Florida’s gun debate persists a year after Parkland mass shooting

FILE PHOTO: A police officer Jamie Rubenstein stands guard in front of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after the police security perimeter was removed, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A year after Florida lawmakers rushed through far-reaching legislation on school safety and gun control in response to the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, the state is on the verge of reopening the heart-wrenching debate.

Gun control advocates vow to block a recommendation to arm teachers, while conservatives aim to rescind the new gun restrictions. The opposing viewpoints are likely to create some tension when the Florida legislative session begins next month.

“A lot of those nerves are still raw, and there are still a lot of debates about all of these things,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is working on a book about the shooting with a victim’s father.

Massive student protests across the country reshaped the U.S. debate on firearms after a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle in a five-and-a-half-minute shooting spree at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.

Twenty states passed some form of gun regulation last year, including nine states with a Republican governor, according to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Florida, one of the most gun-friendly states in the country, quickly imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and raised the age limit for buying rifles from 18 to 21.

The law also required schools to place at least one armed staff member or law enforcement officer at each campus and retrofit classrooms with “hard corners,” which give students a place to seek cover from gunfire.

Since then, the sheriff of Broward County was dismissed, a special commission issued a 458-page report to examine what happened as well as make recommendations and schools across Florida have had nearly a year to implement the law’s requirements.

Even so, some schools have yet to fully comply with law.

“Broward County schools are not safer today than they were last year,” said state Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat who sat on the special commission and whose district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.


Book has been critical of schools for not complying with the requirement of posting one armed defender on each campus, for failing to enact emergency “code red” procedures and the underreporting crime committed by students.

She does not, however, support the commission’s recommendation to allow classroom teachers who pass a 148-hour course to carry concealed firearms. Last year’s law permits some school personnel to carry weapons, but not in the classroom.

Arming teachers would require new legislation, and a leading gun-control advocacy group has made stopping that proposal a top priority.

“We don’t want guns in our classrooms,” said Gay Valimont, volunteer leader of the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, which is funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was among those killed in Parkland, supports arming the teachers.

“Whoever’s against it, they didn’t have a daughter begging for life on the third floor, hoping that someone was there to save her,” said Pollack, a Republican member of the state school board who is co-authoring the book with Eden.

Emboldened by sweeping electoral victories in 2018, Democratic lawmakers are pushing for even more gun control laws in statehouses nationwide this year.

Families of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas victims are also pushing for a 2020 ballot initiative to ban semiautomatic rifles similar to the one used in the 2018 attack.

Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association’s lobbyist for Florida, said the gun rights group has not taken a position on legislation proposed in the state this year.

But she chastised Second Amendment supporters in the statehouse who “turned their backs on gun owners,” and voted for last year’s measure.

State Representative Mike Hill, a Republican, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the 2018 law’s firearms provisions, saying they were not properly vetted.

“Emotions were running high,” Hill said. “Instead of relying on looking at the facts, (lawmakers) instead let emotional mob rule control the day, and they voted for that measure.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Colleen Jenkins and G Crosse)

Parkland survivors keep memory of shooting alive

An empty chair is seen in front of flowers and mementoes placed on a fence to commemorate the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Hundreds of seniors in red caps and gowns at their Parkland, Florida high school graduation ceremony on June 3 listened intently to speakers who told them what they could achieve. “Don’t let anything stop you,” one said.

But when student Joaquin Oliver’s name was read out by the principal, it was his parents Manuel Oliver and Patricia Padauy who walked onto the stage to receive his diploma.

Joaquin, 17, was one of the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. The massacre by a former student who stormed classrooms on Valentine’s Day with an assault rifle has spurred unprecedented activism by victims’ families to prevent future gun violence.

“This Should Be My Son,” read the words on the bright yellow t-shirt Patricia wore for the ceremony at an indoor arena in the nearby city of Sunrise.

Since the mass shooting, Manuel Oliver, a 50-year-old artistic director, has traveled across the country, building murals in honor of his son. He calls the murals “Walls of Demand.”

In Los Angeles, he painted a mural with rifle targets set atop a silhouette of an image of Joaquin as he walked to school that day with a bouquet of sunflowers in his hand to give to his girlfriend. Once completed, he drove a hammer into the mural 17 times, one for each victim, and hung a sunflower in each hole.

He says he enters a trance while painting as he connects with memories of his son: the motor-bike they built together in the family garage, for instance, and endless games of basketball.

As he works, he listens with his son’s headphones to the music they used to enjoy together, often the Ramones or Guns N’ Roses.

Manuel says the murals are more than a way to drain his anger and sorrow.

“What the hell does it matter how I feel? This isn’t about me, this is about my kid,” he said in an interview in Florida, a few days after he painted the Los Angeles mural.

“Joaquin’s picture is a protest. Joaquin is a martyr, killed by a murderer who was endorsed by system that allows these things to happen.”


Manuel and Patricia now dedicate their time to an organization that seeks to empower youth leaders called Change The Ref (CTR), a name inspired by a conversation with Joaquin about the referee of one of his basketball games.

The group aims to use art and “nonviolent creative confrontation” to keep people talking about the victims and pressuring lawmakers to pass stricter gun regulations.

“You took something horrific, and instead of letting it stop you, you started a movement,” the comedian Jimmy Fallon told students and victims’ families in the commencement address at the June 3 graduation ceremony.

Carlos Rodriguez, a 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas student who witnessed the shooting, launched a social media project called Stories Untold to collate footage of the incident. It has evolved into a broader effort to encourage victims of gun violence around the country to share their stories.

He says the reaction to Parkland was notably different from previous mass shootings, in part because it affected a group of teenagers well-versed in using social media.

The Parkland attack “affected high-school kids, millennials, Generation Z-ers – we practically have a road map of what we need to do.”

He was infuriated by the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, Texas that killed 10.

“It was like we were reliving what happened at our school. I wanted to be there with those students.”

Parkland, a once quiet Florida suburb, is now filled with memorials and posters alongside its streets, parks and shops, demanding stricter gun control. Almost 70 percent of American adults support strong or moderate restrictions for firearms, a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May found.

President Donald Trump has vowed not to tighten firearms laws despite multiple mass shootings this year and instead called for arming teachers and increasing school security.

Daniela Menescal, 17, was hit by shrapnel during the Parkland attack and saw several classmates killed.

Now recovered from her injuries, she puts her energy into spending time with family and focuses on studying piano and playing tennis to avoid thinking about that day.

“We’ve become a more united community after everything that happened,” said Menescal. “With the leadership of my classmates, we can raise our voices so that people understand that these changes need to happen.”


(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Writing by Angus Berwick; editing by Diane Craft)

After Parkland shooting, U.S. states shift education funds to school safety despite critics

Adin Chistian (16), student of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, embraces his mother Denyse, next to the crosses and Stars of David placed in front of the fence of the school to commemorate the victims of a shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Before the ink could dry on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s signature last month, critics cried foul over the bill he signed into law to spend $400 million boosting security at schools across the state following February’s Parkland mass shooting.

School officials, local sheriffs and Democrats opposed different provisions, including one to provide $67 million to arm teachers. Educators, in particular, voiced concerns that the state will strip money from core education funding to pay for the new school resource officers and beefed up buildings.

“We are a very lean state,” said Florida state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who voted against the bill. “If we’re spending money somewhere, we’re taking it from somewhere else.”

In the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, at least 10 U.S. states have introduced measures to increase funding for hardening of school buildings and campuses, add resource officers and increase mental health services, according to Reuters’ tally.

Many of the proposals outlined the need for bulletproof windows, panic buttons and armored shelters to be installed in classrooms. Some legislation called for state police or sheriff’s departments to provide officers to patrol public schools.

Altogether, more than 100 legislative bills to address school safety, not all of which have funding components, have been introduced in 27 states since the Feb. 14 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But states do not usually have extra money on hand or room to raise taxes. So to pay for the measures, states are mostly shifting money away from other projects, dipping into reserves or contemplating borrowing.

“I would characterize these proposals and the bills that were passed, for example Florida and Wisconsin, as primarily shifting funding from other priorities,” said Kathryn White, senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Calls for more gun control and more safety measures have come during peak budget season for nearly all states, whose legislatures spend the spring in debates that shape the coming year’s budget starting July 1.


Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called a special legislative session last month, when lawmakers agreed to create a $100 million school safety grant program.

The money will come out of the state’s general fund. But the spending, coupled with tax cuts and other pending legislation, will leave that fund with reserves of roughly $185 million – enough to run state government for less than four days in the event of a fiscal emergency, according to Jon Peacock, director of the think tank Wisconsin Budget Project.

“That is far less of a cushion than a fiscally responsible state should set aside,” Peacock said.

Funding the safety measures also means that some economic development programs for rural counties did not get funded and a one-time sales tax holiday was scaled back, he said.

In Maine, lawmakers are considering borrowing $20 million by issuing 10-year general obligation bonds to fund loans to school districts for security enhancements.

New Jersey lawmakers are also looking to borrow. On March 26, state senators tacked an extra $250 million for school security onto an existing bill for $500 million of bonds to expand county vocational colleges. The legislature has not yet voted on the measure.

Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Indiana are also increasing – or trying to increase – funding for school security measures since Parkland.

In Florida, the legislature passed safety spending while approving an increase of only $0.47 per pupil in funding used to cover teacher pay raises, school bus fuel and other operational expenses for education.

“We see $400-plus million in school safety, which we absolutely applaud, but you can’t do that at the expense of your core education program,” Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said shortly before Scott signed the budget.

Stoneman Douglas is among the schools Runcie, who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, oversees.

To be sure, some state and local governments have been adding money for school safety measures for years, particularly after 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting in Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Some critics, particularly Democrats, say measures that only beef up infrastructure or do not create recurring funds fall short of the mark.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in a memo to lawmakers in March that individual districts also need money for prevention and intervention, including education services for expelled students and anti-bullying programs, and other purposes.

“Funding for only ‘hardening’ school facilities, while welcome, is likely not going to be sufficient to address the full range of locally identified needs,” he said.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Bases and Chizu Nomiyama)