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After Years Of Dejection, Proponents Of Gun Laws See Hope

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.

The progression has become numbingly repetitive — mass bloodshed unleashed by a gunman, followed by the stories of the fallen, the funerals, the mourning, the talking heads and the calls for change that dwindle into nothingness.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, though, has some pondering the improbable: Could this latest carnage lead to gun reforms?

Alongside the familiar refrains stemming from earlier shootings, the Feb. 14 attack in Parkland, Florida, came with something else: young survivors immediately pleading for nationwide action. They have led walkouts, confronted politicians and garnered the support of celebrities, linking their sorrowful, eloquent, outraged voices to the gun debate.

"Our kids have started a revolution," Stoneman Douglas teacher Diane Wolk Rogers said during a CNN-sponsored forum Wednesday.

In the aftermath of the violence that claimed 17 lives, students have piled into buses and crashed a meeting of lawmakers in Tallahassee. They've relentlessly badgered Florida Sen. Marco Rubio about his support from the National Rifle Association. They've rejected President Trump's condolences, calling for action over words.

To many advocates for gun control, the moment feels more profound than any since the aftermath of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-graders and six adults were fatally shot, spurring the most serious congressional gun debate in years.

"The mantra just became if we couldn't do it after Newtown, if we couldn't do it after however many 6-year-olds were killed, it's never going to happen," said Dave Cullen, the author of "Columbine," which chronicles the 1999 shooting at the Colorado high school of the same name.

"Then this happened," Cullen said, "and everything changed."

Parkland is a well-to-do suburb, with a median household income more than twice the national average. Stoneman Douglas is a top-tier public school under the state rating system, where most students take advanced-placement classes and the curriculum includes yoga and culinary arts.

Charles Zelden, a professor of history and political science at Nova Southeastern University in nearby Fort Lauderdale, said the students speaking out in the shooting's aftermath "come from a tradition of being heard and are angry enough right now that they won't stand for not being heard."

"They're used to the idea that they're going to make a difference, that people are going to listen to them," Zelden said.

Cullen wonders whether the Parkland attack indicates that it's not the number of deaths or level of outrage that a shooting evokes, but "whether it's the right group of people with the right standing and the right set of abilities that picks up the ball and runs with it."

He's been awed that the tragedy produced not just one well-spoken young student activist, but a deep bench of them.

Emma Gonzalez stirred a huge crowd with shouts of "Shame on you!" directed at lawmakers. David Hogg has emerged as a media star, giving poised interview after interview. Sarah Chadwick, whose angry tweet to Trump went viral, stirred those gathered in the state Capitol rotunda with what she promised was a revolution on behalf of fallen friends.

"Never again should a child be afraid to go to school," she said. "Never again should students have to protest for their lives."

Andy Pelosi, a co-chair of the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, has spent the past two decades fighting for gun control and watching in despair as a stream of tragedies seemed to bring little meaningful change. He, likewise, was struck by students' collective response.

"I'd like to think this is different," Pelosi said, noting that the students' impassioned actions are helping galvanize a movement, even if they face formidable odds.

"And if you look at our history, the main social movements in our country have been fueled by students," Pelosi said.

In matching a $500,000 donation by George and Amal Clooney to the students' planned marches against gun violence, Oprah Winfrey compared the teens to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, who rode buses into southern states in protest of racial segregation — and others shared that sentiment.

Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who studies social media-fueled activism, said the students have a chance to stir something equally profound.

Jacob cited Rosa Parks' arrest in the fight for civil rights and street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which led to the Arab Spring.

"Any movement, historically, it's down to narratives, how the movement is framed," Jacob said.

The teens don't agree on all issues, but most want AR-15s banned and the age for buying rifles in Florida raised to 21, as it is for handguns. Many want all semi-automatic rifles banned. Uniformly, they want stronger background checks so people like the 19-year-old shooter, who was known to be mentally unstable and violent, cannot buy guns.

Their message seems to already be having at least some effect, with Trump, Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott all taking some steps toward greater gun regulation. Rubio said his visit to Stoneman Douglas is what prompted him to change his stance on large-capacity magazines.

Alongside the reasons for hope, though, have been signs of the tough road ahead.

Some conservatives have portrayed the teens as pawns being exploited to take away constitutional rights, with the NRA insisting that liberals want to ban all guns. Far-right voices have even sought to advance the lie that some of the students are "crisis actors," essentially paid puppets helping advance an anti-gun agenda.

"Everything they're doing is right out of the Democrat Party's various playbooks," Rush Limbaugh said of the students on his show Monday.

To Dr. Allen Konis, whose son is a freshman at Stoneman Douglas, the students are so inspiring that "even their enemies are taking notice." ''They are worried, and they should be," Konis said, "because they are going to start a real movement in this country."

After watching Virginia Tech and Orlando and Las Vegas and so many other places become mile markers in the thwarted march to pass significant federal gun laws, the voices of Parkland's teens are bringing hope to advocates craving change.

"Nobody's going to stop these kids," said Mike McFadden, a 59-year-old retired police officer who drove several hours from his home in Indialantic to visit Stoneman Douglas, where a makeshift memorial of 17 white crosses is surrounded by mounds of flowers.

Alissa Parker, who co-founded Safe and Sound Schools after her daughter Emilie was killed at Sandy Hook, said the Stoneman Douglas students simply want to feel safe. It makes her remember how Emilie would run to protect her little sisters if they ever felt scared.

"I look at them," Parker said, "and I'm inspired."