights,” he said. “We want a bipartisan agreement, and we want to be able to go to school and know we will come home at the end of the day. I don’t want this to get political. The minute it does, everything we’ve come here to do will get lost.”
Negron agreed. “You’re right — this issue should never be partisan,” he said.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the students, “We owe it to you to take meaningful action.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said they reminded him of his two children, one in college and the other in high school. “This is an American issue,’’ he said. “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue.”
But Bradley also noted that the “speed at which we are moving things” toward addressing mental health, school safety and the gun access issues “is unusual.”
“We are moving as quickly as the system allows with the urgency that is deserving of the emotion and the concern you have,” he said.
The students later moved to the House, where they were invited to sit in the chamber as they met with Corcoran and three of his deputies.
Sophomore Daniel Bishop, 16, was blunt: “I want to make sure I can trust you,” he said, sitting next to his older sister Julia. “How are you going to react when gun control is on the table?”
Corcoran replied that he expects the Legislature will raise the limit on buying assault weapons to 21, matching the limit for purchasing handguns. He later told Bishop he appreciated the question and offered his personal cellphone number to the group.
Although Corcoran ruled out an outright ban when Alondra Gittelson, 16, asked why such weapons were easily accessible to the public at all, he acknowledged the tragedy had made a difference.
“There’s one thing that’s not acceptable and that is to not do something,” he said.
Ryan Deitsch, 18, however, was not satisfied.
“You promised that you will not fail us, and that you will take every action that you can, but I still have to ask: What if you do?” he asked. “Do you expect to keep your jobs?”
Rep. Jeanette Nunez responded: “Failure for us is not an option,” she said, to applause. “We will not leave here without passing some meaningful reform.”
As the Senate began its morning floor session, Negron called for a moment of silence to honor those who were killed and reflected on attending the funeral of student Peter Wang, 15, on Tuesday.
Wang had opened the door on the third floor of Building 12, to allow others to flee the shooter’s bullets, but he was targeted by the gunman and riddled with bullets.
“From the time I went onto the campus of Stoneman Douglas, I’ve been wondering [about the] young man who had a perfectly acceptable moral decision to protect his own life and to escape the shooter,” Negron said. “Why he would make the decision to instead hold the door open and allow others to escape first?”
He said he asked Wang’s mother, who told Negron that the family had “raised him since he was a child to care for others.”
The Senate then dimmed its lights to play a slideshow of the 17 victims, including Alex Schachter, 14, in his red marching band uniform; JROTC cadets Alaina Petty, Martin Duque and Peter Wang in their uniforms; and geography teacher Scott Beigel smiling faintly in a selfie.
When the lights came back on, junior Antonina Messina, seated in the public gallery, wiped at her eyes and hugged junior Jackie Corin next to her, who was near tears.
Negron called an informal recess for 10 minutes.
Late in the afternoon, the students split into groups to meet with the governor between 5 and 7 p.m.
Diego Pfeiffer said he was optimistic about their conversation with Scott, calling it a “birthing pod” for ideas.
“We weren’t convincing him, we were talking to him, that’s all,” he said, adding that Scott was in listening mode.
By the end of the day, many students said their first trip to the Capitol had been instructive.
“Most of them, all of them agreed with mental health [reforms],” said Anthony Lopez, who is considering majoring in political science in college. “When it came to gun reform, some I could agree with a lot, and a lot of them either avoided the topic or had a totally different viewpoint.”
Many also left with a message to lawmakers that they’ll be back.
“We didn’t fail,” said Tarr. “The people around us failed us and if they continue to fail us, they will no longer be in office because we have the ability to vote and we will vote them out. They must do right by us or lose their jobs.”
The House and Senate are expected to unveil their legislation late Thursday and move them quickly next week in committee. The comprehensive package of reforms includes raising the minimum age to obtain and purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, providing more school security officers and mental health counselors, and enacting a waiting period for semiautomatic rifles.