The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Spark Magazine.
by Daniela Perez
Graphics by Rachel Efruss
Twenty minutes east of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are beaches like Blue Wave Beach, a place where South Floridians can retreat to morning, afternoon or night just to take in its serenity — to take in the most beautiful place our small region has to offer. South Florida is a place where beach towns hug the east and alligators plague affluent neighborhoods of the west, and where high school pride blurs county lines. In our small pocket of the U.S., everyone knows everyone; that’s the thing about small towns.
That’s how on February 14, 2017, just one year before the Parkland school shooting, I found myself at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I was there to support my high school’s lacrosse team, the Saint Andrew’s Scots, as we competed against our notorious lacrosse rivals, the Douglas Eagles. These games often attracted hundreds of spectators to their stands. School loyalties seem trivial in retrospect now, as the impact of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting settles in, smashing past the lines of school spirit and bringing the community together in a call to action.
One year after I visited the school, it took Nikolas Cruz six minutes to kill 17 people and injure 16 more on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school grounds. This tragedy is now the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
In the past, when I mentioned to Austinites that I grew up in Boca Raton, their response would be something along the lines of, “My grandparents live there!” Now, there is an uncomfortable pause and a question: “How far are you from Parkland?”
Guns never had a place in my life in sunny South Florida. Though some of my peers spent their days hunting in the Everglades, it wasn’t a prevalent conversation. The thought of having gun violence in our communities, schools or homes seemed almost unfathomable — a sad notion South Floridians and many others can no longer promise because mass shootings have plagued the nation in all of its corners.
School shooting after school shooting, my position on gun control has stayed the same: our country needs tougher background checks on weapons such as the AR-15. Our government needs to find a way to classify individuals whose mental illnesses make them severely unstable so that they are not able to purchase firearms. Ideally, our government needs to dedicate time and resources to restrict these weapons of war from getting into anyone’s hands — regardless of intent or use — because of the threat that these weapons may fall into the wrong hands.
Times have changed since the Second Amendment was ratified; modernization means that these firearms are no longer necessary to hunt food for survival. Modern-day weapons, at least those frequently used in gun violence situations, are designed for battlefields, not civilized society. And though my ideologies may be implausible in our divided country, we still need to continue this conversation so that Parkland will be one of America’s last school shootings.
A Look Back
On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris placed bombs in the Columbine cafeteria, hoping the explosion would cause the pillars holding up the library to collapse and kill all those in the vicinity. When the bombs failed to detonate, the duo entered the high school, brutally murdering 12 students and one teacher before ultimately killing themselves.
Although Columbine was not the first school shooting in the United States, it was one of the first times the media exhaustively covered and broadcasted such an event: a bloody and wounded student climbing out of a library window, a sign from inside the school that read, “1 bleeding to death.” Adding to the tragedy, the perpetrators were high school students themselves, peers seen roaming the hallways between classes just days before.
Immediately following the Columbine shooting, a horrified America demanded action. They blamed law enforcement, who took 47 minutes to enter the school after the shooting began. They blamed the shooters and linked them to the various other groups of troubled students. Still, the American people searched for the root of the problem.
Our country blamed scapegoats but craved progress, even if the progress was insufficient. Following the disaster, police created and practiced active shooter protocol, otherwise known as “code reds.” Additionally, threats of violence against schools were thoroughly investigated.
One of my earliest memories from elementary school was hiding in a library closet while my school practiced for what might happen. My teachers explained to 8-year-olds how to shield ourselves in case a potential terrorist came infiltrating our halls. This is due to our government’s inability to take measures from stopping armed individuals. Instead, they instituted systematic educational requirements for schools to teach its most vulnerable population how to survive under wooden tables and place blinders on our classroom doors so these armed assailants couldn’t see us.
These attempts, however, could not stop the litany of school shootings that have riddled the past two decades. On April 16, 2007, Cho Senug-Hui murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech, even though one of Cho’s former professors recalled his poetry as so “intimidating and menacing” that he was removed from the class two years prior to the event.
The government failed to stop Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza. A report conducted by Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate stated that Lanza’s family and school personnel tried to appease his symptoms of deteriorating mental health to “get him through the day.” Yet, in December 2012, Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and took the lives of 20 elementary school children and seven adults.
Although Nikolas Cruz was expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after possessing a knife at school, he was still able to re-enter and execute 17 people.
What do these three incidents have in common? Our government has systematically failed to recognize their severe mental health signs as a threat and record them accordingly. And this is just the beginning; one quick Google search will produce thousands of articles underscoring the red flags each of these mass murderers possessed. A history of violence and psychosis are merely two traits that all of these perpetrators shared. Even though these signs of mental illness were well-documented, every gunman after Columbine in some way obtained legally purchased weapons.
This is where we must recognize that our government has failed the American people.
The AR-15: America’s Rifle
America’s problem first lies in the number of guns owned by private citizens. According to the 2011 Small Arms Survey, there are nearly 90 firearms for every 100 residents. Americans have become desensitized to the number of guns in this country — especially assault rifles — that so many justify them in the name of sport or protection. Yet the U.S. has the highest percent of gun-related killings compared to the entire world. School shootings repeatedly ignite the discussion on gun control regulations. And despite vocal public support for stricter laws, the Second Amendment continues to reign supreme.
As America has witnessed, not even the number of lives lost could incite change.
In our backward society, 18 year-olds can’t legally drink, but they can legally purchase an AR-15. But this law doesn’t pertain to all firearms. Due to the fact that handguns are used in most gun violence-related activity, legislators raised the legal handgun owning age to 21 through the Gun Control Act of 1968. However, this does not outlaw citizens from purchasing assault rifles at age 18.
Our society continues to normalize these killing machines and claims these perpetrators use guns incorrectly — yet, guns are created to kill those staring down its barrel. The AR-15 is used to decimate enemies during war. Frightening enough, more than 8 million Americans own one, and the National Rifle Association has stated that it is the “most popular rifle in America.” Due to the rifle’s wide popularity, gun activists feel that even if these rifles were eradicated, they would never stop circulating.
This is where our country needs to make to come together to make “common-sense” gun laws. Because our founding fathers aimed to protect our right to bear arms through the Second Amendment, eradicating all guns is an arduous and a nearly inconceivable task in our current political climate. However, our founding fathers could have never imagined the scope or capacity of modern weapons such as the AR-15. Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans reported they were dissatisfied with gun laws and wanted them to be stricter. Although the majority of U.S. citizens want heftier gun control, there is hardly any notable new legislation.
Guns and Government: an Outlook
When defending the Second Amendment, many pro-gun rights activists claim, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” If this is the case: most mass shooters show signs of mental illness, yet still have the ability to purchase assault rifles. Even President Donald Trump acknowledged Nikolas Cruz’s mental health issues and run-ins with the law through a tweet.
Many presidents have tried to tackle gun reform and have been ultimately unsuccessful. Recently, President Trump signed a memo for the attorney general to propose legislation that would ban devices, such as bump stocks, that turn weapons into machine guns. Although that may be progress, it won’t stop individuals who have been deemed by professionals as mentally ill from acquiring weapons of war. In fact, nearly one year prior to the Parkland shooting, President Trump rolled back an Obama-era gun regulation law that provided a solution.
Following Sandy Hook, President Obama required the Social Security Administration to send the names of individuals who do not meet certain mental health criteria to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Had it taken effect, it would’ve inputted 75,000 names to that database, preventing those on it from purchasing weapons.
Disability rights groups objected the bill, claiming it strengthened the stereotype that all people with mental disabilities are violent. Adding the nail to its coffin, Congress and Trump repealed the regulation in early 2017.
This repealed bill inherently leaves the American government at a disadvantage. If citizens who are severely mentally ill aren’t inputted into the NICS, there is ostensibly no way to prohibit them from purchasing guns.
It’s easy to blame public figures on either side of the political spectrum in order to find answers to these unspeakable tragedies. Sadly, however, our country has failed to unite to find an answer. Due to our inability to conduct a constructive dialogue, 17 more people were casualties in the war over gun control this month.
And yet, I am hopeful that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will be different. This was one of the first times audiences were taken into classrooms-turned-bloodbaths via social media. Snapchat videos powerfully transported the viewer real-time into those students’ nightmares as gunshots penetrated their classrooms. Not even censors could prohibit viewers from identifying blood-stained floors and lifeless bodies scattered around the halls.
These students survived the worst of humanity, even after invading their hallways. They are not afraid to criticize politicians who offer mere “thoughts and prayers.” Through tragedy, these students have become emboldened and galvanized. They are the voice so many Americans have yearned for in the face of our indisputable firearm crisis.
Teenagers are giving a voice to the insurmountable amount of souls taken by gun violence, and can no longer wait for the adults that have failed to make a difference. But these students don’t have to wage this war alone.
Twenty minutes east of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are beaches like Blue Wave Beach – beaches that 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff or 17-year-old Joaquin Oliver will never see again. All of the special treasures our small region has to offer will never again be seen by the students and faculty whose lives were brutally taken.
Although we can never fully comprehend the level of terror these Parkland teenagers felt, they have begun to lead America in understanding that these types of tragedies are much more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those students from the small town huddled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades have reignited the conversation that will cause our gun laws to change.
This movement should never have culminated in the Sunshine State. It should never have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people. However, the strength and solidarity shown by South Florida are causing a palpable change: a change our country and our youth so desperately need. •
Students at the University of Texas can fight for gun control on March 14, where the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER group will hold a walk-out at 10:00 AM for 17 minutes to commemorate those lost in Parkland. On March 24, there will be a March For Our Lives. This march will be in Washington D.C. and calls for school safety and gun control. On April 20, a National School Walkout is planned in observation of the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. An estimated 65,000 students, parents, and faculty will walk out of their schools and peacefully protest for stricter gun laws.
Daniela Perez is freshman Journalism major from Boca Raton, Florida. This is Daniela’s first semester writing for Spark Magazine. Daniela hopes to return to her home country, Venezuela, to report on their current crisis. But for now, she enjoys petting mini-dachshunds, eating Cabo Bob’s, and complaining about how Austin has no beach.