Like a warning shot, hundreds of Parkland students fanned out across the U.S. Capitol on Friday to deliver a message to members of Congress: This is just the beginning.
With thousands more teenagers on their way to Washington to attend Saturday’s March For Our Lives rally on Pennsylvania Avenue, the front line of the new war on gun violence pushed Friday into the offices of lawmakers, even as many had already left or were leaving town. Having just accomplished the unfathomable in Florida — where a pro-Second Amendment legislature passed an anti-NRA bill — the students walked through the halls of Congress seeking a bigger and better encore, albeit with longer odds.
Unlike their Tallahassee blitz several weeks ago, when emotions were intensely raw and the political pressure high, this weekend’s barrage comes without the friendly ear of Republican leaders, who’ve largely avoided the #NeverAgain movement. The movement in Washington also takes place without deadlines and in a vast and sprawling bureaucracy, where lawmakers and even the teenagers lobbying them have differing views on what should be accomplished and how it should be done.
“We do know that on a federal level it’s much harder” to change gun laws, said Lucia Carrero, 18, who waited out the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in a pre-calculus class. “But it’s not a one-time thing. We need to keep this movement going and we’re going to keep on fighting until there’s actual change.”
They arrived at the Capitol with momentum.
Even as former Vice President Joe Biden gave them a private mid-morning rah-rah speech to launch their lobbying, President Donald Trump was signing into law legislation passed hours earlier by the U.S. Senate to plug holes in a federal background database for flagging ineligible buyers and to provide millions for school safety projects. The law also, for the first time in 20 years, frees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.
“Stoneman Douglas students have energized the nation,” U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents Parkland, said during a frigid, early morning press conference outside the Capitol. “Congress did more yesterday than they’ve done in recent memory, and they did it because of these students and the movement that they started.”
But in another sense, the students’ timing wasn’t so good. Congress was set to leave Friday for a 16-day spring recess, diluting the political impact of the weekend’s events and thinning the field of lawmakers to lobby. Many House members were also in New York on Friday for the funeral of the oldest sitting member of Congress, Rep. Louise Slaughter, who died last week.
But undeterred, and shepherded by Giffords, the gun-safety nonprofit created by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was attacked in an Arizona mass shooting, the students were welcomed into the offices of U.S. senators and representatives to share their stories and make their case for a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and a prohibition on extended ammunition magazines.
In the offices of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, eight students shared their own stories about losing friends to gun violence. In shaky voices, they told Kaine what it was like to sit in darkness and wait to learn who’d survived and who hadn’t. Madelynn Dittman, 18, described it as “innocence lost.”
Catrina Viera, 18, said she convinced herself that the whole experience on the day of the shooting was a drill, given that school administrators had said they’d conduct active-shooter training at some point in the year. When heavily armed deputies came into the culinary class where she was hiding and had the students walk out with hands up, she was still in denial.
“When I couldn’t pretend anymore is when we were outside and there were ambulances everywhere and people crying,” Viera said, later asking Kaine to carry their message to anyone opposed to their cause. “I know this sort of change can’t happen overnight. All I’m asking is they at least listen to us, and acknowledge how serious it is. That they give us a chance.”
Kaine, who co-sponsored the newly passed Fix NICS legislation to encourage states to report more frequently to the federal background system, said he’d pass their story on but couldn’t make promises that gun laws would change anytime soon.
“I can’t guarantee that we’ll make the changes,” said Kaine, who expected to meet later Friday with families of the victims of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University. “But I can guarantee this: If we do, it will be you that got us to the place where we did.”
It wasn’t clear how many Republicans the students met Friday. A Giffords representative said a few members of the majority party met with students, but the group made only four meetings open to the press (none with Republicans). The representative did not provide a list of lawmakers lobbied. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate President Mitch McConnell declined to schedule a meeting with the students, the representative said.
Even meetings with Democrats proved difficult. With the students running behind schedule, three teenagers hoping to meet Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Virginia, got to his office after he’d left for a lunch meeting. McEachin’s staff helped them track him down at an office lunch room.
Still, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon, said the lobbying efforts of the Parkland victims’ families, as well as the students, have created “legislative momentum” in Washington.
“The work they’re doing has really been helpful in terms of breaking through ice and getting progress on things,” he said.
But Parkland students don’t want to just break the ice. They want to break through.
Students and parents in Washington Friday told the Miami Herald that the key to pushing gun-control laws through Congress will likely be through pressure at the ballot box. And as time passes, their motivation won’t wane, because while the likelihood of the currently constituted Congress banning assault weapons is low, the likelihood of continued mass shootings is not.
“It happens to us every single day. Maryland! It just keeps happening because we’re not doing anything,” said Ilan Alhadeff, clutching a framed photograph of his 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who was killed in the shooting. “We want to work with them. You’re here. You’re representing our nation. Let’s work together. And if you can’t get off the bus. We’ll vote for someone who can.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Alex Daugherty and Kate Irby contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story had the incorrect name of Alyssa Alhadeff.