PARKLAND, Fla. — The deadly shooting at a Florida high school has put pressure on the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to consider a sweeping package of gun-control laws in a state that has resisted restrictions on firearms for decades, lawmakers said Monday.
The legislative effort coalesced as 100 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prepared to ride buses more than 400 miles to the state capital Tuesday to urge lawmakers to act to prevent a repeat of the massacre that killed 17 students and faculty last week.
The suspect, 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, made his first appearance in court Monday. Wearing a prison jumpsuit, he kept his head down and did not appear to make eye contact with the judge or others in the courtroom, though he responded briefly to someone on the defence team. A previous appearance was by a video connection from jail.
His lawyers have said he will plead guilty if prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty. No decision has been made on that.
Soon after the shooting, several legislative leaders were taken on a tour of the school to see the damage firsthand and appeared shaken afterward.
The attack seemed to overcome the resistance of some in the state’s leadership, which has rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor’s office and the Legislature in 1999. However, there is still strong resistance by many in the party to any gun-control measures, leaving the fate of new restrictions unclear.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican and the incoming state Senate president, said the Senate was preparing a package that would include raising the age to purchase any firearm to 21, creating a waiting period for purchasing any type of firearm, banning bump stocks that can allow semi-automatic guns to spray bullets quickly and creating gun-violence restraining orders.
Authorities said Cruz had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion. Police were also repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. Cruz’s lawyers said there were repeated warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.
“We need to make sure everything is working and to learn from the experience,” said Galvano, who was among those who visited the school.
The Senate is also considering boosting spending on mental health programs for schools and giving law-enforcement greater power to involuntarily hold someone considered a danger to themselves. The body will also look at a proposal to deputize a teacher or someone else at school so they are authorized to have a gun.
Galvano said senators want to examine ways to protect schools that do not have resource officers — often armed law enforcement officers — on site.
State House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott also are considering possible changes to firearms rules but have not given any details. Scott planned meetings Tuesday on school safety, and said he would announce proposals on mental health issues later in the week.
Still, some Republicans questioned whether additional gun restrictions are the answer.
“I really don’t want to see this politicized into a gun debate,” Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley.
Referring to gun-control advocates, he said: “Sometimes I wish they were right, that this would fix it, but it won’t … We have a terrible problem with obesity, but we’re not banning forks and spoons.”
Democrats believe raising the age limit and creating a waiting period to buy rifles isn’t enough.
“That’s unacceptable. That’s a joke,” said Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer of Broward County. “I don’t see that as a restriction. It never should have been that an 18-year-old could buy an assault weapon. No Floridians should be able to buy an assault weapon.”
Since the attack, students from the school have become increasingly vocal in their demands for gun-control measures. Many have pointed out politicians who take financial support from the National Rifle Association, and some have lashed out at President Donald Trump, saying he was busy blaming Democrats for failing to pass gun restrictions while taking no action of his own.
After staying largely mum in the last few days about the massacre and the escalating debate about weapons, Trump said Monday that he was supportive of a bipartisan effort to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchases.
Students are also calling for anti-gun violence demonstrations in Washington and other cities March 24.
Organizers behind the anti-Trump Women’s March called for a 17-minute nationwide walkout by teachers and students on March 14, and a gun-control group was calling for a rally to ban assault weapons Wednesday at the Florida Capitol.
The community around the Parkland school has been holding funerals at the grim pace of several per day. And at the school itself, hundreds of mourners came Monday to lay flowers and hang balloons on 17 crosses and Stars of David that now mark a corner of the campus.
At a church in the neighbouring community of Coral Springs, more than 1,500 mourners turned out to remember 14-year-old freshman Alaina Petty.
“The only thing I want to say about what happened to her is that it was a very, very ugly act that was committed by one person,” Meghan Petty said. “But as you look around at how many people who are here … there are thousands more who are doing something really beautiful for my sister.”