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Sunday, April 21, 2024

5 years after Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, gun control legislation stalls

MSD students, activists reflect

<p>Rachel Taylor (left) and Will Marshall (right) honor the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting at the five year anniversary remembrance vigil at UF&#x27;s Plaza of the Americas Tuesday, February 14, 2023.</p>

Rachel Taylor (left) and Will Marshall (right) honor the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting at the five year anniversary remembrance vigil at UF's Plaza of the Americas Tuesday, February 14, 2023.

Five years later, former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Katrina White still shudders with every new headline alerting her of another mass shooting.

“I'm immediately brought back to that day,” she said. “I really think that my childhood did end on Feb. 14.”

Feb. 14 marked the fifth anniversary of the MSD High School shooting in Parkland in 2018, which left 17 people dead, including 14 students and three school faculty members. Since that day, there have been over 900 mass shootings at K-12 schools in the U.S. 

Some UF students, like White, who graduated from MSD are now reflecting on the lack of gun reform progress made in Florida amid the anniversary of the tragedy. 

Since the 2018 shooting, Florida policymakers enacted The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which raised the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21. National policymakers also enacted The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which expanded background checks for those seeking to purchase guns under 21. 

Florida’s newest proposal, on the other hand, would relax regulations — allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit

White, a 20-year-old UF public relations junior, survived the Parkland shooting when she was a sophomore in high school. On her first day back to school after the shooting, she said she recalls staring at the empty desk where her former classmate and victim of the shooting, Meadow Pollack, once sat. 

“I remember looking over at that empty desk and being like, ‘Wow, this wasn't a nightmare, this is reality,’” she said. 

After the shooting, White said she quickly channeled her sadness and frustration into activism. 

She attended the first March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. March 24, 2018, and partnered with Giffords, an organization aiming to pass gun reform legislation, to educate policymakers on her experience. She’s met with politicians like President Joe Biden and former U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch. 

However, much of White’s advocacy has been met with false promises. 

She’s heartbroken by how many policymakers have seemingly swept gun safety under the rug even though mass shootings have only increased in the U.S. in the past few years, she said. 

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“Gun violence and gun safety shouldn't be put on the backburner of politics,” she said. “It's an issue that affects everyone and can happen to you at any time.”

In the future, White said, she hopes to see speeches from politicians mourning the loss of victims of gun violence followed by the enactment of tangible legislation that prevents more senseless deaths. 

Although White still supports organizations that rally for gun reform, she said she has chosen to step away from political advocacy to focus on healing and finding peace while still remembering those lost. 

“School should not be a battle ground,” she said. “I hope the 17 angels are looking down on us and thinking, ‘OK, they're fighting for us.’”

March for Our Lives Gainesville, a local chapter of the gun reform advocacy organization, held its annual vigil Feb. 14 to honor the 17 victims of the shooting, along with the two MSD students who died by suicide one year later. 

White decided not to go to the vigil because attending would resurface difficult emotions from various funerals and vigils after the shooting, she said. Instead, she spent the evening with other former MSD students. Everyone is entitled to cope in their own way, she said. 

Raj Selvaraj, a 19-year-old UF political science freshman and former MSD student, was under lockdown as an eighth grader at Westglades Middle School, in Parkland, during the MSD shooting. He lost two friends in the tragedy: Alex Schachter and Gina Montalto. 

He was motivated to get involved in the movement against gun violence because of his personal ties to the incident. 

“I had to do it to protect their legacy,” he said. “How could I just sit around and do nothing, while they lost their lives in one of the most horrific shootings in our country?”

Like White, Selvaraj rallied with March for Our Lives in D.C. in March 2018. 

He also visited the Florida House of Representatives in high school to speak with legislators about gun reform and lobbied with Brady, a lobbying collective fighting to implement gun safety legislation nationwide, during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Selvaraj is proud to be a part of the generation leading the gun violence prevention movement, he said. 

“It showcased the power of Gen Z on the national stage and it showcased as well that if enough of us come together and fight that we can actually make change,” he said.

However, Selvaraj is horrified by the introduction of the permitless carry bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Brannan, R-Lake City, who represents half of northern Alachua County. 

Florida would be the 26th state to implement this type of legislation. 

Anti-gun safety laws, like the permitless carry bill, suggest that Florida policymakers aren’t listening to the voices of students and young people — the primary victims of these mass shootings, he said. 

“As more Gen Z people come of age to vote, we are going to have the power to stop them,” he said. “If they choose not to listen to us, then they're going to have to face the consequences.”

Selvaraj also supports Biden’s recent proposal to Congress to ban assault weapons, which the president discussed during his State of the Union speech Feb. 7.

“Assault weapons are designed to kill a lot of humans quickly,” he said. “They are literally weapons of war and have no place on the streets of a civil society.”

Alyssa Ackbar, a 21-year-old national organizer in Florida for March for Our Lives, described the Parkland shooting as a coming-of-age point for Gen Z that pushed her and others to get involved with gun violence prevention. 

While Florida lawmakers seemed onboard with implementing legislation after the MSD shooting, Ackbar said momentum has slowed. Over the last few legislative sessions, she said, gun safety legislation hasn’t received hearings and committees. 

"Legislators aren't prioritizing our communities, and I mean that across the board," she said. "Republicans, Democrats — there are folks on both sides who are failing us continuously."

Recently, March for Our Lives has primarily focused on lobbying against legislation like the permitless carry bill, instead of advocating for new gun safety legislation.  

“There's no wiggle room to be on the offensive and promote any good legislation because we're seeing so much bad legislation,” she said.

March for Our Lives will organize nationwide rallies toward the end of March, with one planned for March 22 in Tallahassee. The protests will rally for an end to gun violence. 

Ackbar encourages all young people to participate.

"Sometimes moments happen, but they don't turn into movements," she said. “I think this is definitely a movement that will continue to be active across our nation, but especially here in Florida, for many years to come."

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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