State Politics

Six months after shooting, Parkland students return to their first political battleground

Parkland students return to Tallahassee

Diego Pfeiffer, 18, talks to a crowd of demonstrators at a Road to Change rally Saturday in Tallahassee.
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Diego Pfeiffer, 18, talks to a crowd of demonstrators at a Road to Change rally Saturday in Tallahassee.

When Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Kirsten McConnell was last in Tallahassee, she and her fellow students did something rarely seen in Florida politics: They successfully pushed for limits on guns in a state where Republican lawmakers have refused to restrict the Second Amendment.

But she had a message for those lawmakers Saturday afternoon, just blocks from the Capitol where she had protested half a year before: “We are still here,” she said to a crowd of about a hundred demonstrators. “We are still angry, and we are not going to shut up anytime soon.”

Half a year ago, busloads of Parkland students made Tallahassee the site of their first major political battle, convincing lawmakers to impose limits on gun purchases and to budget hundreds of millions of dollars to increase school security and mental health resources. But those student activists, who have gone on to build up the national March For Our Lives movement, are still pushing for stronger measures to curb gun violence on a national scale.

For the last several weeks, they have undertaken a two-pronged “Road to Change” bus tour crisscrossing the nation and Florida to register voters and encourage them to cast ballots in November. When both buses reunited in the state capital Saturday, they brought some of those student activists back to Tallahassee for the first time since they had urged lawmakers to take action on stopping gun violence.

About a dozen speakers urged attendees to stay invested in their political system, just blocks away from the looming state Capitol building. Organizers registered people to vote and dozens of attendees waved signs reading “grab them by their midterms” and depicting Xs over the NRA.

“Coming back just seeing how far we’ve come as a movement and how far we’ve come as a community, we’ve come full circle,” said John Barnitt, 17, a co-organizer of the Florida bus tour.

When busloads of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students last arrived in Tallahassee, they drove in under the cover of night, amid days of funerals for their classmates and the relentless glare of television cameras trained on the nation’s latest school shooting.

Diego Pfeiffer, 18, talks to a crowd of demonstrators at a Road to Change rally Saturday in Tallahassee.

But they were determined to take that attention and harness it, as Tallahassee became their first test for making political change. They circled from lawmaker’s office to lawmaker’s office with signs and a clear demand: Do something.

Those legislators heeded their calls — to a point. Democratic and Republican lawmakers within weeks crafted a narrow compromise putting limits on firearms, from raising the age to purchase a rifle to 21 to extending the waiting period for all purchases and banning bump stocks. They also voted to plow $400 million into hardening schools and funding mental health.

But on Saturday, many of those students expressed frustration that some of their calls — like a ban on assault weapons used in recent mass shootings or an end to taking contributions from the NRA — went ignored.

“Last time we left, we knew something else was necessary,” said Diego Pfeiffer, 18, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas this spring. “We knew we weren’t going to get anything from these politicians we have now. ... How do we get what we want from politicians? We could vote for new ones?”

They held a nationwide protest in March in Washington that was mirrored by sister marches in countless other cities, then embarked on a series of demonstrations as part of the Road to Change bus tours . The national bus tour has stopped everywhere from California to North Dakota, while the Florida bus tour is hitting all 27 of the state’s congressional districts.

The tours have raised anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand at every stop, registering dozens of voters at each location. Jaclyn Corin, the junior class president who has become one of the movement’s core organizers, said they intended to release the number of voters registered at the end of the tour, but organizer Amit Dadon estimated about 2,000 new voters have been registered by the group.

There are early indicators that voters may be paying attention. An analysis by TargetSmart, a data firm aligned with Democrats, showed the rate of new under-30 voter registrations across Florida has soared. It showed an increase of 41 percent of young voters in the 2 1/2 months after the shooting, compared to the number of such voters who registered during the same time frame before Feb. 14.

But similar increases were also observed in 2014, when Republicans were able to retain the governorship and win back a competitive Miami congressional district in that year’s midterm elections. Only 20 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds who registered from December to April ended up voting in that cycle.

The March For Our Lives group intends to keep voters involved to boost voter turnout in November. Their ongoing tour will stretch into August, as the national bus tour heads next to Atlanta, then up the East Coast. The Florida bus tour will also add an out-of-state leg through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the group announced Saturday.

The first test of young voters’ muscle — next month’s primaries — is likely to be limited. Florida’s closed primary system limits voting to Republicans and Democrats in most contests. That excludes the nearly one-third who have declared no party affiliation, and many of those so-called NPAs are young voters. At Saturday’s rally, however, a number of younger voters said they deliberately declared party affiliations so as not to be shut out of next month’s contest.

Molly Rimes and Molly Walston, both freshmen at Florida State University, said they updated their voter registrations Saturday so they would be able to vote in next month’s primary. Their friend Jalen Luna was still deciding on which party he wanted to choose but said gun control “is a really big priority.”

But Pfeiffer, one of the student organizers, said he and his fellow activists are measuring their success by what happens in November.

Their first trip to Tallahassee “was the start of our movement and we’re here back again, we’re pushing for the same thing,” Pfeiffer said. “We’ve been at it for five months. Give it another four.”