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Capitol Rally Sends Message: 'Never Again'

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A week after a mass shooting at a Broward County high school, survivors and gun-control advocates demanded Wednesday that state lawmakers enact tighter gun and school-safety laws as a rally drew one of the largest crowds at the Capitol since the 2000 election recount.

Several thousand people gathered outside the Old Capitol building and overflowed onto nearby Monroe Street, as students, activists and Democratic lawmakers expressed anger amid chants of “We want change,” “Not one more,” “Throw them out,” and “Never again.”

The Feb. 14 shooting left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, including 14 students. Much of the anger Wednesday was directed at legislators and the National Rifle Association.

“This tragedy has taught us to be fearless, because we now know what it feels like to be afraid,” Rachel Catania, 15, a sophomore from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, told a roaring crowd. “How many more innocent people have to die before we make a change? Change is overdue. And we are the change. When leaders act like children and children act like leaders, you know something is about to change.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who was elected following the massacre of 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, urged people who want change to register to vote.

“Like so many Pulse survivors, they (the victims of the school shooting) are the voices of those who were taken too soon,” Smith told the crowd. “Yes, you know the 17 who lost their lives, they lost their voices. But you haven’t lost yours. You are their voices.”

People attending the event vented about a need to improve safety, with banners proclaiming, “It Happened at my school #NeverAgain,” “Listen to the students, they are the targets,” and “No fear in our schools.”

“You can tell people from all over Florida are really serious about this issue,” Tallahassee resident Catherine Annis said.

As a sign of interest in the issues, the Leon County school district allowed its students to attend the rally

Arkia Gordon, a junior from Leon High School in Tallahassee, said students support more training and security, but restrictions are needed on semiautomatic rifles such as the type used by a 19-year-old in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.

“The first step is this gun,” Gordon said. “If you have a shotgun, it will take too long to reload. If people want to kill, they can kill anyway, but you won’t take that many lives.”

Not everyone fully sided with the speakers.

Attending the event with her grandfather Ernie Hard, Victoria Roberts, a junior from Wakulla High School south of Tallahassee, said her campus needs more security, but she wasn’t in favor of taking away guns from people and just wanted to hear what other students were saying.

“Me personally, I’m not willing to get rid of the guns,” Roberts said. “The police officers protecting us today have guns. If we were to have someone crazy enough to shoot at us today, the guns the police have can be used to protect us.”

The rally lasted nearly two hours and came in the middle of a day in which students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High met in groups with top lawmakers and state leaders. Students also appeared at a noon-hour news conference that received live national coverage.

Gov. Rick Scott, whose office organized a series of workshops Tuesday with law-enforcement, education and mental-health officials, is expected to introduce a post-massacre legislative package later this week.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said discussions are underway about raising the age to make gun purchases and to fund an expansion of armed resource officers at schools.

“I want to get as many law enforcement officers into the schools as possible,” Corcoran said.

While Corcoran talked to reporters after a House floor session, students who had attended the rally continued to chant for change outside the entrance to the House chamber.