TALLAHASSEE — Filled with fury and impatient for change, thousands of Florida high school students and protesters rallied Wednesday at the state Capitol to demand that lawmakers take action in the final weeks of the legislative session to curb the sale of assault rifles.
“Thoughts and prayers won’t stop my brothers and my sisters from dying — action will,” declared Sheryl Acquaroli, 16, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty members were killed in a mass shooting on Feb. 14. “They are our students, our teachers and our coaches. And they died because you failed.”
As lawmakers were condemned on the steps of the Capitol, a bipartisan group in the House and Senate continued working to hash out a set of bipartisan proposals that could be voted on as early as next week in response to the shooting. Amid the din of young protest, the rigid partisan lines that have long deadlocked the national debate over gun violence have shown signs of cracking.
The proposals under consideration stop short of student demands for a ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons like the AR-15-style gun that was used in the most recent shooting. Instead, lawmakers have focused on new waiting period and age restrictions for buyers of semiautomatic rifles, new powers for police to confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous by the courts, and new measures to protect schools from mass shooters.
The proposals represent a sharp break from the state’s traditional response to mass-casualty gun violence. Though a contested state in presidential election, Florida has a long history as a laboratory of gun-rights legislation pushed by the powerful National Rifle Association.
The state spearheaded efforts to establish concealed-carry permits and a “stand-your-ground” law, which protects citizens who use deadly force if they feel they are in imminent danger. Many state leaders, including Republican Gov. Rick Scott, boast high NRA approval ratings.
The voices of survivors of school shootings also filled the White House on Wednesday as President Trump held a listening session and heard pleas from parents and students for government action to keep children safe.
“My daughter has no voice. She was murdered last week. She was taken from us,” Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed at Parkland, told Trump. His voice rising, Pollack said change was long overdue, “One school shooting and we should have fixed it.”
National gun control groups, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and a group founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), helped to organize the rally in Tallahassee and then led hundreds of students to clog the hallways of the state capitol building in protest afterward.
Deafening chants of “face us now” and “serve your public, not your pocket” greeted state House members as they adjourned for the day, forcing many lawmakers to leave the main chamber through side doors. In several other high schools across the state Wednesday, students staged walkouts in solidarity with the survivors of the Parkland shooting.
Before the rally, where a procession of students spoke wearing “We Call B.S.” T-shirts, Republican leaders of the Florida Senate met at the capitol with a group of about 50 Parkland students. One student denounced the NRA as “murderers,” several said they had come to “beg” for changes to gun laws, and many cried as they described their friends’ deaths.
“He was a boy who got shot in the head because of your laws saying an 18-year-old boy can carry a military-grade weapon to kill,” said Tyra Hemans, 19, a senior who held a photo of her friend Joaquin Oliver, which she kept in her cellphone case.
She demanded several times that the lawmakers look her in the eye as they spoke, and they complied.
In his introductory remarks, Florida Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican who has received a perfect score from the NRA for his gun votes, choked up while talking about the funeral he attended Tuesday for 15-year-old Peter Wang, one of the slain students. “We are here to listen to your concerns,” he told the students.
The lawmakers said they intended to reconsider a Florida law that allows 18-year-olds to buy assault rifles in the state although the age for purchasing a handgun is 21. Negron also said the state would replace the school building where the shooting was carried out with a memorial.
Florida took no legislative action on guns after a man armed with a rifle killed 49 in an attack on an Orlando nightclub in 2016 or after another rampage in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport that killed five in 2017. In the current legislative session, Republicans have proposed allowing guns in courthouses and airports, as well as the carrying of handguns without a permit.
The outlines of a possible new agreement emerged last week, in the days immediately following the Parkland shooting, during bipartisan tours of the crime scene at the school. Local Democratic legislators invited the state’s Republican leadership to walk the bloodstained halls and hear directly from first responders the impacts of the attack.
For some involved in the process, the fact that Democrats now have a seat at the table to discuss gun violence is a breakthrough that could have implications outside the state as the rest of the country grapples with growing concerns over gun violence. This week, Trump, a staunch ally of the NRA, also began talking about potential gun-control measures.
“The change that we are on the cusp of making in the state of Florida has implications for the rest of the country,” said state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Broward County Democrat who represents the families of those slain in Parkland and helped to arrange the tours of the school. “It’s not, ‘My way or the highway.’ ”
In an acknowledgment of the efforts, state House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R) ended the House session Tuesday with a public call for more work across party lines. “Continue to have a dialogue,” he told the Democrats and Republicans in his chamber. “The goal would be that we would come up with a very substantive bipartisan bill.”
Hours earlier, the Republican-dominated Florida House handily defeated a Democratic effort to open debate on an assault-weapons ban, as several students watched tearfully from the gallery.
In addition to possibly raising the age for buying an assault rifle to 21, the lawmakers have discussed adding a three-day waiting period for taking possession of the type of semiautomatic rifle used in the school shooting. At the urging of local sheriffs, they are also exploring ways to strengthen the ability of law enforcement departments to take weapons away from those deemed a danger by courts. And they plan to establish a training program for teachers and faculty members to qualify to carry guns at schools, an idea that has been opposed in the past by the Florida Education Association.
Several participants warned that the efforts still could collapse. Scott, a likely U.S. Senate candidate who held listening sessions on guns Tuesday, has been informed of the negotiations but has not publicly taken a position.
The NRA is unlikely to weigh in publicly on the proposals until they are released in legislative form, which could come as early as Thursday. Negron has said he hopes for a committee vote on the plans early next week.
“We are in a very vulnerable place right now,” said Sen. Lauren Book, a Democratic lawmaker who represents Broward County and has been organizing the bipartisan outreach. “There is very little margin for error. There is not a lot of time. And I think there are some who are incendiary and want to throw stones and create havoc because they have their own agendas.”
Other groups that have pushed for more gun control but had been on the defensive for much of the legislative session, expressed optimism Tuesday that a breakthrough could be achieved, given the visibility the students have brought to the issue.
“The students are what is different this time,” said Kate Kile, leader of the Tallahassee chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has been providing water and snacks for students visiting the state capital. “As the grown-ups, it’s on us.”
Potential bipartisanship began to take root during lawmakers’ emotional tours of the school site in recent days.
“They needed to see it to understand,” said Book, who took photos of the attack’s bloody aftermath that she keeps on her phone to illustrate the horror of the event.
Among the Republicans who made the pilgrimage in those first days were Speaker Corcoran, Senate President Negron, future Senate president Bill Galvano and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Carlos Trujillo.
They looked through the small glass windows in the classroom doors where shots had been fired at students taking cover. They learned about the resilience of hurricane windows to a bullet from an AR-15-style rifle. They heard concerns from law enforcement about the difficulty of taking guns out of the hands of people they assess as dangerous.
They ultimately agreed to try to accomplish something together, even if it meant steering clear of the most explosive debates over the sale of high-capacity magazines and semiautomatic rifles.
“Being righteous isn’t enough,” said Jacobs, the lawmaker from Broward County. “I’ve been referring to this as a sort of a trust fall, to do something now but also opening the door to future conversations.”