Survivors, relatives of Florida shooting victims make passionate plea to Congress

Haunting 911 audio from a February 14th school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 killed was released by Broward County Sheriff's Office on Thursday.

David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control three days after the shooting at his school, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US on Feb 17, 2018.
David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at a rally calling for more gun control three days after the shooting at his school, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US on Feb 17, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - Parents of American children killed in gun violence implored Congress to seize the moment on Wednesday (March 7) and enact far-reaching gun reform, as the momentum for taking action stalls in politically divided Washington.

With no lawmakers from the controlling Republican Party present, a group of Senate Democrats held a makeshift hearing in the US Capitol to hear testimony from grieving relatives, a survivor of last month's Parkland, Florida school shooting, teachers and police officers demanding change to the nation's laws.

"How many more children are going to need to be slaughtered?" 17-year-old David Hogg asked the senators.

"We've come to this point where we say we're going to do things... and nothing happens," said Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 14 of his classmates and three staff members were murdered by a gunman.

"Now is the time we need to take action." President Donald Trump had met with survivors and consoled relatives of those killed, and discussed paths forward with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House.

But despite the public grief and a surge of political activism, there has been little concrete action on Capitol Hill, where attention has shifted to fears of a trade war triggered by Trump's call for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

"Congress has been complicit by its inaction," Senator Richard Blumenthal said.

Some lawmakers have stepped up to introduce minor bipartisan gun safety measures in Congress, but it remained unclear when or if the Bills would reach the floor for debates and votes.

Lawmakers in the state of Florida gave final passage on Wednesday (March 7) to a gun-safety package that raises the legal age for buying rifles and imposes a three-day waiting period on all firearms sales, while also allowing the arming of some public school personnel.

But the legislation, while containing a number of provisions student activists and their parents had embraced, left out one of their chief demands - a ban on assault-style weapons like the one used in the Feb 14 massacre.

Supporters have defended the Bill saying most school shootings are committed with handguns.

Swift action in the Republican-controlled statehouse, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) has long held sway, signalled a possible turning point in the national debate between gun control advocates and proponents of firearms rights enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

The measure narrowly cleared the state Senate on Monday and was sent to the desk of Governor Rick Scott, also a Republican, on Wednesday's 67-50 vote in the Florida House of Representatives.

The Bill automatically becomes law within 15 days unless the governor vetoes it. A spokeswoman for Scott said on Tuesday he had not yet decided whether to support the bill.

'Six years old forever'

Democrats have called for several moves, including expanding the background check system to include sales of weapons online and at gun shows, empowering authorities to seize guns from people deemed a danger to society, and curbing sales of assault-style rifles.

"We are going to push and push and push until we get them done," top Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer assured the group.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was murdered in the Feb 14 Parkland shooting, expressed shock that Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan have failed to hold official hearings on gun violence, and he called on the assembled lawmakers to not let the momentum for change slip away.

"I have to hold all of you accountable, to make sure this is seen as a real moment, not a political moment," Guttenberg said, slapping a table for emphasis.

For Francine Wheeler, the constant tragedy heaped on American families was reason enough to act.

"My argument lies in the Earth, a few miles from my front door, in the town cemetery, six years old forever," said Wheeler, whose son Ben was slain at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

"I'm just one, one mom, in the expanding congregation of grief," she noted. "Please do something meaningful and serious."

The 19-year-old shooter Nikolas Cruz was on Wednesday formally indicted on murder charges and could face death penalty, the Broward state attorney’s office said.

The indictment includes 17 counts of first-degree murder, which mean that Cruz could possibly face the death penalty if convicted.