Survivors of last week's school shooting in Parkland were joined by thousands of supporters on the state's Capitol on Wednesday, and they had one overarching message: It's time to change Florida's laws on guns and mental health.
The rally of an estimated 5,000 people comes one week after 17 students were killed and 14 others wounded when a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Students, joined by some lawmakers, took a podium to demand stronger laws to ban what they called assault weapons, and to get a handle on mental health issues and school threats. There was visible anger over the fact that the Florida House of Representatives voted down holding a floor debate on an assault weapons ban, as well as a request for the students to speak their minds inside the chambers.
"The AR-15 did so much damage. How is an individual in society allowed to acquire such a gun?” junior Alondra Gittelson said.
"We are speaking up for the majority of Americans when we say we don’t want to deal with these corrupt politicians anymore. We are sick and tired, and it’s time for them to go," said David Hogg, a junior.
Hogg has become one of the most outspoken and recognized of the Strongman Douglas students, appearing on many national news programs about gun control.
"This is life or death, and it always will be until these legislators take action," Hogg said.
Hndreds of students from Florida State University and Florida A&M University made the 20-minute march to the Capitol chanting, “What do we want? Gun control!"
Students in the crowd had some support for state lawmakers, mainly Democrats, who say enough is enough.
"No child should be trained to hide in the bathroom for fear of losing their life," Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. "What happen is happening to us Florida?"
The student activists have asked to meet with Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida,, but so far that hasn’t happened. But it won’t stop those on a mission.
Before the rally on the Capital steps, the students split into several groups to talk with lawmakers and other state leaders about gun control, the legislative process and mental health issues. Some tearfully asked why civilians should be allowed to have weapons such as the AR-15, which was used in the attack on Stoneman Douglas High exactly one week ago.
When Florida Senate President Joe Negron heard the question, he didn't directly answer: "That's an issue that we're reviewing." When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the students broke into applause.
The Florida Senate opened its session by showing pictures of all 17 victims killed in the attack.
"There are some really harrowing tales here," said Democratic Sen. Lauren Book of Broward County, who helped organize busloads of students who arrived at the Capitol late Tuesday night. She stayed overnight with the students in Tallahassee's Civic Center and said they stayed up until 5 a.m., researching, writing and preparing to talk with politicians.
Talia Rumsky, a sophomore from Parkland, said they received a mixed reaction from lawmakers.
"Some of them have been really great. Some of them have walked out while we were in the middle of speaking to them," Rumsky said. "It is so disrespectful, and we’re just not letting them get away with it."
The students said they are going to continue to pressure Florida's lawmakers for the next three weeks of the legislative session and are also taking their campaign nationwide. They have marches planned in Washington, D.C., in South Florida and all across the country. They said they are going to make sure that something like this does not happen again.
"We're what's making the change. We're going to talk to these politicians. ... We're going to keep pushing until something is done because people are dying and this can't happen anymore," said Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior.
Despite their enthusiasm and determination, the students and their supporters aren't likely to get what they really want: a ban on AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles. Republican lawmakers are talking more seriously about some restrictions, but not a total ban.
Instead, they're discussing treating assault-style rifles like the one suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz is accused of using more like handguns than long guns. That could mean raising the minimum age to purchase the weapon to 21, creating a waiting period and making it more difficult for people who exhibit signs of mental illness from buying the weapon even without a diagnosis.
Democrats attempted to get a bill to ban assault rifles and large-capacity magazines heard on the House floor on Tuesday. Republicans, who dominate the chamber, dismissed it. Students who were at the Capitol ahead of their classmates found Republicans steered the conversation away from gun restrictions.
"We're not going to be the school that got shot, we're going to be the school that got shot and made something happen. A change is going to happen," said Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas.
As the grieving Florida students demanded action, President Donald Trump on Tuesday directed the Justice Department to move to ban devices like the rapid-fire bump stocks used in last year's Las Vegas massacre. It was a small sign of movement on the gun violence issue that has long tied Washington in knots.
"We must do more to protect our children," said Trump, a strong and vocal supporter of gun rights.
The students planned to hold a rally Wednesday to put more pressure on the Legislature.
"I really think they are going to hear us out," said Chris Grady, a high school senior aboard the bus.
State lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor's office and the Legislature in 1999. And Florida has a reputation for expanding gun rights. In 2011, Scott signed a law that banned cities and counties from regulating gun and ammunition sales.
Scott organized three committees to look at school safety, mental health and gun safety issues that met Tuesday and vowed to make changes. While Scott told reporters several times that "everything is on the table," he did not answer whether his proposal would include any bans on any type of weapons.
Instead, Scott said he is interested in making it harder for people who are temporarily committed to obtain a gun. He also pledged to increase spending on school safety programs and on mental health treatment.
Authorities said Cruz, the 19-year-old charged in the Parkland massacre, had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police were repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. His lawyers said there were many warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.
Stoneman Douglas senior Diego Pfeiffer was realistic about what change would happen before the Legislature goes home March 9, but said anything is a good first step.
"The best case scenario is we move a step forward and that's all we're asking here. We're asking to help save student lives," he said. "Whether it's funding or mental health or gun safety or any of that sort of stuff -- I am pro any of that."
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