Florida Was Always Going to Start the Anti-Gun Revolution

Florida Was Always Going to Start the Anti-Gun Revolution

On Tuesday, Alana Agron’s phone rang unexpectedly. It was the admissions office at Washington University in St. Louis, letting her know she had been accepted. She should have felt elated—the 18-year-old senior had sent applications to a handful of colleges across the country, and Wash U. was among her top choices.

She was happy, of course. But it didn’t feel the way she thought it might. That’s because, in just a week, everything had changed.

Agron went from being a normal high school student at Coral Reef Senior High School in southwest Miami to a full-blown activist after gunman Nikolas Cruz shot 17 people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just an hour north from where she lives. It was a defining moment for Agron, who became determined to do something about it.

“We have to take all these emotions that kids my age feel, these frustrations against these politicians and just make change on our own,” Agron said.

This time tragedy struck close to home. Some of her best childhood friends are Douglas High students. One of the students who was killed, Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old freshman at Douglas, went to her summer camp.

The same day the Wash. U call came in, Agron spent the afternoon oscillating between her roles as a student, friend, and activist. Sitting in her lavender-colored bedroom, she had multiple tabs open on her computer. The first one had prom dresses. The second one was to prep for a big Spanish oral exam. The rest of the tabs were searches about gun control laws and members of Congress.

Like most modern-day organizers, she coordinated efforts on her smartphone. Agron snapped messages to her friends from Douglas who were traveling to Tallahassee to press elected officials on passing gun restrictions. She couldn’t take off school for that, but she simultaneously exchanged messages on a WhatsApp group chat with students from her own high school, discussing plans to walk out of class in solidarity. (It ended up being a sit-in.)

By Wednesday, it was clear Agron wasn’t the only teen fed up with America’s mass shootings. Thousands of students from Florida to Minnesota to Arizona walked out of class. While Parkland survivors knocked on doors at the state level, others went to the White House to speak with the president. Many Douglas students returned home to South Florida that afternoon to participate in a televised town hall hosted by CNN and they, along with their parents, pressed senators, congressmen, local law enforcement, and the spokesperson for the NRA on their policies. Unlike many top-tier journalists, they didn’t let them dodge questions with empty answers.

In the span of a week Parkland survivors had created the #NeverAgain movement, raising more than a million dollars from celebrities like George and Amal Clooney, Oprah, and Steven Spielberg to help with the cost of organizing a national march on Washington, D.C. They also inspired many, like Agron, to organize everything from solidarity marches to voter registration drives across the country.

Something remarkable was taking place. These students had managed to expose—and potentially transcend—politicians’ failure to pass any of the 24 proposed gun control bills since Sandy Hook at a federal or state level. And as a Floridian who’s all too aware of the bizarre political dynamics in my weird home state, it made total sense that this sea change was happening in Florida.

Floridians can swing from Republican to Democrat on a moment’s whim. We recently witnessed two major mass shootings in our state in the past 18 months. With changing demographics and competitive races on the heels of a Trump presidency, Parkland is a perfect storm: Teens nearing voting age from this big, purple, bellwether state had everything they needed to transform the gun debate from public outcry into a ballot box issue.

Florida is the state of seasonless climate, historical charlatans, and celebrity plastic surgeons with robust Instagram followings. If nature had its way, most of the peninsula would not be populated and at least two-thirds of the state would still be covered in water. Its politics have been shaped by the unimaginable, including the story of William Cottrell, the lone American mayor to declare himself a dictator in Cedar Key, only to be deposed by a one-ship U.S. Navy invasion in 1890.

Political unpredictability is part of Floridian DNA—and it exerts a lot of unwarranted influence on the rest of the nation. Obama won the state twice in 2008 and 2012. But in the latter election, it was by a fraction of a percent—just over .9 percent. “This is a fiercely fought-for state,” Susan MacManus, professor at the University of South Florida, told reporters at the time.

Illustration for article titled Florida Was Always Going to Start the Anti-Gun Revolution
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty)

It’s also one of the states that handed Trump the keys to the White House in 2016. And in the infamous Gore-Bush race in 2000, Bush had about 1,800 more votes than Gore after Election Day, prompting a month-long machine-based recount and throwing the nation into disarray.

There are about 4.4 million registered Republicans and about 4.6 million Democrats in Florida. Both camps covet the nearly 3 million independents who give this swing state enormous power to determine 29 electoral college votes. Data shows that independent voters are young, part of the state’s influx of new residents looking for work rather than to retire and play golf near man-made lagoons. They also include Latinos. But unlike other states where Latinos tend to lean overwhelmingly Democratic, Florida has a still-influential Republican Cuban-American base in Miami as well as progressive-leaning Puerto Rican voters in Orlando.

A recent Brookings Institute report found that changing demographics in purple states have an increasingly important role in determining elections. Since 2008, the amount of white people has dropped to a slimmer majority of the population. In four states—Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia—that drop has been larger than the national average. Experts agree it’s a trend likely to continue as turnout rates among communities of color increase.

Amid a Trump presidency, previously immovable seats have flipped in unlikely places like Virginia and Alabama. Just this month, it happened in Florida; in a special election, Margaret Good won in the 72nd House District, defeating Republican James Buchanan, the son of another Florida congressman Vern Buchanan. That district, in Florida’s Gulf Coast, is traditionally Republican. NPR reported that Good beat the Republican by seven percentage points in a district that President Trump won two years ago by a five-point margin.

“Democrats are organizing, investing, and winning elections across Florida,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NPR in response to Good’s win.

This doesn’t bode well for Republicans in a midterm election year that already promises to deliver changes to Florida’s political landscape. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is slated to retire from Miami’s eastern 27th district pegged by Democrats. It is one of the most competitive primaries in Florida with nine people on the ballot, including former Knight Foundation director Matt Haggman, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, and state Rep. David Richardson. (Veteran political reporters Marc Caputo and Matt Dixon believe it’s too early to tell if some these candidates will drop out and instead run against Republican Rep. Carlos Cubelo in Florida’s 26th district, where Hillary Clinton won by over 16 points.) And the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, is widely expected to run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat this year.

Both Rep. Cubelo and Sen. Nelson were the only Florida federal legislators that called for common-sense gun reform immediately after the Parkland tragedy—days before Congress, President Trump, or Walmart weighed in.

Yet gun control has been a national issue for decades despite legislative anathema. No one who is school-aged in America today has known what the world is like without the spectre of mass shootings. Born in the first few years of the 21st century, these kids have grown up practicing active shooter drills and lockdowns. Days after Parkland, high school English teacher Stephanie Woolley-Larrea asked her Miami students to discuss defining moments in history. She said that for her mom it had been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, while for her it was the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

“My students all said the same two things,” Woolley-Larrea said. “Sandy Hook and Pulse.” The latter had happened less than two years before in Orlando, where 49 people were gunned down, many of them LGBTQ and of color.

“I’ve never been political at all. But this has shaped my view,” said Valeria Charles, one of Ms. Woolley-Larrea’s students. “We’re not going to take this for granted.”

“Everyone is tired of seeing this happen,” said Emily Olson, another high school senior. “I was sad and I trusted Congress.”

I, too, was asked about my own generation’s defining historical moment back in 2000, when I was an eighth-grade English student of Ms. Woolley’s, then known only by her maiden name. As we went around the room, my classmates repeated the same examples we had lived through in the 90s: the Oklahoma City bombing, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Elian Gonzalez, the last of which loomed large in my hometown of Miami. The Columbine High School massacre had happened the year before, but I don’t recall my classmates mentioning it all.

I was roughly the same age Agron had been when Sandy Hook happened. But unlike me with Columbine, she mentioned being immediately shaken up. At the time, that shooting seemed like a freak accident, an outlier. The media blamed it on video games and Marilyn Manson. Almost 20 years later, school shootings are still extremely rare, but they have instilled fear in an entire generation, locked inside their classrooms during drills.

Students from a Maryland high school organize walkout on the capitol.
Students from a Maryland high school organize walkout on the capitol.
Photo: Alex Wong (Getty)

The conversation has also evolved quite a bit in two decades. Many question the link between the ideological affiliations many mass shooters profess to share with hate groups and the fact that the majority of assailants are white males. I couldn’t help but feel guilty, like we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I asked the teenagers I spoke to if they believed my generation had let them down. One of them was Juan Esteban Mejia, a junior at Douglas who escaped through the back of the school and ended up at the same Wal-Mart the gunman fled to.

“I will admit that I am disappointed,” Mejia said. “It took us doing something about it. It just goes to show our moral compass is broken.”

In the week since the attack, he’s participated in the memorials and vigils. He also went to CNN’s town hall and plans to march on Washington. “We should act on the memory of 17 and not let our schools or students down for what we couldn’t do,” Mejia said.

One of the Founders of #NeverAgain, Alfonso Calderon, told me he never imagined he’d help start a national movement. But based on the track record adults have on the gun issue, he has more faith in his peers across the country than legislators.

“I’ve talked to shooting survivors from Aztec, New Mexico to Italy, Texas. They’ve told me we aren’t going to stop until we make it harder for these tragedies to happen,” Calderon said. It’s a sentiment full of youthful hubris, and echoed by Nia Arrington, the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts senior who led over 100 students in 17 minutes of silence, one for each one of the casualties. “We will not be divided; we will not be locked out; we will not stop,” Arrington told The Nation.

These students have public opinion on their side, even in the gun-friendly state of Florida. A Quinnipiac University poll released the week of February 27 found 62 percent of Florida voters support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. (Analysts made clear that historically this is the highest level of support this issue has ever received based on their previous polls.) Prominent GOP donors in Florida vowed publicly to withhold contributions to candidates not supporting a ban on the sale of military-style firearms.

It also can’t hurt when there is mounting pressure to run against every single incumbent in Florida who has received money from the NRA, explained Juan Cuba, Chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, who traveled to Tallahassee to support teens protesting. “They’re making gun reform the central issue of this election,” Cuba said. “And they don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian. If you’re pro-NRA, then they’re coming for you.”

Possibly the biggest victory so far has been with age limits, and it started in Florida: On Friday, governor Rick Scott proposed raising the age to buy any firearm to 21 from 18, which prompted Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods to pledge to do the same. Days later, senators Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Flake introduced a federal bipartisan bill to raise the minimum age required to purchase assault weapons and high- capacity magazines from 18 to 21. (The president also urged Congress on live television to resurrect gun safety legislation, but who knows what this actually says about the success of the anti-gun movement.)

Age limits are a drop in the bucket when it comes to comprehensive gun reform, but it’s the most significant move toward gun control in decades, and a sharp turn from NRA.-supported policies.

Scott also said he would push to ban “bump stocks,” which enable semi-automatic weapons to fire faster, and increase spending by $500 million in mental health and school safety programs. In the past, Scott secured bayard gun ranges and expanded the controversial self-defense law known as “stand your ground.” In past years, the NRA has complimented him with an A-plus rating.

All this is a big departure from the last huge mass shooting in Florida. After the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, there were repeated attempts to pass gun control laws through the Florida legislature, and every attempt failed. Although moderate by the Parkland teens’ standards, “it would be a defeat for the NRA” if any of these reforms are signed into law, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican lobbyist and operative.

I couldn’t help compare the teen activists’ uphill battle to other historical tipping points like 1980s movement of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which succeeded in raising the legal drinking age, or Truth Initiative’s mission in the late 1990s to end teen smoking. After nearly two decades Truth reduced teen smoking from 23 to 6 percent.

Stipanovich said he wants to believe these teenagers can do the same for gun control. “All of the ingredients are there to strike a real blow,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fight continues for both Alana Agron and Juan Esteban Mejia. Although she just recently turned 18, Agron is already politically savvy and attuned: She pre-registered to vote the same week she got her driver’s license. Members of student government at her school are negotiating with the administration for an event planned in parallel with a nationwide student walk-out on March 14. Agron’s parents traveled up to Tallahassee to continue pushing legislators. “My friends at Douglas and I don’t want to wait around,” she said. “We have to keep the movement alive and not let it die down.”

Mejia and his classmates returned to school on February 28, when Broward County reopened Marjory Stoneman Douglas High for the first time since the attack. Students wore black to pay their respects. “Even though we are going back to school, we will never forget they day we lost 17 members,” Mejia said. “The NRA needs to go hide in a corner, because change is coming whether they like it or not.”

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is a senior reporter, producer and digital media entrepreneur who has worked in Paris, Cuba, and Israel for France24, El Mundo, and Haaretz. Most recently, she worked for CNN out of Guatemala and The Associated Press, where she reported on key regional issues such as migration and drug trafficking.

This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.

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