Five years after a mass shooting that shook Florida, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Parkland are still linked to the horrible day when a troubled teenager killed 14 students and three staff members, hurt 17 more, and traumatized an untold number of children and families in less than four minutes.
But on February 14, 2018, a tragedy started a national movement led by young people. It also changed state laws to make schools safer and put new limits on guns in a place called the “Gunshine State.”
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was one of the victims, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Thursday, “It still feels like five minutes ago.”
In the weeks after the shooting, anger grew as it became clear that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19 at the time, had a long history of disturbing behavior that led at least two people to report him to the FBI as a dangerous person.
He also talked to many people who worked in mental health and education. Cruz could buy the AR-15 gun he used in the attack legally. Students and families of the victims flocked to the state Capitol, where the Legislature was meeting.
Lawmakers quickly passed a bill that addressed mental health, school safety, and guns. The law made it illegal to sell rifles and other long guns to people younger than 21.
It also had a “red-flag” provision that lets police ask judges to temporarily take people’s guns if they are seen as a threat to themselves or others. The mass shooting led to the creation of the March for Our Lives group, which was led by students from Parkland.
The group has held marches all over the country to demand stricter gun laws. David Hogg, one of the group’s founders, said that as the fifth anniversary of the shooting approaches, he is reminded of “how far we’ve come but how far we have to go.”
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“People said that you’re just a bunch of kids and you’re never going to pass anything in the Florida Legislature, and we did,” Hogg, 22 years old, told the News Service in a phone interview Thursday.
Hogg said that the red-flag law had stopped many violent acts, including ones in his own family. Hogg’s mother got a death threat, saying, “F with the NRA, and you’ll be DOA.” His family used the red-flag law to get the person who threatened them to give up their guns.
Hogg, who is in his last semester at Harvard University, said, “The law that we passed in Florida may have stopped me from having to bury my mother,”
Hogg called himself a “pretty cynical person,” but he said he has “some level of hope” because of what his group has done, like getting more than 100 gun laws passed across the country since 2018.
“We mobilized our generation in a way that has frankly never been seen in terms of the electoral work that we’re doing,” he said. The law from 2018 was called the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.”
It also set up a commission to look into the mass shooting and keep making suggestions to make schools safer.
“Five years. It feels like yesterday in some respects, and it feels like an eternity in others,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the commission, said in an interview with the Deeper Dive with Dara Kam podcast, which will be released Sunday on the website of City & State Florida, a sister publication of the News Service.
The commission quickly found that “the schools were not prepared, underprepared and that school safety wasn’t a focus and a priority, which was amazing, given that Columbine happened in 1989.”
“That was shocking, given that Columbine happened in 1989,” he said, referring to a school shooting in Colorado. Gualtieri says that over the past five years, the state has “made a lot of progress,” “but we’re not there,” “And quite honestly, no, we’ll never be there.”
“Nobody should ever say we’re there because there is no finish line.” Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, a Democrat who was the mayor of Parkland at the time of the shooting, told the News Service that the tragedy affected her personally and professionally “because I knew many of these families before.”
She said she had to separate how she felt about the tragedy into different parts. “For me, the number one priority was helping our community navigate through this in the best way possible,” she said. Alaina Petty, 14 years old, was one of the people Cruz killed.
“For us as a family, there’s just a piece missing, and we’ve had to try to grow or get comfortable with this part of our family that’s just not there, Alaina, and all the things we imagined that she would be doing, all the things we would be doing together as a family.”
Petty, who also works on the school-safety commission, said in a phone interview, “I think we struggled in many senses to find joy in the things that we used to find joy in easily,” Petty said he is glad that state leaders have made changes since 2018.
“The acknowledgment that it can happen here is probably the most significant change. They say culture trumps everything, and we had a culture, perhaps in many places in the state.
Certainly, this was true in Parkland and in schools in Broward County, of, ‘That won’t happen here.’ And the mindset change that I see … is that there’s an acknowledgment that it could happen, and so we need to be prepared,” he said.
The 2018 law and the laws passed years after it included requirements to make school buildings and classrooms harder to break into. For instance, every classroom must have “safe corners” and doors that can be locked, and every campus must have school safety officers.
“There are many more things in place that will allow people to respond and react more appropriately. … You have to assume, and anybody that doesn’t operate from this premise is just flat-out wrong, that you cannot prevent this.
“It is going to happen again. It’s a hard thing to say. People don’t want to hear it. But the reality is, it’s going to happen again,” Gualtieri said. The effects of Cruz’s rampage are still being felt.
In the spring, state lawmakers will likely eliminate the rule that juries have to agree on the death penalty as a group. This is because a jury did not decide Cruz’s death sentence.
The gunman who admitted to killing Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Aguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, and Peter Wang was sentenced to life in prison.
Guttenberg said that his family would celebrate February 14 the same way they did last year. “We’ll spend it privately and with Jaime at the cemetery. We don’t participate in public events. … For us being with my daughter is where I belong,” said Guttenberg, who no longer lives in Parkland.
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