Tallahassee, Florida, USA: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students made an an eight-hour bus ride to rally outside the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, Wednesday, urging Florida lawmakers to reform gun laws, in the wake of last week’s mass shooting at the school in which 17 students were killed and many others wounded.
“We want common-sense gun laws. We want stronger mental health checks and background checks to work in conjunction. We want a better age limit,” said Delaney Tarr, a 17-year-old senior. “We want privatized selling to be completely reformed so you can’t just walk into a building with $130 and walk out with an AR-15.”
Although they had set up meetings with Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and a multitude of state senators and representatives, many of them said they felt brushed off when they asked what their state leaders intended to do to prevent further school shootings.
“Coming here today … was very disappointing,” Tarr said. “We’ve been too many rooms, we’ve spoken to only a few legislators and try as they might, the most we’ve gotten out of them is, ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You’re so strong. You’re so powerful.’ We’ve heard enough of that. … That is not why we’re here today. We’re not here to be patted on the back.”
While the students who bused up from Stoneman Douglas in Parkland were meeting lawmakers, thousands of gun control supporters from around the state rallied outside, with hundreds of them pouring into the Capitol afterward.
Carrying signs and chanting “You work for us,” they marched to the governor’s office on the first floor of the Capitol building. At that time, Scott was attending the funeral of one of the victims of the shooting in South Florida. Undaunted, the protesters made their way to the fourth floor of the Capitol, where the House was in session.
The cries of “Vote them out” were deafening as Democrats came out of the House session to greet the protesters.
“Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,” said state Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, to cheers from the crowd.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, introduced himself to the crowd as the sponsor of HB 219, the assault weapons ban that never got a committee hearing and House Republicans prevented from moving straight to the floor on Tuesday.
The crowd began chants of “219” with scattered yells of, “Hear the bills.”
When the House session ended, the crowd broke up. For the most part, Republican legislators left the chamber via a back exit.
“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,” said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior. “This is something serious. It’s about human lives.”
The day began with a walk to the Capitol from the Donald Tucker Civic Center, where the students had spent the night after busing in on Tuesday. It was billed as a march, but it was more like a funeral procession. There were no handwritten signs, no clever slogans chanted. Just a hundred students a week out from the worst day of their lives, a few days out from burying their friends, walking to the state Capitol to demand that something change.
The Stoneman Douglas Eagles asked a lot of questions of elected officials, some of them unanswerable. When they met Senate leaders, one girl simply asked through tears why this had to happen to her, and to her friends, some of whom are now dead. Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, seemed to have a hard time keeping his composure.
“I see my children when I see you. I want you to know how much I appreciate you being here.” said Bradley, who has two children in college and one in high school. “I know how it could’ve been my kids. It’s deeply personal to me.”
But when asked for a yes or no answer as to whether they would support an age limit of 21 to buy rifles, just as there is now with handguns, both Bradley and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said they had to see the final version of bills being put together in the House and Senate before committing to an answer.
Senate President-designate Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was more direct. “My answer is yes,” he said.
There were cheers from the students sitting in the Senate meeting room. It was the first thing that sounded like a real commitment they had heard all day.
“I’m thankful for the senators actually speaking to us. Earlier today, I’ve been tossed from room to room. I hadn’t spoken to anyone till right now,” Calderon said. “Although I do think that maybe we should not be pivoting and walking around the issue as much.”
Afterward, they sat in the Senate gallery as the lights dimmed and the names and faces of their dead friends appeared on the massive screen over the Senate president’s dais.
When the lights came up, Negron talked about his experience at the funeral of Peter Wang, who held a door open as others escaped and was eventually shot and killed.
The Senate president called a 10-minute recess before session got underway. He disappeared into the back room behind the dais.
“One trip to Tallahassee I knew was not going to be enough, but I don’t know how many times I’m going to be having to come up here to just speak and have somebody listen to me,” said Ryan Deitsch, an 18-year-old senior. “I want to see those people who have spoken out against this. … I’m not here to argue with you, I just want to see your face and know why.”