Students rally at Florida’s Capitol to demand action on gun control, mental health
Jared Moskowitz seethed in anger as he met with the families of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the evening of Feb. 14 as they waited in agony for police to tell them if their child was one of those murdered at school.
“My colleagues will do nothing,” he predicted, a jaded and discouraged response informed by the Republican-led Legislature’s lack of action after the 49 murders at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub 19 months earlier.
But Parkland, the town where Moskowitz grew up, attended the very same high school and was elected as state representative along with his fiery left-leaning assertiveness, proved him wrong.
Within 12 hours of the massacre that killed 17 students and educators and wounded about as many, a group of student government, journalism and drama students gathered at North Community Park near the school, and turned media interviews into calls for action.
Students David Hogg, Emma González, Jaclyn Corin and Cameron Kasky became instant celebrities, recruited as the newest voices of activism on television shows like “Dr. Phil,” “Ellen,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and on cable news. At a CNN town hall, they went head-to-head with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Before a week had passed, when their nights were still tormented by fear and their days filled with funerals, more than 100 of them traveled to Tallahassee to demand new laws. What their community accomplished is now being touted as a model for other states — and Washington, D.C.
“We were abruptly in the nation’s eye,” recalled junior John Barnitt, 17, who estimates he gave 35 interviews on the Saturday after the shooting. “Our coping mechanism was to turn to advocacy and show why it couldn’t happen again.”
A chat group of drama students began tweeting the hashtag #NeverAgain, and a social movement was born. As the national media engaged them, they turned their attention to legislators who were in the middle of the 60-day annual session.
Unlike the shooting at Pulse, which happened three months after the Legislature had adjourned, the Parkland shooting occurred when lawmakers had no choice but to respond.
Within three weeks, Florida’s Legislature and conservative governor had done something Republicans had resisted for more than 20 years: They voted to defy the National Rifle Association.
Legislators who had sworn allegiance to the Second Amendment voted to raise the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, extend the waiting period for all gun purchases, and ban bump stocks. But they also used the tragedy to patch together a plan to address weaknesses in the mental health and school security safety nets, and budgeted $400 million of new spending to do it.
For gun control advocates, it was a modest improvement and fell short of a ban on assault weapons used in most recent mass killings. For the NRA, it was an unconstitutional abridging of the rights of law-abiding gun owners. Moments after the bill became law, the NRA’s Washington lawyers filed a federal lawsuit.
On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott gathered the families of four victims in his office in Tallahassee as he signed the legislation. It was less than 48 hours after SB 7026 had been approved by a divided House and Senate. The governor gave credit to the students and families who had turned tragedy to action.
“You’ve been working the halls of the Capitol for days. You’ve impressed all of us,” Scott said. “Thank you — for having the strength to fight, while you grieve.”
Surrounding him was a group of people who had barely known one another before the massacre. Their opinions and backgrounds were diverse but, through their shared pain, they found unity in a cause, precisely when it was needed.
They didn’t call for gun control or a weapons ban, which some supported. They did not mention the plan to arm school personnel with firearms, which many opposed, but they did ask for legislation “to keep guns away from those that pose a risk to themselves or others.”
“It cannot be overstated, the impact those families and students had,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, the Miami Lakes Republican who shepherded the bill through the House. “Those parents and young people, fresh off a tragedy — in some cases some of them had not buried all of their dead — were already up here in Tallahassee. There was something powerful in that.”
One by one, legislators who both supported the bill, and those who opposed it, credited the Parkland students and families for forcing a solutions-driven debate, including the first vote on gun control in 22 years.
Ryan Petty, father of Alaina, 14, who had been a standout cadet in Douglas High’s Junior ROTC program before her life was cut short by the gunman, said he bristled when he heard the cable news shows clamor with first reactions to the shooting.
“After every mass shooting, the focus quickly turns to the weapons — the style of weapon, its capabilities and how it looks and we inevitably go into a Second Amendment debate,” he said. “It’s Second Amendment versus gun control. We were headed there again.”
To him, gun control is a polarizing issue and, while “there are valid arguments on either side,” he feared it would distract and divert progress on needed reform. So he decided to get involved.
“I couldn’t stand by on the sidelines and watch that happen again,” he told the Herald/Times Friday. “We needed to change the conversation.”
‘This time must be different’
Petty and other parents started talking.
“I doubt that we could agree on what to have for lunch most of the time but we came together,” Petty said. “We said if we can agree as families, we can apply a lot of pressure to Tallahassee to get something done. If we are fragmented, we stand little chance of being successful.”
Their motto was “this time must be different.”
In Florida’s capital city, where a cautious Republican establishment rarely challenges powerful special interests — especially the gun lobby whose members are reliable voters — passing a bill to limit access to guns in three weeks was the equivalent of a lightning strike.
Parkland is 450 miles from Tallahassee and hard to reach by both plane or car. On the night of the tragedy, Moskowitz and a fellow Broward Democrat, Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, quickly decided they needed to find a way to make their wounded community more real for their colleagues secluded in the Capitol.
“If you didn’t see it, you haven’t gone through it,” Moskowitz said. “You are able to dismiss it.”
They persuaded House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Sens. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, to come to the high school and witness the visual aftermath of the tragedy.
The next day, at a law enforcement briefing with them, media helicopters were still hovering and “our journey into the horrors at Douglas began,” Book recalled. “It was like we were in another parallel universe.”
The crime scene investigators walked them through the movements of assailant Nikolas Cruz: how he got into a gold Uber wearing a black tactical vest, took out an AR-15 from a black duffel bag and warned a former schoolmate, Chris, to get out “before things got messy,” Book recalled. She remembers lagging behind the group a bit to look at papers that were strewn around the parking lot. “How a bill becomes a law,” read one.
“They saw the bullet holes where he [the shooter] tried to pick students off one by one,” Moskowitz recalled. “We saw where Coach [Aaron] Feis died — he dragged himself out of the building right outside the door. We saw where another victim died in a pool of blood. ... You could see where people had been shot up against the wall.”
“I turned to my colleagues. They were visibly shaken,” Book said.
Galvano returned home and mapped out a plan of response. For the first time in decades, the Republican-controlled Legislature would propose limits to gun access, not a loosening of the state’s guns laws. His draft became the outline for the final legislation.
“It was time,” said Galvano, who has been designated to be Senate president next year. “Enough is enough.”
Scott, who has enjoyed an “A” rating from the NRA every year in office, then convened a series of focus group meetings of law enforcement, public health and education experts, and brainstormed ideas that became a second outline for many of the victims’ parents to embrace.
Next, the Broward legislators started working with the students. Book and Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, helped to coordinate busloads of students to descend on Tallahassee, not to just stand with signs and protest, but to engage.
They stayed only one night, sleeping in the Florida State University civic center, and crammed as many meetings as possible into the trip. In the mostly closed-door discussions, the students met with dozens of lawmakers.
“We explained to them why we were there and what happened to us,” said Alec Zaslav, 17, a junior who met with six House Republicans a week after the shooting. “We went through something I pray very few will have to go through. We watched people die. We used our stories to bring up what we think should be done.”
Some students wanted to raise the age to buy a rifle; others suggested improvements on mental health. They suggested more school resource officers and bulletproof glass, and many wanted a ban on semiautomatic rifles.
“They treated us like adults,” Zaslav said. “They were very humble. They were willing to listen.”
Legislators said that in addition to the coincidence of timing, the gentle nudging of the grieving parents, and the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of more gun control, they were prodded into action by the energy and passion of the students who demonstrated to them that there was political peril in doing nothing.
“I hadn’t seen crowds like that since Vietnam,” said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa recalling the Feb. 21 gun control rally on the steps of the old Capitol in which students joined with gun control activists and drew a crowd estimated at 5,000. “I saw diversity. I saw parents, students, tearful people, angry people, and I was hopeful that I was seeing the beginning of a revolution against gun violence.”
Meanwhile, the NRA was quietly increasing its pressure. Republican legislators became acutely aware that if they voted against the powerful gun lobby they could face a primary challenge in November. On the other side were black legislators who feared that an optional program to arm teachers and school personnel with guns would create a new dynamic that disproportionately threatened black kids in school, making them feel unsafe.
Florida Senate leaders had wanted to vote on their bill on Friday, March 2, but with agreement uncertain they postponed debate for one day and scheduled a rare Saturday session to take up amendments.
The compromise bill passed by one vote in the Senate on Monday, and by a 17-vote majority in the House on Wednesday. Opponents on the right said it went too far and those on the left said it didn’t go far enough, but in a state where the political middle is widening, Parkland showed legislators how to get there.
Parents seal the deal
“We come from different backgrounds and hold a variety of viewpoints; yet we are united on this,” the families wrote on March 5, when the bill’s success was still in doubt. “No family should endure what we have endured. We implore our state leaders, and specifically the Florida Legislature, to demonstrate the ability to take action.”
The statement was issued by all 17 families, gathered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We thought it would be a powerful visual for the lawmakers to see that we were unified,” Petty said.
The bill passed the Senate hours later — by the slimmest of margins. Two days later, when the bill was before the House and critics from the left joined with critics on the right and appeared to be close to having the votes to kill it, the families issued a statement again.
“You must act to prevent mass murder from ever occurring again at any school,” they wrote in an email to all 120 House members on the eve of the vote. “This issue cannot wait.”
The unanimous support of the bill by the victims’ parents “sent a powerful message to a lot of members,” said Rep. Trujillo. “And it changed a lot of votes.”
For Oliva, who is designated House speaker next session, it was “proof that people can work across the aisles.”
“The people that were in the chamber before that shooting are the same ones that were there after it,” he said. “The fact that we can reach agreement in areas we always thought we couldn’t shows this is government of the people. There is faith in humanity.”
The students that gathered at North Community Park the Saturday after the shooting met again there Saturday, but with a new crowd, promoting their next mission — the March For Our Lives in Washington and in cities across the nation.
Two recent Stoneman Douglas graduates have offered their support as de facto public relations managers. They helped organize events and interviews, said Barnitt, the Douglas student organizer. As the movement grew and the students started to plan a national march, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, Deena Katz, offered her support.
As the March For Our Lives approaches, the core group of #NeverAgain organizers, now about 20 students, meets every day to plan. Now that school has resumed, they often meet for dinner or after dinner, Barnitt said. They’re in constant communication with Katz and her team.
Emma González, the student organizer whose passionate speech after the shooting helped her attract more than 1.2 million Twitter followers, considers Florida’s legislation “a good first step.” She said she is now focused on using her platform to spread information about the march.
Kyra Parrow, 18, a senior at Douglas High and the editor of the school yearbook, said she has mixed feelings about the school safety measure. Raising the age to purchase a gun “is a baby step,” she said, but having the school’s name on the bill is important for her and her classmates. “It’s my school is making a difference,” she said, “and I’m really proud to be part of the school.”
Petty, the father of Alaina, said his next goal is to “package what we’ve learned here and take it to other states.”
And Moskowitz, the Coral Springs Democrat who supported the legislation despite opposing the voluntary provision to arm school personnel, admits his community proved him wrong about the Republican-led Legislature’s ability to find compromise.
Future change, he predicted, will come from this generation of students. “The kids now have wind beneath their sails,” he said. “Let them march into Washington on the 24th knowing that they passed historic gun reform in the State of Florida, which hasn’t happened in two decades. They did that.”
Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas reported from Tallahassee. Education reporter Kyra Gurney reported from South Florida.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas