March for our Lives: Meet survivors of Florida shooting now taking on US powerful gun lobby

Tyra Hemans from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting last week, holding up a sign before boarding the bus to Tallahassee, the state capital, to call for a ban on assault rifles, on Feb 20, 2018.
Tyra Hemans from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed in a mass shooting last week, holding up a sign before boarding the bus to Tallahassee, the state capital, to call for a ban on assault rifles, on Feb 20, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARKLAND/TALLAHASSEE, Florida - Student and parent activists from a high school in Florida where the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in US history took place last week are staging a rally at the state capital of Tallahassee on Wednesday (Feb 21).

About 100 student survivors of the tragedy plan to hold a gun control rally and speak with lawmakers about gun control and school safety on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

They have vowed to make the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a turning point in America's deadlocked debate on gun control. They are taking part in rallies, organising social media campaigns and appearing on talk shows to get their message across.

Nikolas Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, is accused of firing 160 rounds from an AR-15 inside the school building next door, killing 17 students and teachers on Feb 14.

Since January 2013, there have been at least 291 school shootings across the country - an average of one a week, according to the non-profit group Everytown for Gun Safety.

But the Parkland massacre has been distinguished by students' new willingness to step into the media glare and grant interviews that are particularly critical of the Republican Party and its deep financial ties to the powerful National Rifle Association lobby.

Apart from the Florida rally, the students are also planning a "March for Our Lives" in Washington next month (March), and the rally has earned at least US$2 million in pledges from Hollywood A-listers. Sister rallies are set to take place around the country.

The following students survived the mass shooting and vowed "Never Again".

Alex Wind, 17

Student Alex Wind from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speaks to the crowd during a protest, following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, US, on Feb 20, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

Wind was in drama class when the fire alarm went off around 2.20 pm on Feb 14.

In the distance, he watched as three security guards approached another campus building, looked inside and then turned around in horror.

"They looked right at me and said, 'Go back! Go back! Go back!' " Wind recalls.

"And that's when we heard the first gunshots."

After pushing his classmates back inside of the room, where all 60 of them huddled in a closet, Wind texted his parents. "I don't know what is going on . . . I think there's a shooter on campus . . . I love you guys."

Together with his best friend Cameron Kasky and another student Sofie Whitney, the trio launched "Never Again MSD", which hopes to channel a fresh round of national outrage at gun violence into what has thus far been an unachievable campaign to make significant changes to the nation's gun laws.

In just three days, the group's leadership has grown to include more than 20 Douglas students, and its Twitter account have amassed more than 55,000 followers as of Wednesday.

Cameron Kasky, 17

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Kasky has blasted both Republican and Democratic politicians for not doing anything. "We can't ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises," he wrote in an eloquent essay published online.

"And so, I'm asking - no, demanding - we take action now."

President Donald Trump, who received US$30 million from the National Rifle Association during his election campaign, has suggested root cause of mass shootings including the Parkland massacre was a crisis of mental health - and defied calls to address gun control.

Diego Pfeiffer, 18

The mass shooting tragedy at Pfeiffer's school last week and changed the course of not just his life, but the scores of other Stoneman Douglas students who are turning grief into action.

"Some of us enjoy going out there and making a change. I know a lot of people are thinking about changing their majors when they go off to college," Pfeiffer said.

"I know that there are different perspectives on this issue, and of course this is a big, radical issue with so many different people saying what they want. But what we want is children's lives."

“We’re here to make sure this never happens again,”  he told the crowd that included hundreds of students from a Tallahassee high school over a crackling microphone.

Lorena Sanabria, 16

Lorena Sanabria, a junior at Stoneman Douglas High School, tells AFP "this could have been stopped" during an interview on Feb 16, 2018, two days after a shooting at her Florida high school that claimed 17 lives. PHOTO: AFP

When the gunshots rang out at her Florida high school, Sanabria hid in a classroom with friends, forced to listen to the blood-curdling screams of victims as they waited for help and prayed they wouldn't be next.

In an emotional interview in which she frequently fought back tears, the dark-haired teen admitted that despite a keen interest in women's rights and equality, she had never considered herself particularly interested in politics - until now.

"I think that now more than ever, us as students, we should use our voice, you know the voices through the cameras - we should use this to speak directly to the government... and beg them to please make changes to the policies," she told AFP.

Among the policies Lorena wants to see reformed are the ease with which Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old gunman behind the massacre, was able to purchase his military-grade AR-15 assault rifle legally, because he did not have a criminal record.

"It shouldn't be normal that parents should be worrying about sending their kids with bulletproof backpacks" to school, she added.

Demand has reportedly surged for such backpacks in the aftermath of the shooting, which online giant Amazon sells from US$140 up.