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'Let's See What Florida Has To Say': Aunt Of Slain Parkland Student Leads Assault Weapon Ban Effort

South Florida Sun Sentinel via Miami Herald
Ban Assault Weapons Now Chairwoman Gail Schwartz, aunt of Parkland shooting victim Alex Schachter, submits petitions to the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

On Thursday, Feb. 14, Gail Schwartz drove to the Star of David Memorial Gardens Cemetery in North Lauderdale to visit the grave of her nephew, Alex Schachter.

Schachter was one of the 17 people killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one year ago. He was 14 years old.

As she approached her nephew’s gravesite, she noticed a heartbreaking scene: five blue tents set up at various points in the cemetery. 

“You see, five of the kids that died that day are buried in the same cemetery,” Schwartz said Friday on The Florida Roundup. "So instead of visiting one grave, I visited five graves. The cemetery anticipated lots of mourners and in preparation had placed tents over the gravesites. They were all kids." 

A year after the shooting, Schwartz’s heartbreak and fury has spawned action. She is the chairwoman for Ban Assault Weapons Now, or BAWN, a political action committee formed after the shooting that is seeking to get a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to ban assault weapons in Florida.

By law, Florida allows its citizens to propose amendments to the state constitution by petition, which are then placed before voters in a general election. For the initiative to be considered by the Florida Supreme Court, organizers will need to collect nearly 800,000 signed petitions from across the state and submit them in time to be verified by Feb. 1, 2020.

Earlier this week, Schwartz and shooting survivor and activist David Hogg dropped off the first batch of 200 petition signatures at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections Office in downtown Fort Lauderdale to be certified.

“We have an opportunity to try a different approach," she said Friday. "After every mass shooting, we hope that our elected leaders will take action instead of offering their thoughts and prayers. And they've failed us time and again. We can’t depend on Congress or our Florida Legislature. What we're doing is something that's never been done before.”

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida passed gun control reform for the first time in nearly two decades. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act required a three-day waiting period for all firearms, raised the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21 and prohibited bump stocks, or attachments that make semiautomatic weapons more deadly. It also created a "red flag" law to remove guns from the hands of "high risk" people. 

But it stopped short of an outright ban on assault weapons. 

The amendment defines "assault weapons" as "semiautomatic rifles and shotguns capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition at once, either in fixed or detachable magazine, or any other ammunition-feeding device." It is being supported by a bipartisan coalition, including Americans for Gun Safety Now, founded by Republican donor Al Hoffman.

As the start of the 2019 legislative session nears, there is "considerable momentum" for gun control legislation in Tallahassee, said WFSU reporter Ryan Dailey.

Seven bills have been filed in the Senate, five have been filed in the House, and a number of others are in draft stage, he said — all by Democrats.

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers introduced a gun legislation package in the Florida House that would ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines and require universal criminal background checks on all purchases.

Other bills look to prohibit concealed weapon licensees from openly carrying a handgun or concealed weapon into any childcare facility, tighten safe storage requirements for firearms, and prevent people convicted of a misdemeanor level hate crime from buying a gun.

But Democrats know they’re facing an “uphill battle getting them passed with a Republican majority in place,” Dailey said. "It remains to be seen what's going to be passed." 

That's why the amendment's backers chose to sidestep the legislature completely. 

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer has already spoken out against the assault weapons ballot amendment, calling it a "blatant attempt to fool Floridians by sucking them into a deception that would effectively ban most hunting, target shooting, and significant home defense as well,” according to The Miami Herald.

Schwartz said she knows the amendment is a "huge endeavor." But “we will do whatever it takes to give Floridians a voice,” she said.

“We can no longer tolerate this barrage of violence. We can’t be complacent. I’m giving Floridians a chance to do something. This is a democratic process. Let’s see what Florida has to say about the issue.”

A 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found that 67 percent of Americans support an assault weapons ban. A 2018 Florida Atlantic University Survey found that 69 percent of Florida voters support a ban on assault-style rifles.

The amendment would require a 60 percent majority to pass. 

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