Though immigration and separating children from their families at the southern U.S. border are captivating the country's attention, the issue of gun violence has not gone away, as crowds gathered Thursday here to listen to former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords rally for gun control.
At Five Points Park in Sarasota, Giffords joined Democratic congressional candidate David Shapiro for a half-hour rally on gun violence. The Sarasota attorney is running for his party's nomination to challenge Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key.
Giffords survived an assassination attempt during a meet-and-greet with constituents in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011. Jared Lee Loughner opened fire outside a Safeway supermarket on Jan. 8, 2011, where the event was held, killing six and wounding 18. In 2012, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Seven years later, Giffords is still dealing with the ripple effects of a gunshot to the head that partially paralyzed her on her right side and affected her speech. Though she left Congress a year after the shooting, she continues to campaign for gun control through the nonprofit she and her husband created, the Gifford Foundation, which endorsed Shapiro in March.
"It's time to stand up for what's right," Giffords told a crowd of more than 100 in a minute-long speech. "Protect our children, our future. Let them lead the way."
Julia Dortch, a 15-year-old State College of Florida Collegiate School student who organized a march following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 students and educators dead in Parkland, told those gathered that she doesn't think teachers should carry guns and that AR-15 rifles belong only in the military.
She said she was taught not to run with scissors and not to text and drive, so, "What happened to common sense?" when it came to gun laws, she asked.
Shapiro advocated for comprehensive background checks, banning assault weapons and closing the gun show loophole.
Though his children have grown up, Shapiro said it was unfathomable the thought of sending his children to school not knowing if they would come back.
"It's unbelievable to me that this is in the United States," he said of the string of school shootings across the country.
In his bid for Florida's 16th congressional district seat to represent Manatee, as well as parts of Sarasota and Hillsborough counties, Shapiro said he did not want to "let down" Giffords.
"At the end of the day, it's about saving lives," he said.
Manatee County resident Hanna Stanford said that although she herself had not been a victim of gun violence, it concerns her greatly.
"This has been going on too long," said Stanford, 80.
What really impressed Stanford was how the Parkland students turned their tragedy into a movement. She wants to see that in Washington.
"They were steadfast," she said. "We need a sustained effort."
Noah Kunkel, a 15-year-old Pine View School student, attended the rally with his mother, Sharon.
"In light of the recent events and how frequent gun violence has occurred and how many people have lost their lives to it, I think it's important that everyone shows their presence," he said.
Sharon Kunkel added: "As a parent, the gun violence has become truly terrifying. It's not being against the Second Amendment to say we want common sense regulations on guns."
While Buchanan was in Washington to vote on a House immigration bill Thursday, his campaign manager, Max Goodman, offered a rebuttal to the deafening boos at the mention of the congressman's name in Sarasota .
"Vern came into Congress the same year as Gabby and remembers her as a dedicated public servant. And although they may not see eye-to-eye on this issue, they both voted for many of the same causes in Congress, including children’s health care, funding for the arts, ending subsidies for Big Oil and cutting interest rates for student loans," Goodman wrote in a text to the Bradenton Herald.
Jan Schneider, also a Democratic candidate for Buchanan's congressional seat, was not mentioned during the rally.