TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Survivors of the Florida school shooting descended on the state’s Capitol on Wednesday and had one overarching message: It’s time for action.
The kids 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 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one week ago.
When Florida’s 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 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.
“It has been a very, very difficult, tough night. It’s in those quiet moments that the reality of this stuff, without all the noise sets in. In any given moment, there’s tears. It’s raw and it’s there.”
About 100 students from the high school made the 400-mile (640-kilometer) trip on three buses. They told the 500 students and parents waiting for them that they were fighting to protect all students.
“We’re what’s making the change. We’re going to talk to these politicians. … We’re goingto 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, Republican Gov. Rick 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 Nikolas Cruz, 19, 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.”
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.
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(Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP & AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser & AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)