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The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wasted no time Wednesday and quickly put the leaders of the state on the spot as they asked them how they were prepared to prevent another tragedy like the one that rocked their school one week ago.
“Look at this boy and tell me how will you handle that? He was shot in the head, an 18-year-old boy,” said Tyra Hemans, 19, a senior, as she held up a picture of her friend Joaquin Oliver. “Guns do not save lives. They end lives, and it is you people that I need to count on to protect me and my country, my home.”
Hemans was among the 100 students from the Parkland high school who wanted answers.
Why since the tragedy at the Sandy Hook elementary school are assault weapons still sold in the U.S.? What is the need for military assault rifles to be available to the civilian population? Why was the shooter, who had a history of mental illness, allowed to purchase a weapon of mass destruction?
Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran opened their meetings with the students to the media, as reporters from across the globe chronicled their unease.
The students had traveled in a three-bus caravan to demand gun restrictions a week after the deadly shooting that left 17 classmates and staff members dead. It is the first official event of the students’ #NeverAgain movement as they try to change gun and mental health laws in an effort to have their school be the last one riddled by a mass shooting.
The students loaded their sleeping bags and duffel bags and then marched up the hill from the civic center where they slept to the Capitol where they were quickly divided into 10 groups of 10.
In a Senate committee room packed with reporters and photographers, Negron and his two top deputies, Sens. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, listened with papers and pencils as the students solemnly rose, one by one, to tell their stories.
“Do you have kids?” asked Sammy Feuerman, 17, a senior,
Negron answered that he did. “You love them, right?” Feuerman insisted. Negron didn’t answer but said, “go ahead.”
Feuerman described how his best friend was shot three times and is alive but “we didn’t know that for a really long time.”
He urged them “to do something to make sure this never happens again. Thank you for your time.”
“I just want to clarify, we aren’t a radical, left-wing agenda being pushed by gun-hating liberals to take away everyone’s Second Amendment rights,” said Lewis Mizen, 17, a senior.
“We want a bi-partisan agreement, and we want to be able to go to school and know we will come home at the end of the day. I don’t want this to get political. The minute it does, everything we’ve come here to do will get lost.”
Negron agreed. “You’re right — this issue should never be partisan,” he said.
Galvano said he had spent time with the Senate Democratic leader about their ideas and vowed to listen to all ideas.
“We owe it to you to take meaningful action,” he said. “To hear what you have to say and not just let it fall but to let it become a change in the way we do business in Florida.”
Bradley said they reminded him of his two children, one in college and the other in high school. “I want you to understand how much I appreciate you being here, how much I understand it could have been my child in a school when what happened happened in your school,” he said. “This is an American issue. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue.”
But he also noted the “speed at which we are moving things” toward addressing mental health, school safety and the gun access issues “is unusual.”
“I just want you to understand we are moving as quickly as the system allows with the urgency that is deserving of the emotion and the concern you have,” he said.
Before the students arrived, legislators and their deputies prepared a plan aimed at providing a comprehensive package of reform — from raising the minimum age to obtain and purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, to providing more school security officers and mental health counselors, and enacting a waiting period for high-capacity guns.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former student who returned on Valentine’s Day to massacre his former classmates, had problems with mental illness. His classmates said the warning signs were there.
“I knew him from middle school,” said Jaclyn Corin, the Douglas High junior class president who conceived of the trip to Tallahassee. “If there had been a 20-minute screening, maybe we wouldn’t be here.”
Corin planted the idea for a trip to Tallahassee with Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and together they got it started. Book paid for the buses and meals. Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, paid for the use of the Donald Tucker Civic Center, owned by Florida State University.
And the media requests started rolling in. A Miami Herald photographer and videographer was on one of the buses. One network embedded a crew to do a documentary, and another scheduled live updates from the trip. National and international media had their cameras focused on the students as the buses arrived.
“When I started organizing this trip to Tallahassee, I had no idea if any of my classmates would even want to go,” Corin wrote in a Tweet. “Now the world is watching.”
“ ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ — that quote is plastered high on a staircase in douglas,” Sarah Chadwick wrote in a tweet just hours before the buses rolled from the Publix parking lot in Parkland. “I read it every day while walking to class, and now I’m here truly trying to be a change in the world.”
The group will not take part in the rallies organized by gun control activists that will take place outside the Capitol Wednesday. Book said she encouraged them to stay away from the tense and politically charged events.
“These kids are fragile, and I’m just scared,” she said. Instead, she has lined up grief counselors to be available from Leon County schools in case something triggers the trauma again for any of the students. “These kids are eloquent, but we want to provide them with some space, too,” she said.
The long drive was punctuated by a stream of news as students kept up on their phones:
▪ The Florida House of Representatives refused to take up a bill to ban assault weapons.
▪ Actor George Clooney and his wife donated $500,000 in the name of their children to help finance the March For Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., on March 24. Then so did Oprah Winfrey. And Steven Spielberg.
▪ The mayor of Dallas told the NRA to find another city for its May meeting unless it supported changes to gun laws.
Each of the developments prompted many of the students — who have now attracted thousands of Twitter followers as leaders of a burgeoning social movement — to comment with their own tweets.