The first time Brandon Abzug opened his criminology textbook at UF, he saw the name of the man who murdered his high school classmates.
“I just, I couldn’t read,” he said. “It was awful.”
Abzug, a 19-year-old political science and criminology sophomore, is one of 268 Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduates enrolled at UF.
His classmate Carmen Schentrup received a UF acceptance letter five days before she died in Parkland, Florida. Her name is nowhere to be found in the textbook.
Schentrup shouldn’t have died in vain, Abzug said. Now, he fights to honor her and all victims of gun violence through legislative action.
It’s been two years since the school shooting that claimed 17 lives and sparked the youth movement, March for Our Lives. As the 2020 presidential election draws near, Abzug and other student activists are propelling gun reform to the forefront of the conversation through lobbying, vigils and voting.
“We took a tragedy and we decided to do something about it”: the activists
Five days after his classmates and teachers were killed, Abzug and his parents drove to Tallahassee.
He spent eight hours that day recounting his story — one of shock, terror and disbelief — to state legislators one-on-one. They talked about gun reform, the viability of universal background checks and raising the minimum purchase age to 21.
He lobbied on behalf of his friends, his school and millions of people across the country, he said. He tweeted: “What did you do @POTUS?”
Later, he lay awake in a hotel bed too exhausted to sleep, he said. Early the next morning, he had his first interview with CNN. A makeup crew powdered his face and he recounted the horror once more.
Finally, he sat in the back of his parents’ car as they drove back home to Parkland.
“That was easily the most tiring day of my life,” he said.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act took effect less than three weeks after Abzug met with state legislators.
It allotted more than $69 million toward mental health resources; required every Florida public school to have at least one school safety officer on campus; as well as increased surveillance of social media, law enforcement and juvenile justice records to identify potential threats.
It was a step in the right direction, Abzug said, but it didn’t go far enough.
Since the act passed, Abzug has participated in nationally televised interviews and written opinion articles to advocate for the gun reform he believes is necessary: a semi-automatic assault weapons ban, universal background checks and a licensed psychologist in every school.
“Keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 priority.”
Abzug also helped launch a pen-pal program between the survivors of the Parkland and Columbine shootings.
He texts Heather Martin and Jami Amo, two Columbine survivors, often — sometimes weekly. They’re about 15 years older than Abzug, and he’s never met them in person. Still, their friendships are some of his most natural, he said.
They help each other navigate situations that few of Abzug’s peers have experience with, he said. Like the question: Where did you go to high school?
“I say, ‘I went to Stoneman Douglas,’” he said. “Then you get the reaction. Their eyes get all wide and then they ask, ‘Oh, well you weren’t there, were you?’ and you say ‘Yeah.’”
People should keep some questions to themselves, he said.
Abzug still thinks about the shooting at least once a day. Loud noises send him into a momentary panic, and news of subsequent shootings feels like a stab in the back.
Still, he said, things are getting easier. Staying politically active helps with that.
Abzug will speak at a vigil hosted by March For Our Lives Gainesville today in remembrance of the people who died in the Parkland shooting. The vigil will begin at 6:30 p.m. on the Plaza of the Americas.
There, the lives of the victims will be remembered: Aaron Feis, Alaina Petty, Alex Schachter, Alyssa Alhadeff, Cara Loughran, Carmen Schentrup, Chris Hixon, Gina Montalto, Helena Ramsay, Jaime Guttenberg, Joaquin Oliver, Luke Hoyer, Martin Duque Anguiano, Meadow Pollack, Nicholas Dworet, Peter Wang and Scott Beigel.
“They’re the ones that don’t have voices anymore,” Abzug said. “We need to remember them. That’s how we’re going to create change.”
Sindhu Kolla, an 18-year-old UF public health freshman, remembers when she and her classmates didn’t think about social change. One week before the shooting, they worried about their SAT scores and college acceptance letters.
One week later, they stood at the doors of the state capitol and rallied for gun reform.
“We were so, so broken by what happened,” she said. “But we took a tragedy and we decided to do something about it.”
This was her first taste of democracy, she said. She learned that her voice could make a difference, and she wanted to help other young people feel that sense of empowerment, too.
“We’re not all identical carbon copies of the same millennial teenage tribe,” she said. “We all have different ideas, and our words have power.”
Kolla has helped register nearly 120 people of more than 850,000 that were registered by March for Our Lives chapters around the nation. She canvasses on Turlington Plaza for two to three weeks every month, informing students on how, when and where to vote.
She and other March for Our Lives Gainesville members are in the process of planning events with NextGen UF, another organization that helps register voters, to encourage students to participate in the upcoming election.
Julia Cordover is also registering student voters. She is the former senior class president of Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the current assistant director of programming for Chomp the Vote, a UF Student Government program that focuses on student voter registration.
As a high schooler, Cordover got ready for prom with a microphone clipped to her collar and a camera crew in the corner of her room.
Cordover, now a 20-year-old UF public relations sophomore, helped award-winning documentary director Kim Snyder chronicle the aftermath of the shooting in a film called “Us Kids” to raise awareness for gun violence.
“It was definitely violating at times,” Cordover said. “But if I could do anything to help keep the momentum going and share my story, I was going to do that.”
The documentary followed Cordover as she helped begin a committee to register high school students to vote, spoke at vigils for the victims and spearheaded a yearbook dedicated to them.
Each page contained the person’s name and an empty box where their photo should appear.
On Jan. 31, Cordover traveled to Sundance Film Festival in Utah to promote the documentary. She spoke on a panel to more than 400 people about her experience as an activist.
“The whole point of the film is for people to feel motivated to do something,” Cordover said. “To feel an urgency to vote for politicians who fight for gun control laws.”
It’s not just about Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, she said. It’s about everyone affected by gun violence.
“That’s why it’s called ‘Us Kids,’” she said. “The issue is bigger than Parkland.”
“Half of getting there is believing you can do it”: the politics
Dustin Fridkin, a Santa Fe College political science professor, remembers having to pitch the idea that paying attention to politics was worth his students’ time.
That isn’t something he has to do anymore.
The youth behind movements like March for Our Lives aren’t only passionate, Fridkin said. They’re also voting. The rise of youth activism is putting pressure on politicians and changing the political landscape.
“Politicians have been able to basically ignore what young people have to say, in large part because they know that young people aren’t going to reward them or punish them at the ballot box,” Fridkin said.
According to Census Bureau data, voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds increased from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018.
The 16 percentage-point increase might not seem like a big jump, Fridkin said, but if it sustains into the 2020 election, politicians will be forced to take young peoples’ concerns seriously.
In the meantime, ideological obstacles limit how far gun-reform activism can go, he added.
“It’s hard to have a conversation that doesn’t end up with hurt feelings,” Fridkin said. “The one side says you’re trying to kill us, and the other side says you’re trying to take our guns away in the service of tyranny.”
The idea that the government wants to confiscate peoples’ guns can prevent conversations about what many gun control advocates are actually fighting for, he said, such as closing gun purchasing loopholes and strengthening background checks.
These aren’t the starting points of a productive negotiation, he said. Reform at the local level isn’t easy, either.
In 2012, Harvey Ward lobbied an Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson for gun control. It was then that he learned just how little power local governments have on issues of gun reform.
“I was blown away,” said Ward, a Gainesville City Commissioner. “It is really bizarre.”
He referred to chapter 790 of the Florida Statutes, which outlines Florida’s firearms and weapons policies. Section 33 expressly prohibits or limits county, city, town or municipal ordinances from implementing distinct firearm regulations.
This is called preemption, and it’s intended to prevent local jurisdictions from creating abusive or unconstitutional regulations. It also maintains a standard across all counties for citizens to abide by, according to the state statute.
“It doesn’t make any sense to have such preemptions in place,” Ward said.
Critics of the statute like Ward say that it prevents local governments from enacting laws tailored to their communities. The gun laws that govern rural Levy County are the same that govern urban Miami.
Public officials who attempt to pass unique local legislation are subject to fines of up to $5,000, lawsuits and removal from office, according to the statute.
“If I wanted to take a stance and work on passing an ordinance, I wouldn’t be putting only myself in jeopardy, but also my staff,” he said.
Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Gainesville joined 30 municipalities, three counties, and more than 70 elected officials to sue the state. Preemption penalties, they claim, violate the Florida and U.S. constitutions.
In July, Coral Gables circuit court Judge Charles Dodson ruled in favor of the challengers, according to the judgment summary. State defendants appealed the decision and an oral argument to settle the case is pending.
“Every time there’s another great big tragedy around guns, I always think, ‘Well, this is it,’” Ward said. “This is the one that’s going to affect change.”
So far, he said, it hasn’t happened.
Abzug isn’t waiting for another mass shooting, he said. If tragedies changed gun laws, something would have been done after the lives of 20 children and six adults were taken at Sandy Hook elementary school.
Electing new officials is what it’s going to take, Abzug said. He is hopeful.
“Half of getting there is believing you can do it,” he said.
Abzug still uses his criminology textbook, but now he skips the first few pages. There’s no point in looking down.
Contact Hannah Phillips at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @haphillips96.