TALLAHASSEE — Survivors of the Feb. 14 school shooting in suburban Fort Lauderdale descended on Florida’s capitol Wednesday as the Republican-majority Legislature — normally friendly territory for the National Rife Association — moved toward considering new limits on gun access.
The students-turned-lobbyists met with a long list of Florida’s top leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, state Senate President Joe Negron and state House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
The frenzied action in the Capitol this week is a sharp contrast to how state lawmakers reacted after a gunman slaughtered 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. In a significant move toward gun control, a deal is taking shape among Florida Republicans that would call for age limits and waiting periods for assault rifles as well as a new program to arm school personnel to prevent future classroom slaughters.
“When the people clamor at the rate that they have in the shadow of a terrible massacre like we saw, you see a reaction that you otherwise would not see,” said state Rep. José R. Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) who’s set to take over the House after this legislative session and acknowledged that he never expected to move gun control in the chamber.
Oliva said, however, that the students who traveled to Tallahassee to urge action on gun control will probably be “disappointed” because lawmakers won’t ban military-style semi-automatic rifles.
Oliva said he’s not locking down Republican members to vote for the legislation, which he’ll likely unveil later this week or early next week, because “it’s a conscience vote and a Constitutional issue that every member has to decide.” But House members say the fact that the second-most powerful man in the top-down House will carry the legislation helps ensure its passage.
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican leading the talks on the Senate side, said that removing schools as so-called gun-free zones has gone a long way to bringing Republicans along to support age and wait period increases for semiautomatic rifles, such as AR-15’s.
Survivors, meanwhile, held a press conference in the rotunda, recounting their harrowing experiences and expressing frustration with state lawmakers.
Ryan Deitsch, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior, accused the Legislature of “political double-talk.”
“I know I’ve been walking into office after office after office, and I’ve spoken to maybe three representatives, two of which already agreed with me,” said Dietsch. “I want to see those people who shot down that bill [banning assault weapons], who did not let it get past committee. I want to see those people. I’m not here for a fight, I’m not here to argue with you. I just want to see your face and know why.”
Hundreds of people joined a number of the students for a two-hour long rally on the old Capitol steps, periodically chanting about politicians who refuse to act, “Vote them out! Vote them out!”
Soon after, about a hundred people insisted on seeing Scott as they delivered petitions calling on him to take action on gun control. After being told he was unavailable, they began chanting “You work for us!” and “Knock-knock, Scott.” Scott attended a funeral in South Florida earlier in the day, and met with students later in the day.
“I just want to be a part of the movement for gun control, mental health reform, for anything we can do to prevent more kids, more teachers and more innocent lives being lost to mass shootings and to gun violence,” Olivia Feller, a junior at Marjory Stoneman, told POLITICO. “I just really hope that Stoneman Douglas can be the last and that students from my school, that we together can push forward and actually make the change.”
She said she’d support a ban on assault rifles, along with more armed school resource officers and measures to address mental health.
“We are, honestly at this point, begging them to do something, to save our lives, to save teachers’ lives,” she said.
Feller was discouraged when she heard the House on Tuesday turned down a chance to bring an assault weapons ban straight to the floor.
“It was just so disappointing it wasn’t even close,” she said. She said she wants to ask legislative leaders, “which do you value more: guns or kids’ lives?”
Last week’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people, including 14 students, dead and more than a dozen others hospitalized after a lone gunman opened fire at the school. The suspected gunman later confessed and has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.
Florida’s worst school shooting turned grieving students into political activists. Over the weekend, students spoke at a rally in Fort Lauderdale that drew thousands and national media attention.
The Stoneman Douglas students are pushing a bipartisan message in the hopes of spurring lawmakers to act. And in Tallahassee, they got a crash course in lobbying from one the state’s most influential lobbyists, Ron Book.
It’s not about political parties, Book told the students Tuesday night — “it’s about how you advocate and present your message. And presenting your message is about your story.”
“There is going to be a package and it is going to pass. I can’t tell you we’re going to get everything we want,” he added.
State Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) coordinated the students’ visit to Tallahassee. She said she personally paid for the cost of the buses and meals for the students.
Cindy Damien, a fourth grade teacher at Park Trails Elementary in Broward County and the mother of a senior and a freshman at Stoneman Douglas, said lawmakers aren’t doing enough to keep schools safe.
“There’s too many … cracks, there’s just too many,” she said. “If they’re not going to tighten up those laws, then we need to tighten up our gates.”
Students met with state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart Wednesday morning. Melissa Camilo, 15, a freshman who said she was in the building when the shooting happened, told reporters she thought one of the most important things the students spoke about with Stewart was the locks on classroom doors.
“Teachers shouldn’t have to go on the outside to lock the door, because that takes so much time. Within those seconds, someone could get hurt,” she said.
Dozens of students wearing blue shirts that stated “We call B.S.” in the Senate gallery Wednesday. It was a reference to a speech last week made by Stoneman Douglas senior Emma Gonzalez slamming political leaders for their failure to prevent the tragedy.
The roughly 100 high school students who met with Corcoran questioned if he would spearhead meaningful gun control. In response, he highlighted measures in a comprehensive bill the House planned to file in response to the mass shooting.
Some of those measures include increasing the age limit for rifle purchases, expanding the scope of background checks and $108 million in mental health funding.
“We want the result of the talks we’re having to be the end of it,” Corcoran said. “It’s a position where we can say this is the end of it, that’s our goal.”
One student asked why he wouldn’t outright ban the AR-15 assault-style rifle, which the shooter used to spray hundreds of bullets into crowds of students and faculty members in six minutes.
Corcoran said he would restrict access to the powerful gun, but he would never ban it. He explained that such prohibitions gave government too much power.
“The first job of anyone elected to government is to keep people safe,” Corcoran said. “And what can be dangerous if a government with too much authority.”
Sergio Bustos and Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.
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