Will Parkland Change the Gun Debate?

Every morning since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Manuel Oliver wakes up and puts on a pair of his son’s black basketball shoes. The afternoon of the shootings, Joaquin, a 17-year-old senior, wasn’t answering Manuel’s calls, but Joaquin’s friends were. On Snapchat, they could see where his phone was, and that it wasn’t moving. Around 1 a.m., after bouncing from the school to the hospital to a hotel-turned-command-center, the family received confirmation from the FBI. “They call us in a little room on the side,” Manuel says, “and they say, ‘Listen. Your kid is one of the victims.’ ”

There is no handbook on how to recover after a school shooting. That fact is apparent anywhere you go in Parkland, Florida. Everyone wants to help; no one knows how. At a coffee shop in nearby Coral Springs, there are strips of paper to drop in a “Prayer Bucket”; a public journal for jotting down feelings with the instructions “Your hurt is our hurt – get it out”; and even a box of rocks, which visitors are encouraged to decorate for the Stoneman Douglas “rock memorial.” Wearing Joaquin’s things has become the Oliver family’s ritual. “My dad will wear his shoes,” says Joaquin’s older sister, Andrea. “My mom wears his shirts. I go into his closet and I’m like, ‘You’re not going to wear it, so I’ll wear it for you.’ ”

On the morning the Stoneman Douglas students are supposed to return to school, the lot where seniors normally park is filled with police cruisers, not just from Coral Springs Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, but from Sunrise, Davie, Plantation, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Margate – so many cop cars that kids end up leaving their vehicles on the grass. Under a nearby overpass, a dozen TV crews, clamoring for a sound bite or B-roll footage, push bright lights and microphones into the face of Nick Joseph, a sophomore who counted Joaquin among his closest friends. A day earlier, Joseph had told me he was ready for classes to resume. “Everybody needs their time to breathe,” he said. “But the sooner we try to go back to doing things normal, the easier it could possibly be.”

It is going to be “different” for a while, though. For one thing, he’s not carrying a backpack today. The night before, Principal Ty Thompson tweeted, “Looking forward to tomorrow Eagles! Remember our focus is on emotional readiness and comfort, not curriculum, so there is no need for backpacks. Come ready to start the healing process and #RECLAIMTHENEST.” (He didn’t mention that a number of schools around the country had banned backpacks as a precaution after the shooting at MSD.) Past the cameras, at the crosswalk in front of the school entrance, barrel-chested men in polo shirts present Joseph and other students with carnations. “Welcome back!” each of them says. A teenage girl whispers to another, “This is not normal. I don’t care what anyone says. They want us to come back to school? Not like this.”

The men with the flowers are from the Police Benevolent Association. “One of our member’s wives came up with it,” says John Rivera, president of the union’s Florida branch. They brought a thousand carnations. “Most of these officers,” he adds, gesturing at the sea of cops at the school gate, each wearing a standard-issue Glock 22 on the hip, “came out on their off-time, put on their uniforms just to show their love and their support for the children.”

The Stoneman Douglas survivors are polite about it, but the students I spoke to don’t really want painted rocks or carnations or cops with guns welcoming them back to campus. What they want – as the most outspoken among them have been telling us for weeks on Twitter and in appearances on cable TV – are the things that could have stopped “the incident” before it happened: a comprehensive background-check system, a ban on assault-style weapons like the AR-15, and limits on high-capacity magazines. And because years of aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association have made such reforms unthinkable, the students would like to see the NRA taken down too, along with any politicians who have endorsed its increasingly radical policy prescriptions.

Relative to other mass shootings, the Parkland students have made considerable progress toward that goal: They’ve persuaded more than a dozen companies to end discounts for NRA members; Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Fred Meyer and L.L. Bean raised the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21; REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op, neither of which sell guns, have suspended orders from Vista Outdoor because it owns several major gun manufacturers. At the same time, the students have laid the groundwork for a nationwide school walkout on March 14th, followed by a march 10 days later in Washington, D.C. But – and this is easy to forget because they’re all so poised and articulate and fearless – they’re still high school students. At some point they have to go back to class and start this “healing process” everyone keeps talking about. Even if no one knows what that entails.

“There’s no set routine that people can simply sign up to follow and know that they’re going to feel great when it’s over,” says Rep. Ted Deutch, the district’s Democratic congressman. “So they do everything. They sell wristbands. They sell T-shirts. And they paint rocks, and they have therapy dogs, and they talk to counselors. And they – yeah, just spend a lot of time being there for one another.”

There are pockets hanging on the wall
of the school-newspaper classroom. On Valentine’s Day, before the class locked themselves in a closet as police searched for the shooter, the paper’s faculty adviser, Melissa Falkowski, left a card in each pocket for her students. It was the first thing senior Carly Novell noticed when the newspaper class met again. “They’re just all still sitting in there,” she says. “When I look in the corner where we were crouching before, I just see all of us there still. And then the closet – you look in the closet and you see us in the dark, me in the back of the closet standing with all my classmates. That’s what I see now.”

When Novell’s grandfather was 12 years old, in 1949, his next-door neighbor went on a shooting spree in their Camden, New Jersey, neighborhood – what’s considered the first mass murder in modern U.S. history. Novell’s grandfather hid in a closet as the situation unfolded; when he finally emerged, 13 people, including his mother, father and grandmother, were dead. Everyone impacted by the shooting at Stoneman Douglas seems to have come out on the other side with some kind of cosmic task – they’re creating foundations and planning benefit concerts, hosting memorial runs, starting social-media campaigns and organizing marches. Novell feels it’s her job to talk about the fact that she and her grandfather were both forced to hide in a closet as shooting rampages unfolded, nearly 70 years apart, to remind people how common these events have become. “People are saying that ‘Shootings are rare’ and ‘This won’t happen again to you,’ ” she says. “It’s happened twice in my family.”

Another member of the student newspaper, Ryan Deitch, has thrown himself into political advocacy. A day earlier, he and a handful of fellow students were in Washington, D.C., for meetings with lawmakers on gun legislation. “We re-met with Marco Rubio, who in the CNN town hall was rather insulted by our community,” Deitch says. “But we did not go in there to rub anything in his face. We went there to talk more about policy, to talk about what we believed and where we could find some common middle ground.”

That night, he and the other students drove out to a high school in the Maryland suburbs, where more than 800 people turned up to meet them and talk about #NeverAgain, the movement Parkland’s teenagers started with the goal of ending gun violence. Afterward, Deitch says, people kept coming up to him, asking, “ ’What is it that I can do? I want to do more,’ as if it’s some magic answer. To be fully honest, we were just a bunch of kids who went through Twitter.”

The trip was arranged by Rep. Deutch – the daughter of one of his staffers had hid in Stoneman Douglas’ band room closet during the shooting. The congressman is one of 167 Democrats to sign an assault-weapons ban guaranteed to go nowhere in Congress. He’s been working with Republicans on a bill to increase the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, and introduced legislation in support of gun-violence restraining orders – measures that similarly face hurricane-strength headwinds.

Short of Donald Trump throwing his full weight behind a bill, and bringing a number of Republicans with him, there’s not much else Democrats like Deutch can do. At a televised meeting Deutch attended at the White House, President Trump surprised a bipartisan group of legislators by pressing for tougher gun control, and mocking Republicans for being “petrified of the NRA.” “If it takes President Trump believing that he’s the only person who can do this, well, guess what?” Deutch says. “If he gets this done, I will be thrilled.” Days later, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, reassured supporters that the president didn’t mean what he said in the meeting.

In the meantime, Deutch heads home to Florida every chance he gets. He was in Pine Trails Park 24 hours after the shooting, where students had a moment of silence. He gets choked up as he recalls two of them approaching him. “When someone tells you what she saw happen to her best friend, and grabs you by the arm and says, ‘You really need to do something,’ that’s a statement that applies to me, and people in government,” he says. “It’s a statement that applies to the community. Everyone – everyone – is looking for something to do.”

The Oliver family, for its part, is starting a nonprofit in honor of Joaquin; its mission is to empower future leaders. Which goes back to Manuel’s shoes: “Parents need to feel what it’s like to wear their kids’ shoes,” he says. “The closer you get to that feeling, the more things you will have to add to any movement that is coming ahead.” He reaches into his pocket for a rock a little smaller than a golf ball. He found it sitting at the foot of Joaquin’s memorial. Someone has decorated it with the words “We will change the world for you.” He carries it with him everywhere now. “It’s so powerful, right?”