PARKLAND/TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Dozens of students and parents from the Florida high school where 17 teens and staff members were slain last week in a shooting rampage arrived in the state capital of Tallahassee on Tuesday to lobby for a ban on assault-style rifles.
Last week’s massacre, the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history, has inflamed a national debate about gun rights and prompted young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and across the United States to demand action for stricter firearms controls.
Students from the South Florida high school were tearful as they stepped down from the bus in Tallahassee to be welcomed with waves, cheers and sombre applause from fellow teens.
“We’re here to make sure this never happens again,” Diego Pfeiffer a senior at Stoneman told the crowd that included hundreds of students from a Tallahassee high school over a crackling microphone.
On Tuesday, less than a week after the shooting, the Republican-controlled Florida House of Representatives rebuffed a bid to bring up a bill to block sales of assault-style rifles in the state.
“I am not going back to school until lawmakers, and the president, change this law,” said Tyra Hemans, a 19-year-old senior, who travelled to the state capital.
“Three people I looked to for advice and courage are gone but never forgotten, and for them, I am going to our state capital to tell lawmakers we are tired and exhausted of stupid gun laws,” Hemans said.
Student and parent activists from the high school in Parkland, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale were expected to stage a rally on Wednesday at the statehouse on Wednesday, about 450 miles (725 km) to the north of the school.
Fourteen students and three educators were killed and 15 other people were wounded in the Feb. 14 attack.
Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student expelled from Stoneman Douglas High for disciplinary problems, was arrested and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder. Authorities say he was armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle that he legally purchased from a licensed gun dealer last year, when he was 18.
Former classmates have described Cruz as a social outcast and trouble-maker with a fascination for guns, and police have acknowledged responding to numerous calls related to Cruz during the past few years.
On Tuesday a member of the accused gunman’s legal team from the Broward County public defender’s office said Cruz saw his life unravel last year, when he was expelled and his mother died.
The year before, Florida’s Department of Children and Families had opened an inquiry into Cruz after he was reported to have been cutting himself, but the case was closed in November of that year with the finding that he was receiving sufficient support, the agency said.
“In 2017 a lot of the support systems that he had were not there anymore. Those cries of help, however, were still there, and the system, as designed, missed them and failed, said Gordon Weekes, assistant public defender.
The youth-led protest movement that erupted within hours of the shooting attracted prominent celebrity supporters on Tuesday when film star George Clooney and his wife Amal, a human rights lawyer, said they would donate $500,000 to help fund a planned March 24 gun control march in Washington.
Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and media mogul Oprah Winfrey later joined in contributing $500,000 each towards the march.
A Washington Postal News opinion poll released on Tuesday showed 77 percent of Americans believe the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress is doing too little to prevent mass shootings, with 62 percent saying President Donald Trump, also a Republican, has not done enough on that front.
Trump said on Tuesday he had signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to draw up regulations banning devices that turn firearms into machine guns, like the bump stock used in October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Students and parents elsewhere in Florida and in other states, including Tennessee and Minnesota, staged sympathy protests on Tuesday, according to local media reports. Miami’s WTVJ-TV showed video of about 1,000 teens and adults marching from a high school in Boca Raton to the site of the Parkland shooting, about 12 miles (20 km) to the west.
An aide to Florida State Representative Shawn Harrison was fired on Tuesday after he falsely accused two Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students of being actors, the New York Times reported.
Florida’s legislature has taken up at least two bills during its current session intended to provide broader access to guns. But signalling a possible shift, state Senator Bill Galvan, the chamber’s next president, called for a bill to raise the legal age limit for purchasing assault rifles from 18 to 21, the same as it is for handguns. The legislature’s current session ends on March 9, leaving little time for a vote.
Gun violence on public school and college campuses has become so commonplace in the United States during the past several years that education officials regularly stage drills to train students and staff about what they should do in the event of a mass shooting on school grounds.
Gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and remains one of the nation’s more divisive issues. A federal ban on assault weapons, in force for 10 years, expired in 2004.
Funerals continued for the young victims of Wednesday’s attack. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday said it made a rare posthumous letter of acceptance to Peter Wang, a student of the school killed in the shooting. A Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, Wang had aspired to attend the elite academy.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, James Dalgleish & Simon Cameron-Moore