By Izzy Kapnick, Courthouse News
PARKLAND, Fla. (CN) – At the heart of a nationwide gun control rally, hundreds of students poured into the streets Wednesday outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of a Valentine’s Day massacre that prompted swift, sweeping changes to gun laws in Florida, and a call for federal legislators to act.
Signs saying “No NRA in Our Schools” and “Never Again” protruded from finely manicured grass in Parkland, Fla. as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and neighboring Westglades Middle marched through the upscale community.
A block-long row of makeshift memorials, wreaths and red balloons covered the front gate of the high school.
Students in Parkland and across the country, including Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, participated in walkouts and protests Wednesday to call on Congress for action on gun violence.
One Westglades Middle school student — the first to reach a crowd of reporters — proudly proclaimed that he and his schoolmates were defying teachers who had instructed them not to leave a school facility during the demonstration. A youth nearby said, “What are they going to do, write up 2,000 referrals?”
Another student, high school junior Zac Caton, said he was happy that Florida politicians had taken rapid action to enact gun control reform in Florida. A Republican-dominated state legislature and Gov. Rick Scott made SB 7026 into law last week, raising the legal age to purchase firearms in Florida from 18 to 21, banning bump stocks, and expanding waiting period regulations for gun purchases in the state, among other measures.
When asked for his reaction to the National Rifle Association’s lawsuit that is attempting to strike down the new law in federal court, Caton appeared incensed.
“I supported the NRA for many years, but I think they’re being arrogant,” the student said.
He said the gun rights group’s unwillingness to make concessions in the wake of the Parkland tragedy was unreasonable, given that part of the group’s agenda — a program to arm teachers who undergo firearms training — made it into the bill.
“I’m not necessarily fine with teachers having guns in my school. But compromise needed to be made,” Caton said.
He said he wasn’t fazed when he returned to class, after the campus reverted from a crime scene to a school.
“I was glad to get back. It was an act of terrorism if you think about it. The only way terrorism works is if you give into it. As soon as we stepped back into the school, we were saying we are done with this shit. We are done being scared. We are going back in there and we are resuming,” Caton said.
Similar student demonstrations were carried out across the country as part of a coordinated protest for gun law reform nationwide. The plan was to have students walk out of class for 17-minutes, one minute for each of the victims fatally injured in the Valentine’s Day attack.
The Action Network, an online platform for organizing progressive political action, showed more than 3,000 self-listed protest sites, primarily schools and other facilities in the U.S., though people pledged participation from Israel to southeast Australia.
The “Youth Empower” group, through the Women’s March organization, promoted the school walkouts while calling for the passage of federal legislation to ban assault weapons, and to expand background checks to all gun sales, instead of the current federal framework whereby licensed dealers, and not private sellers, are required to perform background checks.
Youth Empower had implored students to “stop whatever you’re doing and simply walk out — into the hallway, out of your school building, whatever feels right to you.”
“We are not safe at school. We are not safe in our cities and towns. Congress must take meaningful action to keep us safe and pass federal gun reform legislation that addresses this public health crisis,” the group said on its website.
Protestors in South Florida called for the passage of a Gun Violence Restraining Order law via H.R. 2598 and S. 1212, bills which seek to set up a new legal framework to seize a person’s firearms if he or she is found by a court official to pose a threat.
Those federal proposals bear similarities to sections of the just-passed Florida law, which creates a novel system whereby police can file a petition for a “risk protection order” to commandeer a potentially violent person’s guns. If a judge or magistrate finds that the respondent poses a risk of physical injury to himself or others, the respondent’s guns can be seized. In both the passed Florida law and the proposed federal law, the respondent is entitled to a hearing after confiscation, where he or she can argue for the return of the taken firearms.
President Donald Trump suggested off the cuff at an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers last month that police should have the right to take weapons away prior to court proceedings and “due process,” as he put it.
The president asserted that he wanted to work on raising the minimum firearm purchasing age to 21 nationwide, though a school safety action plan subsequently released by the White House does not include an explicit age-of-purchase increase, according to a CBS report.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein have announced that they are pursuing a bill to raise the minimum gun-buying age in the U.S. to 21. Federal law already prohibits federally licensed gun dealers from selling firearms to those under 21.
“If you can’t buy a beer, you shouldn’t be able to buy a weapon of war. While we need to do much more to reform our gun laws, ensuring teenagers can’t legally buy weapons of war is a commonsense step forward,” Feinstein said.
Flake added: “If the law says someone under the age of 21 is too young to purchase a handgun, then it ought to say they’re too young to purchase an assault weapon.”
The NRA strongly opposes such measures. In its lawsuit to void Florida’s raising the minimum age of purchase, the gun rights group claims that 18-year-olds are adults entitled to full Second Amendment rights.
“At 18 years of age, citizens are eligible to serve in the military — to fight and die by arms for the country. Indeed, male citizens in this age group are designated members of the militia by federal statute … and may be conscripted to bear arms on behalf of their country,” the NRA lawsuit argues.
The National Rifle Association previously filed a legal challenge to the federal gun law that prohibits licensed dealers from selling handguns to those under 21. The challenge failed in district court and later floundered on appeal in the Fifth Circuit.
The House meanwhile is scheduled to take up the STOP School Violence Act in short order.
Building on an existing grant program, the legislation “funds school security improvements and invests in early intervention and prevention programs to stop school violence before it happens,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, who introduced the bill.
Sen. Hatch noted that law enforcement and school officials had received repeated reports prior to the Stoneman Douglas massacre that the alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz, now 19, was unhinged and contemplating violent acts.
“As we saw in Parkland, having folks identify warning signs is not enough. There must be a process for acting on this information when it is brought to the attention of school administrators or law enforcement,” said Hatch.
“With a requirement that states and localities contribute to the cost of these programs, my bill will authorize $75 million in Fiscal Year 2018 and $100 million each year for the following 10 years. In total, that’s more than $1 billion to secure our schools and train our students, teachers, and law enforcement,” Hatch said.
The Florida state bill passed last week for its part laid out a $400 million investment in school safety, including $162 million for school-resource officer measures, $28 million for mental health service teams to serve Florida youths and $99 million to “address specific school safety needs” including “school hardening measures such as metal detectors, bulletproof glass, steel doors and upgraded locks.”