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On Parkland visit, Kamala Harris announces initiatives to stem tide of nationwide gun violence

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to the media after meeting with parents of students killed during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School six years ago in Parkland on Saturday, March 23, 2024.
Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to the media after meeting with parents of students killed during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School six years ago in Parkland on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

The Biden administration on Saturday unveiled two initiatives to stem the epidemic of gun violence during Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, site of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

Harris, who leads the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, toured the school building where a gunman opened fire, killing 17 people, including 14 students, on Feb. 14, 2018.

She was joined by family members of shooting victims, U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Parkland, whose congressional district includes the school, and Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor, along with members of his staff.

During her visit, Harris announced the launch of what administration officials say is the “first-ever National Extreme Risk Protection Order Resource Center.” It will provide training and technical assistance to state and local governments to implement red flag laws. Funding comes from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Biden signed into law in 2022. It was one of the most sweeping pieces of gun violence prevention legislation to pass Congress in decades.

Red-flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, are intended to temporarily remove guns from people with potentially violent behavior and prevent them from hurting themselves or others. Twenty-one states, including Florida, have such laws on the books, according to administration officials.

READ MORE: Parent of Parkland victim to urge VP Kamala Harris to boost school violence prevention programs

Harris, say administration officials, will also push the 29 states without red flag laws to adopt them and use federal funds to put them into effect. They also note that only six of 21 states with red flag laws have sought the $750 million available in federal dollars.

Red-flag laws have been touted by President Joe Biden and others as a powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens. But an Associated Press analysis published in 2022 found such laws were often underused even as shootings and gun deaths soared around the country. The AP attributed it to lack of awareness or reluctance to enforce the laws.

One recent example happened last October in Lewiston, Maine, where police statewide were alerted about “veiled threats” by a U.S. Army reservist who would later carry out the worst mass shooting in the state’s history. It was one of a string of missed red flags that preceded the massacre, which left 18 people dead and 13 others wounded.

The visit by Harris comes at a time when gun-related deaths have risen to historic highs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last October released the latest data on U.S. firearm deaths, counting more than 47,000 — the most in at least 40 years.

Accompanying Harris on Saturday afternoon in Parkland was Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was killed in the 2018 massacre. He’s also founder and president of Stand With Parkland, a group advocating for public safety reforms for students and staff at schools nationwide.

In an interview before the visit, on WLRN’s South Florida Roundup on Friday, Montalto said he would remind the vice president of the failures by police, school and government officials to prevent the mass shooting — and what can be done to stop such violence in the future.

“We're going to talk about what failed that day. What failed prior to that day. And what's been done, especially in Florida, to mitigate these tragedies and help prevent them,” Montalto told WLRN.

“We're pleased to still see school safety getting such a high amount of attention from the highest office in the land,” he said.

Linda Beigel Schulman told the Associated Press that the tour would show Harris the carnage a mass shooting creates — it no longer will be an abstract concept. Beigel Schulman's 35-year-old son, geography teacher Scott Beigel, was killed as he ushered students to safety in his classroom. The papers he was grading when the shooting began remain on his desk.

“She understands how important gun violence prevention is for us," Beigel Schulman said of the vice president. “But when you go into the actual building and see what actually happened, it doesn't matter that it is six years later, it really does something to you.”

Harris' visit was the latest by elected officials and law enforcement and education leaders in recent months to the boarded-up, three-story building, which stands on the north side of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona toured the building in January and several members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have gone through since law enforcement returned custody of the building to the school district last summer.

When Harris went inside, she saw bullet-pocked walls and floors still covered in dried blood and broken glass. Shoes left behind by fleeing students and wilted Valentine's Day flowers and balloons are strewn about. Textbooks, laptop computers and papers remain on desks. Only personal items such as backpacks and purses have been removed.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Sergio Bustos is WLRN's Vice President for News. He's been an editor at the Miami Herald and POLITICO Florida. Most recently, Bustos was Enterprise/Politics Editor for the USA Today Network-Florida’s 18 newsrooms. Reach him at sbustos@wlrnnews.org
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