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The South Florida Roundup

Student Survivors of Deadliest High School Shooting Take On Role of Gun Control Activists

They are angry. They are channeling their pain and stepping into the harsh spotlight of a heated and ongoing national debate. They are shielding their peers who feel too devastated to do the same.

They are the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead and more than a dozen others injured — and the founders of a movement they’re calling: “Never Again.”

“We are going to be the kids that you read about in textbooks — not because we are going to be another statistic about mass shootings in America, but because we are going to be the last mass shooting,” 18-year-old senior Emma Gonzalez said during a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. She said she wrote her speech on the back of her notes from her Advanced Placement government class.

Read more:  Student Survivors Organizing Protests In Tallahassee, Washington, D.C.

Hundreds of people stood in the covered courtyard of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale demanding specific policy changes following the nation’s deadliest high school shooting: A ban on assault weapons. Stricter background checks and an age requirement for gun purchases. Laws that keep guns away from mentally ill people who want to use them to kill.

The message local teenagers sent to the adults in charge was raw and cutting. They held signs that said: “My friends died for what?” and “Money killed my friends.” At one point they stood in a group and chanted: “You are responsible.”

Anguish and Activism: Listen To The Students of Stoneman Douglas High 

On Sunday morning, the student leaders made an announcement to a captive nation: They will lead a "March for Our Lives" in Washington, D.C., on March 24, and they invited communities across the country to hold simultaneous protests calling for an end to mass school shootings.

At the rally, senior Delaney Tarr said her childhood was taken from her when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz unleashed a barrage of bullets in the hallways of her school.

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
After the rally, people left their signs in the entrance to the federal courthouse.

Just a few days ago, she was worried about which of her friends would get cards for Valentine’s Day, what she should wear to prom and whether she would get into her top choices for college.

“Now I’m a high school senior who is focused on which memorials I need to place flowers at. Now I’m focused on what clothes I can wear so that I can run away from gunfire,” Tarr said during the rally, the anger palpable in her voice. “My main concerns are funerals, gun control and whether or not I am going to get shot wherever I go.

“My innocence — our innocence has been taken from us,” she said. “I am 17, but in a matter of days, I have aged decades.”

The students' generation grew up preparing for violence in their schools with active-shooter drills and witnessing it in graphic detail on social media. Now they’re on the cusp of voting for the first time, and their mission is to oust politicians who get donations from the National Rifle Association, they said.

“This is about creating a badge of shame to put on anybody who is accepting money from the NRA,” said Cameron Kasky, 17, during the protest.

The crowd chanted, at the mention of Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio: “Rubio must go!” They booed Gov. Rick Scott. Of state lawmakers in Tallahassee: “Vote them out!”

Democratic candidates for state and federal offices lined up to join in the GOP-bashing, including Congressman Ted Deutch, who donned a Stoneman Douglas T-shirt and vowed to soon introduce a federal ban on assault weapons; state senator and congressional candidate José Javier Rodríguez of Miami; and leading Democratic candidates to replace Scott in the governor’s office, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

State Sen. Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale organized and hosted the event.

Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking the lead in calling for gun control with their movement, "Never Again."

“Two years ago, when the Pulse nightclub tragedy occurred, Gov. Scott looked at the camera and said he was going to do everything he could to make sure it never happened again,” Farmer said, as a man in the crowd shouted “Liar! Liar!”

“He uttered almost those exact same words two days ago in Parkland, but nothing was done after Pulse,” Farmer said, referring to the June 2016 massacre at the Orlando gay bar that resulted in 49 deaths.

Farmer called on Scott to sign an executive order banning assault weapons in Florida.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he plans to meet with legislators this week to have a “real conversation” about potential changes, including policies to prevent mentally ill people from getting guns.

Rubio tweeted late Saturday he supports establishing a “better background check process.”

At the rally, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said young people have historically led social movements, and he expects that will be the case here.

“It’s because of the student voice that I believe that we’re going to have change tomorrow,” he said.

Gonzalez, one of the students who addressed the crowd, said she and her peers have been debating what to do about guns for what feels like their entire lives.

“Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in the closets,” she said.

But, she said, now is the first time anyone has listened.

Jessica Bakeman is an investigative reporter and editor focusing on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.