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Monday, April 15, 2024

‘I was just so lost’: Gainesville residents look for change amid recent mass shootings

The City of Gainesville has not implemented new safety measures following the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas

<p>About 80 people hold candles and gather during a vigil on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 for those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting three years ago.</p>

About 80 people hold candles and gather during a vigil on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 for those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting three years ago.

Leanne Haggerty took a shaky breath as she watched a live stream of police cars circling Robb Elementary School from her Gainesville bedroom. Text scrolled across the screen: more than a dozen children killed. 

The 20-year-old UF applied physiology and kinesiology junior heard about the May 24 Texas school shooting through TikTok. She thought it was a sick joke. 

An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, the second-deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2013.

“I was just so lost at the thought that someone would choose to walk into a school full of young innocent children and try to hurt them or kill them,” she said. “They really haven't done anything to anyone in their entire life.” 

Haggerty prays a gun-related incident won’t occur on or near UF’s campus. 

There have been more than 200 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Twenty-seven of those have been school shootings. In 2020, firearms surpassed motor vehicles as the leading cause of death for children over the age of one in the U.S.

In the last two weeks, there have been 42 deaths linked to mass shootings nationally.

On Sunday morning, a shooting at an Oklahoma Memorial Day festival left one dead and seven injured. One of the eight victims was a juvenile. 

On May 14, an 18-year-old white male shot and killed 10 people in a predominantly Black neighborhood at a Buffalo supermarket in New York.

Alachua County public schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson said the district has not updated its safety procedures since the shootings. ACPS classes ended Friday. Duval, Manatee and Polk counties banned backpacks for the last week of school.

ACPS recently arrested a student for bringing a loaded gun to Fort Clarke Middle School. One student voiced concerns over the potential school shooting a month prior, and a parent pulled their child from the school after the incident.

The school district mistakenly warned of an active shooter one week after the arrest, worrying family members across the county. 

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ACPS’s false message was not sent out in response to the Buffalo shooting, nor the Fort Clarke student bringing a gun to school, Johnson said. The district was testing its Intrado Safety shield system, which is used to alert law enforcement and administrators of an emergency, she said. 

Florida State University also sent out a tweet falsely alerting residents and students of a  “dangerous or life-threatening situation” on campus May 24. The tweet was deleted shortly after, and the account clarified the message was sent during its annual emergency management training session with FSUPD.

FSU did not comment about additional precautions in response to recent shootings.

The state of Florida requires all public schools, including charters, to have a mobile panic alert system. The law, known as Alyssa’s Alert, was put in place by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020 following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting and was named after Alyssa Alhadeff, one of the 17 victims. 

This is just one of the precautions in place to prevent mass shootings in Florida. ACPS fortifies its buildings by assigning a law enforcement officer to every school; performs regular active shooter drills with students and staff; screens vendors, volunteers and visitors; creates crisis plans specific to a school's geography, layout and demographics; and performs threat assessments.

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is also part of the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, spokesperson Kaley Behl said. It trains volunteering school employees and hires personnel to act as armed guardians.  

“All of that is BS,” local Gainesville activist Chanae Jackson said. “It is extremely reactive and does not fix the root cause of the problem.”

Jackson’s top priority is banning assault rifles. She said background checks, mental health advocacy and gun buybacks will not work in America’s gun culture.

March for Our Lives spokesperson Noah Lumbantobing said he thinks universal background checks, mandatory minimum waiting times and raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm can be effective.

“The important thing to do right now is not to lose hope,” Lumbantobing said. 

Recent P.K Yonge Developmental Research School graduate Taylor Witt said she felt somber during the last week of school. Teachers shared their personal condolences with students, she said, but the administration barely made an effort to acknowledge the tragedy in Uvalde. 

The 17-year-old worries about her younger siblings going to school in a country that is not doing enough to protect them. To decrease gun violence and school shootings, she advocated for more police officers in schools and routine mental health screenings. 

Mayor Lauren Poe said the discussion of mental health is a red herring — distracting national conversation from the main issue. He advocated for strictly regulated and licensed vendors, a longer waiting period and background checks for firearm sales.

He expressed his frustration with the “good guy with a gun’ theory” in a recent tweet. 

“There were good guys with guns and armor on the scene immediately. They did not act,” Poe wrote. 

Other countries with similar governments and economic situations do not experience shootings like the U.S. does. The differences are the steps these countries took to control guns and alleviate gun violence, Poe said.

In January, the Gainesville City Commission approved the Gainesville Police Department’s request for American Rescue Plan Act funds for their One Community Initiative to tackle gun violence. The commision approved $240,000 for community oriented policing, $41,350 for community education efforts, $271,500 for forensic equipment and $68,633 for the public safety coordinator position. 

Gainesville resident Matthew Hutchins, 25, said gun buybacks are only effective at getting guns off the streets, and that isn’t the problem. 

“I hate to sound like an NRA tagline, but I don’t know if guns are the issue,” Hutchins said. 

The people who commit mass murders will not stop because the weapon has changed, he said.  

Williams Temple Church of God in Christ will host a Gun Buyback, where residents can sell firearms without the fear of being arrested, June 25. The event is organized by the Office of the State Attorney, the Eighth Judicial Circuit, GPD and the Save Our City Initiative. 

Gainesville City Commissioner David Arreola said the current precautions cannot replace regulating military-grade weapons. He wants to see assault rifles out of the hands of civilians.

However, Florida statutes prohibit local governments from introducing policy regulating firearms. The state can fine elected officials up to $5,000 and remove them from office if they violate this law, Arreola said. 

In 2019, Arreola and other elected Florida officials filed a brief challenging its harsh financial penalties. In 2021, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on June 9. 

Florida statutes also prohibit government entities from keeping a “list, record or registry of legally owned firearms or law-abiding firearm owners.”

Other community members have different opinions about what can be done to prevent mass shootings. Retired lawyer George Robert Dekle noted school shootings are spree killings, two or more murders without a break in between.

“Unlike serial killings and mass murders, spree killings are predictable,” Dekle wrote.

He said the U.S. needs a nationwide monitoring system to detect and apprehend those who plan spree killings. 

“Such a system would have detected and could have prevented the Uvalde shooter,” he wrote.

March for Our Lives held a public Zoom call Wednesday outlining their next steps for fighting gun violence across the country. They called for nationwide protests on June 11.

Contact Fernando at Follow him on Twitter @fernfigue.

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Fernando Figueroa

Fern is a junior journalism and sustainability studies major. He previously reported for the University and Metro desks. Now, he covers the environmental beat on the Enterprise desk. When he's not reporting, you can find him dancing to house music at Barcade or taking photos on his Olympus.

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