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Demands for action intensify at huge rally at Florida’s Capitol

Largest protest in nearly two decades draws thousands to Tallahassee
Thousands of supporters cheer for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students as they rallied outside the Florida Capitol on Wednesday to demand that lawmakers enact gun control laws. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Feb. 21, 2018
Updated Feb. 22, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Florida became the epicenter of an historic debate over gun violence Wednesday as a growing #Never Again movement seized the national spotlight to demand action a week after the massacre in Parkland.

At a raucous two-hour rally outside the state Capitol, thousands of people, many of them students, militantly demanded action by legislators in the last two weeks of the session or risk being thrown out of office, as they mourned the deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

"They were students and teachers and coaches and they died because you failed," student Sheryl Acquaroli said of Florida's leaders, "and they are bigger heroes than you will ever be."

The protesters, many of them not yet old enough to vote, chanted "Enough is enough," "No more guns" and "Vote them out" as lawmakers approved a bill to require that the state motto, In God We Trust, be displayed in schools across the state.

The largest demonstration at Florida's Capitol in nearly two decades came together in just a few days.

One week after the horrific Valentine's Day attack that claimed 17 lives, survivors shouted and wept into microphones and demanded the Legislature pass gun control measures, including a ban on assault weapons — a change that has little support among Republicans who rule Tallahassee.

The House blocked a procedural move by Democrats a day earlier to debate an assault weapons ban as distraught and disbelieving Parkland students watched from a visitors' balcony.

"There is no bigger disrespect than to be sitting in the balcony in the House and watching them turn down a chance to fix what they've done," said Spencer Bloom, a Stoneman Douglas student.

Bloom expressed frustration at the muted reactions from some legislators and singled out Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

"We asked him, did he receive money from the NRA? He said, 'I don't think I recall,'" Bloom said. "We think if you had gotten thousands of dollars, you would remember."

Protesters fill the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol outside of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, demanding stricter gun laws in Florida. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Hundreds of students walked the Capitol's halls in an outpouring of grief, anger and determination, shouting chants outside the doors of the House chamber.

They promised to vote out the Republicans who for years in Tallahassee have refused to consider gun restrictions.

Outside, a huge crowd fanned out at the Old Capitol for a midday rally that included Parkland students, college students, teachers and parents. Early crowd estimates were at about 5,000.

More than 10,000 people converged on the Capitol in March 2000 to protest former Gov. Jeb Bush's decision to end traditional affirmative action programs.

Wednesday's outsize media presence revived memories of the presidential recount of November 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes.

"This is a major watershed time and the Legislature can finally come to grips with some things," said Florida State University President John Thrasher. "I look at it as a public health issue."

Thrasher, a Republican former House speaker and senator, has opposed allowing concealed weapons on college campuses.

"To me, the number one thing this Legislature should do is make these schools safer," Thrasher said.

Protesters fill the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol outside of the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, demanding stricter gun laws in Florida. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican who has accepted a high-level post in President Donald J. Trump's administration, said he was troubled by the politicizing of the gun issue as "a wedge issue to attract a segment of voters."

"One thing that never solves any problem is pushing people into their corners," Trujillo said.

Groups at the rally included Giffords, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, as well as Equality Florida, the League of Women Voters and the Florida Parent Teacher Association.

A sophomore at Stoneman Douglas briefly became a media celebrity.

Fifteen-year-old Samuel Muster, in braces and a black "Parkland Shooting" T-shirt, said he appeared on MSNBC and the BBC, and offered a blunt message for Florida legislators.

"They work for us. We're their bosses," Muster said. "We are able to vote them out."

The boy makes it sound easy, but the reality in Florida is that an incumbent legislator is rarely voted out of office.

The question is whether the activism in Tallahassee can sustain momentum through the 2018 elections and beyond.

Michael Rajner, 47, of a social worker and Democratic activist from Wilton Manors, thinks it can.

"This is beyond inspiring," Rajner said. "I feel so hopeful in the voices of tomorrow's — I mean today's — leaders."

House and Senate leaders are expected to release proposed legislation as early as Thursday and Gov. Rick Scott will offer a package Friday.

The proposals deal with limits on access to assault weapons, stronger school security, more money for mental health andan expansion of the Baker Act to temporarily seize firearms owned by people who have been involuntarily committed by police or physicians due to mental health problems.

Adding to the tension, legislative leaders are fighting behind the scenes over budget differences and the House accused senators of stonewalling budget talks.

"They've completely stonewalled us. They're acting like kindergarteners," House Speaker Richard Corcoran said of the Senate, blaming Senate President Joe Negron and his budget chief, Sen. Rob Bradley.

“It’s just silliness — grow up,” Corcoran said. “The Senate needs to grow up.”

Bradley declined to directly address Corcoran’s criticism and called the speaker’s remarks “odd and unbecoming.”

Other bills favored by the gun lobby are languishing. On Wednesday, a bill that would allow people to carry guns in churches on school grounds was postponed with no word on whether it will be brought back.

Corcoran, who met with Parkland students in the House chamber, said he was personally moved by their message and agreed that it's time for the state to act.

"It was powerful looking out at the faces of a bunch of young students. I have six of them myself," Corcoran said. "For them to be up here and championing change in such a beautiful and responsible way was impressive."

Corcoran, a possible candidate for governor and one of many lawmakers who has enjoyed an A rating from the National Rifle Association, voiced support for a waiting period and a minimum age of 21 to buy assault weapons in Florida.

"I have a strong record for being for common sense," Corcoran said.

Local high school students were excused from classes and adults arrived in buses from across the state. One sign showed a "Next Massacre Countdown Clock," and another blamed the "Florida House of Accomplices" for the massacre in Parkland.

Angie Giunta, a 68-year-old retired accountant from Clearwater, boarded a bus in St. Petersburg at 6:30 a.m. to make the rally.

"These kids have given me an inspiration that I couldn't imagine right now," said Giunta, who recalled student protests during the Vietnam War. "I love them. I'm so proud of them. We can pass the torch."

Across the state of Florida Wednesday, students walked out of classrooms to protest gun violence.