Hundreds of students rally in downtown Tampa for stronger gun laws

Kids from schools across the region get vocal on lawmakers' lack of action on guns post Parkland.

click to enlarge Hundreds of students rally in downtown Tampa for stronger gun laws
Kate Bradshaw

As they waited for throngs of Blake High School students to pass, four women stood near Doyle Carlton Drive talking about guns.

Three were mothers of Blake students who were taking part in a walkout to protest policies that make it easy for mass shootings to take place. One of the women didn't have a kid at Blake, but she stood near her friends holding a handwritten placard calling for a ban on assault weapons. None elected to be identified.

“We're here to support our kids and I think that it's very good that they're using their voice, because we're not going to be around and it's going to be their world," said one. "They're going to have to speak for themselves and this is a good learning experience.”

At around 3:40 p.m., hundreds of students and activists flooded the northern edge of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park shouting popular protest refrains suited to their cause.

“Hey hey, ho ho the NRA has got to go,” they shouted as they streamed past the Tampa Museum of Art.

Once they stopped at a swath of park abutting Ashley Drive, the chants continued. Some shouted "fuck the NRA!" That quickly stopped, though, when a girl with a bullhorn instructed the young activists not to curse — it's not going to help them earn respect from the policymakers whose attention they're after, some mused.

It was 14-year-old Safiyyah Ameer who organized the event. The daughter of SEIU organizer Maria Jose Chapa, she clearly has change-making in her blood, and clearly wants to use that trait to stop the slaughter.

“Before, when things like this have happened, people haven't taken action," she said. "But when I found out this happened, I knew I was ready to take action and start something. I was old enough, I was prepared. I knew that I had to do something; something had to happen. Because this time was different. This time it hit close to home, close to my heart. And we need change.”

Among policy changes she'd like to see is the restriction of access to weapons like the AR-15, which has been used to carry out mass shootings like the one that took place February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Perhaps only law enforcement and military should be able to possess them, she said.

Older activists gathered along the perimeter, some of them armed with clipboards stacked with voter registration forms.

“I am very excited because I've worked on campaigns since 2000 and this is the most energy I've seen from the under-30 group since I started volunteering," said Martha Stem, regional director Hillsborough County Democratic Party, who was registering and pre-registering teens to vote. "It's exciting. It reminds me of the sixties when we got the Vietnam War stopped.”

Soon the chanting died down and a handful of students each delivered remarks. Some of them read from iPhone or handwritten text scrawled along the lines of a spiral notebook.

“Gun violence is an epidemic in our country. There is a raging...gun disease in our country,” said Caroline Weintraub, a student at St. Petersburg High. “Our federal and state legislators have failed to prevent us from senseless gun violence.”

The students' efforts mirror those of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who, in response to the Valentine's Day massacre that took the lives of 17 students and teachers there, have become passionately vocal. Those students have flooded the state capitol and Washington, DC with demand for laws that reduce the odds of another mass shooting — a tall order given the National Rifle Association's stranglehold on the Florida legislature as well as U.S. Congress.

And if that doesn't work, young activists say, they'll take their anger to the ballot box once they're old enough.

“Elections are coming up [in November]," Ameer said. "Elections are coming up in 2020. I'll be old enough to vote [in 2022, when Rubio is up for reelection] and so will my fellow students. We're kicking Marco Rubio out. We are making that change. It's going to happen.”