22 Feb 2018

Florida survivors' gun control rally draws thousands

11:29 am on 22 February 2018

US students have organised a rally at Florida's state capital after lawmakers voted not to consider banning some assault weapons following a school shooting there that left 17 people dead.

Thousands of Florida students walked out of their classrooms on Wednesday morning in solidarity with survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a week ago, when 17 people were killed.

It is the first organised protest of the youth-led anti-gun movement that has swept the US since the attack. Many had boarded buses from across the state or marched to the state capital building in Tallahassee to demand tougher gun controls.

One student, Delaney Tarr, said she was disappointed in meetings with lawmakers, who "danced around" their questions on gun control.

"We came here prepared, and we are going to come to every single meeting with every single legislator prepared. We know what we want. We want gun reform. We want common sense gun laws," she said.

Students chanted "protect our kids" and carried banners with the words "never again" emblazoned across them as they protested outside the capitol. The teenagers were also joined by students from two universities in Florida.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and supporters rally at Florida's Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and supporters rally at Florida's Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday. Photo: AFP / Crowdspark / Jeremy Countryman

"Today instead of returning to our studies, instead of preparing for exams and instead of grieving for dead classmates and teachers, we are out here advocating for a change," Florida survivor Florence Yared said.

"The AR-15 is not a self-defence weapon. it is rightly called an assault weapon. Assault. Think about this word," she told the crowd.

"I am not trying to take away your second-amendment right. Nor am I trying to eliminate all guns. But we cannot protect our guns before we protect our children."

Student Sofie Whitney pleaded with lawmakers to take action.

"Help us so children don't fear for going to school. Help us so mass shootings aren't inevitable. Help us so our children and our grandchildren after that don't have to march for their lives.

"Help us for our fallen 17 brothers and sisters. Help us so no one else dies."

Some students had arrived on Tuesday as the state legislature rejected a ban on assault rifles like the one used in the attack.

They split into several groups to discuss how to prevent gun violence and mental health issues with lawmakers.

Students' Never Again movement: Supporters and opponents

The Never Again movement has drawn support from celebrities such as George and Amal Clooney, Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help fund a planned march on gun control in Washington on 24 March.

When pressed on gun control, state Senate President Joe Negron said "that's an issue that we're reviewing".

President Donald Trump hosted students and teachers at the White House on Wednesday for a "listening session" on gun control.

One student, Sam Zeif said he was on the second floor of the school during the shooting.

"I lost my best friend... I don't understand why I can still go into a store and buy a weapon of war," he said.

The meeting comes a day after he backed a move to ban devices that can enable rifles to shoot hundreds of rounds a minute. This bump-stock accessory was used by a gunman in Las Vegas to kill 58 concert-goers last year. More than 500 people were also injured in that attack, the worst ever mass shooting in the US by a lone gunman.

Previous efforts to introduce gun control measures in the wake of mass shootings in recent years have gone nowhere in the US Congress.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful gun rights lobby group, announced it would participate in a town hall meeting.

Other students across the US have also proposed other actions such as staging national school walk-outs. Dozens of high-school students staged a "lie-in" outside the White House on Monday and chanted "We want safe schools".

Current US gun laws and efforts to change them

United States President Donald Trump.

United States President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP / Chris Kleponis / CNP

Gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Mr Trump has repeatedly emphasised the role of the shooter's mental health in the Florida attack, but last year he repealed an Obama-era rule that allowed certain people who receive mental health-related benefits to be entered into a criminal database.

Under federal law, people must be at least 21 years old to purchase a handgun, but only need be 18 to buy a rifle, including assault rifles, or a shotgun. The White House signalled on Tuesday it was considering raising the minimum age for AR-15-type assault rifles.

Individual states can also use their own laws to regulate the use of firearms by providing further restrictions or making them more lenient.

On Tuesday, Florida's Republican-controlled state house of representatives rejected a Democratic motion to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. It is considering a package of more limited gun restrictions, but it only has until 9 March to act before its current session ends.

During this session, the state legislature has already approved two bills that would provide broader access to guns. But there are signs of change - since last week's attack state Senator Bill Galvano has called for the age limit for purchasing assault rifles to be raised from 18 to 21.


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