A week after a shooter slaughtered 17 people in a Florida high school, thousands of protesters, including many angry teenagers, swarmed into the state capitol Wednesday, calling for changes to gun laws, a ban on assault-type weapons and improved care for the mentally ill.
The normally staid Florida Statehouse filled with students, among them more than 100 survivors of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, on the edge of the Everglades. They held signs, chanted slogans and burst into lawmakers’ offices demanding to be heard.
The teens were welcomed into the gun-friendly halls of power, but the students’ top goal — a ban on assault-style rifles such as the weapon used in the massacre — was taken off the table a day earlier, although more limited measures are still possible.
Many protesters complained that lawmakers were not serious about reform, and they said they would oppose in future elections any legislator who accepts campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association.
“We’ve spoke to only a few legislators and … the most we’ve gotten out of them is, ‘We’ll keep you in our thoughts. You are so strong. You are so powerful,'” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at the high school. “We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want commonsense gun laws. … We want change.”
She added: “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”
About 30 people left an anti-gun rally outside Florida’s Old Capitol and began a sit-in protest at the office of four House Republican leaders, demanding a conversation about gun legislation.
“They’re not speaking to us right now. We only asked for five minutes and so we’re just sitting until they speak,” said Tyrah Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore at Leon High School, which is within walking distance of the Capitol.
Also, teens in at least a dozen South Florida schools walked out of class to protest gun violence and commemorate the shooting victims. About 2,000 students, parents, teachers and supporters held hands and chanted outside the Parkland campus.
The suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, has been jailed on 17 counts of murder. Defense attorneys, state records and people who knew him indicate that he displayed behavioral troubles for years, including getting kicked out of the Parkland school. He owned a collection of weapons.
“How is it possible that this boy that we all knew was clearly disturbed was able to get an assault rifle, military grade, and come to our school and try to kill us?” one 16-year-old student asked the president of the state Senate, Joe Negron.
Negron did not answer directly. “That’s an issue that we’re reviewing,” he said.
When another lawmaker said he supported raising the age to buy assault-style weapons to 21 from 18, the students broke into applause.
Florida lawmakers have rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999.