TALLAHASSEE/PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) - Student activists from the Florida high school where 17 teens and staff were shot and killed began a march to the state capital of Tallahassee on Wednesday, where they were to meet with lawmakers to call for a ban on assault-style weapons.
The latest in a series of deadly shootings in schools in the United States has inflamed the long-running national debate about gun rights. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have emerged as the new faces of the gun-control movement.
“We’re here to ask for change and we’re confident change will happen,” said Noah Kaufman, 16. “We know the issues, and we know who is with us and who isn’t.”
Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student expelled from Douglas for disciplinary problems, is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the second deadliest shooting at a U.S. public school. He was armed with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault-style rifle he legally purchased from a licensed gun dealer last year when he was 18, authorities said.
Carrying signs bearing the #NeverAgain slogan, about 100 students from Douglas walked to Florida’s capital, where the Republican-controlled legislature on Tuesday rebuffed a bid to bring up a bill to block sales of assault-style rifles.
But signaling a possible shift, state Senator Bill Galvan, slated to be the chamber’s next president, called for a bill to raise the legal age for purchasing assault rifles from 18 to 21, the same as it is for handguns. The legislature’s current session ends on March 9, leaving little time for a vote.
U.S. President Donald Trump, a strong supporter of gun rights, was scheduled to host a “listening session” with high school students and teachers at the White House on Wednesday.
“This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue, it’s a life issue,” said Kaufman. Many in the group said they had stayed up all night researching legislation and writing speeches.
Calls for national student walk-outs and marches in the coming months gained steam on social media, including the “March for Our Lives” on March 24 in Washington, spearheaded by some Douglas students.
Cameron Kasky, a Douglas student and an organizer of the Washington rally, created a GofundMe page that as of Wednesday had raised about $1.2 million toward a goal of $1.5 million.
“The march on Washington is going to be huge but the marches all over are just as important,” Kasky Tweeted on Tuesday.
The youth-led protest movement that erupted within hours of the shooting attracted prominent celebrity supporters on Tuesday. Film star George Clooney, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and media mogul Oprah Winfrey each contributed $500,000 to help fund the March rally in Washington.
Trump said on Tuesday he signed a memorandum directing the attorney general to draw up regulations banning devices that turn firearms into machine guns, like the bump stock used in the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October.
Gun violence on public school and college campuses has become so commonplace in the United States in the last several years that administrators regularly stage drills to train students and staff in the event of a mass shooting.
Gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and remains one of the nation’s more divisive issues. A federal ban on assault weapons, in force for 10 years, expired in 2004.
Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe