Even the most jaded and cynical reporters struggled this week to keep a dry eye while listening to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students’ terrifying accounts of the grisly bloodbath on their Parkland campus.
In many ways, the kids who roamed the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday were much like any other teenagers.
They were glued to their cell phones, texting or scrolling through their social media feeds. They held hands and huddled in cliques. They giggled about fashion, BFFs and crushes.
But on Feb. 14, the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors were transformed into survivors. And they’re on a mission.
“We will make change in this country. And if not today, tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, the day after that and the day after that until we achieve the change we want in this country, until the day that safety is preserved in all schools in our beloved country of America,” Lorenzo Prado, a 17-year-old who said he was mistaken for the shooter at the Parkland high school, told a rapt audience of state, national and international media at a press conference Wednesday in the Capitol.
The students who launched #NeverAgain almost overnight have become national figures, as evidenced by television appearances and the sudden acquisition of tens of thousands of Twitter followers. They’ve been pilloried by gun-rights proponents and lauded by advocates of stricter gun laws.
In Tallahassee, they were eloquent, impassioned and, at times, teetered between anger and grief. And nearly all of them patiently and politely answered the myriad questions lobbed by journalists looming behind cameras, cell phones and microphones.
Some of the students want to get rid of assault-style weapons like the one 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used to slaughter their friends. Others are seeking what they call more reasonable restrictions. None of them said they feel safe going back to school on Monday.
They delivered their message to lawmakers in the White House, Tallahassee and back home. And when asked what should be done to ensure that no other students have to undergo the horror rained upon them this month, many were uncertain.
“We’re just kids,” Alfonso Calderon, a 16-year-old junior, said. “Everybody needs to remember — we are just children.”
‘This has overshadowed everything’
The 2018 Legislative Session had seemed a little mundane. Sure, lawmakers wanted to deal with big issues, such as the opioid epidemic, but the Session plodded along without any great sense of urgency.
Then came Parkland.
Suddenly, Gov. Rick Scott, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, interest groups, parents and students were immersed in almost-unthinkable issues. Everything else took a backseat.
Lawmakers and other state leaders met Wednesday with the Parkland students who had piled on buses to come to Tallahassee. The message was clear: The state will take action to try to prevent such a massacre from ever happening again.
“This has overshadowed everything. This has become our priority. I cannot say it enough: We will not fail you,” Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who is one of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s top lieutenants, pledged to students.
Outside the House and Senate chambers, the calls for action were noisy — and often politically tinged. Democrats and gun-control advocates criticized Republicans, who have controlled state government for the past two decades and have generally backed the National Rifle Association on Second Amendment issues.
While Marjory Stoneman Douglas students met with lawmakers and spoke at the nationally televised press conference, a major rally was taking place outside Wednesday on the steps of the Old Capitol.
The crowd overflowed onto nearby Monroe Street, as students, activists and Democratic lawmakers expressed anger amid chants of “We want change,” “Not one more,” “Throw them out,” and “Never again.”
“This tragedy has taught us to be fearless, because we now know what it feels like to be afraid,” Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, told the roaring crowd. “How many more innocent people have to die before we make a change? Change is overdue. And we are the change. When leaders act like children and children act like leaders, you know something is about to change.”
Time will tell how much change happens in Tallahassee, or in Washington for that matter.
But at least in the short term, the Parkland shooting caused the Senate to put on hold gun-related bills.
“Right now, we understand what this week is. It’s very enmeshed in what do we do to make students safe,” Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and prominent gun-rights supporter, said. “We understand that atmosphere, and that’s why some of these things just need to be put off.”
After meeting with the Parkland students two days earlier, Scott and Republican legislative leaders held press conferences Friday to outline wide-ranging proposals to try to improve school safety, change gun laws and address mental-health issues.
The proposals shared some ideas. For example, they would require people to be at least age 21 to buy rifles and shotguns, a requirement already in place for handguns. They also would spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million to $500 million on issues such as school safety and mental health. And they would not ban semiautomatic rifles, commonly known as “assault weapons.”
With two weeks left in the Legislative Session, Scott and legislative leaders also will have to bridge differences. For instance, Scott wants to require school resource officers in every school in the state, while House and Senate leaders are pitching a plan that would allow some teachers to carry concealed weapons if they meet training requirements and are directed by law enforcement.
Critics immediately took issue Friday with the lack of an assault-weapon ban in the proposals.
“We need to be banning assault weapons,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, said. “We need universal background checks. We need to make sure that we are addressing the root cause of the public health crisis that is gun violence in this state and in this country. It is the guns. The guns are the problem.”
But whatever the criticism and the differences between Scott and lawmakers, it’s clear a package of changes will emerge in the coming weeks from the Legislature.
“Our slogan is, never again,” Corcoran said.
Story of the week
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland came to the Capitol to call for changes after the mass shooting this month of 14 students and three faculty members.
Quote of the week
“Unfortunately, none of the plans I’m announcing today will bring any of them back, but it’s important to remember them. The 17 lives that were cut short and all the hopes and dreams that were ruined have changed our state forever. Florida will never be the same.” Gov. Scott on Friday during a news conference to announce a series of proposals to address school safety, gun laws and mental health issues.