PARKLAND — The air was ripe with gunpowder, and the floor was wet with blood. In the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a Valentine’s afternoon, backpacks lay scattered where they fell while unanswered cell phones continued to ring and buzz.
A day after 17 students and faculty were left dead in another campus shooting, the most appropriate question may be this:
When will our leaders answer the call?
It has been 19 years since a pair of students murdered 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, and the carnage has only multiplied since then. An entire generation of children has now grown up with the threat of mass murder persisting like some macabre lottery.
In the first 45 days of 2018, we have averaged one school shooting per week. The death toll has led to more and more prayers, and little to no action.
As families planned funerals and crime scene analysts compiled evidence, a haphazard news conference was held near the school Thursday. The attorney general was solemn, and the governor was sympathetic. They talked in generalities about violence, children, evil and justice.
Maybe, instead, they should have been listening.
Listening to the 17-year-old student journalist telling of running down a hallway with classmates before being stopped by a janitor who directed them into a culinary classroom. Huddled inside with dozens of others, the boy used his phone to create a news feed of real-time terror.
"If I was to die, I wanted to die telling a damn good story that people would actually listen to,’’ David Hogg said. "I’m sick and tired of having so many mass shootings that people now seem used to them. I wanted to show people the calamity taking place, and what was going on, and how f----- up the situation has become in America.
"Imagine how many families have lost children, how many amazing ideas and world-changing events will now be non-existent because who knows what these children would have done. When you’re killing children, you’re killing more than just children. You’re killing our future.’’
Or they could have listened to a 16-year-old girl talking about running for her life across a tennis court and fields. About taking off her shoes and ripping her shirt as she climbed over a fence. About desperately trying to reach her parents as cellphone service got spotty with the influx of calls.
Maybe they should have heard Olivia Prochilo explain how grateful she was to reach the Walmart parking lot and see the SWAT team vehicles screeching to halt. And how her elation faded when her phone began to buzz.
"I was getting videos from my friends of classmates, kids I go to school with, laying in their own blood,’’ Prochilo said Thursday morning. "Innocent kids who went to school and had their lives taken by someone who just decided to wake up one day and bring a gun to school and take 17 innocent lives.
"Things need to change. There’s too many shootings. It doesn’t affect anyone until it happens in their community, and their school, and then you open your eyes and realize change needs to happen.’’
On the morning after, a community’s grief is sharing the stage with a nation’s debate.
It is the same debate we had after Columbine. And Aurora. And Newtown. And Orlando. And Las Vegas. And all the others in between.
Democrats scream, Republicans fret, and the conversation goes nowhere. Polls say Americans favor comprehensive background checks for gun purchases, but Congress won’t follow up. For 10 years we had a federal ban on assault weapons, but Congress let that lapse in 2004.
Gov. Rick Scott says we need to make sure guns don’t end up in the hands of the mentally unstable, and yet he signed a bill that barred doctors from asking patients whether they had access to guns. And when the law was ruled unconstitutional, Attorney General Pam Bondi continued to fight for it in court.
Florida also spends less money per capita on mental illness services than practically every state.
And when 49 people died in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando in 2016, the state responded with a collective shoulder shrug. State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, has filed bills the past two years that would ban assault-style weapons, a bill almost identical to one passed in Connecticut after the Newtown massacre, but it has not even been discussed in committee.
That isn’t politics; it’s cowardice.
We’re passing bills in Tallahassee about non-existent sanctuary cities because of an accidental death in San Francisco five years ago, but our leaders are so petrified of the NRA they won’t even have a conversation after dozens of deaths in their own state.
"We say ‘sorry, sorry’ and ‘pray, pray’ but until we’re willing to sit down and have a conversation about guns, it’s all just a game,’’ Stewart said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio argues that background checks and assault weapon bans would not have stopped some of the previous mass shootings, and he’s right. But that’s like arguing seat belts do not prevent every traffic fatality, so let’s get rid of them, too.
Former GOP Congressman David Jolly, who came close to passing bipartisan legislation on background checks in 2016, says gerrymandering and the gun lobby make gun laws nearly impossible to pass. He went so far as to say it will take flipping the House before change will come.
"I want, I hope, I wish Republicans would lead on this issue,’’ Jolly said. "But that’s just Pollyanna thinking because the fact is they haven’t done it before, and they won’t do it now.’’
Maybe it would help if they could have seen the parents left waiting hopelessly for news as the hours ticked away Wednesday night. And maybe it would help if they listened to Bonnie Safonte talk about racing to the school after she discovered her son Dominic was hiding in a classroom in the same building as the shooter.
"All I saw was emergency vehicles from all different cities just racing by me,’’ she said. "The roads were all blocked off so you had to abandon your car and start walking. It was horrible. It was the worst moment of my life.’’
She pauses and begins to cry as she puts her hand on her son’s shoulder.
"I was lucky to have been in contact with him, but not having him in front of me to hold was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.’’
For a moment, mother and son quietly consider their good fortune. Then they got off a picnic bench and headed in to see a grief counselor.