Today marks one year since a troubled young man brought a gun to his former high school and murdered 17 students and teachers and injured 17 more. (Out of respect for the families, I follow their habit of avoiding using his name.) As commonly happens after such tragedies, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida heated up America’s ongoing debate about gun control. This time, however, a different narrative emerged: the families of the victims were determined to set aside political differences wherever possible and fight together for reforms they hoped would prevent other families from ever experiencing the same pain.
The families of Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsey, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, and Peter Wang had diverse political views before the shooting, and that did not change on that tragic February day.
Like the rest of America, they cannot agree on gun control, but discussions when they gathered at the Schachter home shortly after the shooting quickly highlighted areas where they could stand together: improvements to school security and mental health services, responsible gun ownership, and efforts to honor the memories of their lost loved ones through acts of kindness.
Political rookies, they had mere weeks to learn complex legislative processes. The 2018 midterm elections were looming in November and would make it increasingly difficult to pass new bills. In Florida, an even louder ticking clock awaited on March 9th with the end of the legislative session.
Ryan Petty, father of Alaina Petty, soon emerged as one of the leaders of the group. With his professional experience in software development, he served as their “unofficial IT director” and helped everyone download the Slack app that became their chief communication tool.
When I interviewed Petty for The Daily Beast last year, one theme he kept emphasizing was their determination to move past political divisions to actually get effective reforms passed:
“After every school shooting the conversation inevitably moves to gun control, but each side is entrenched in their positions, the moment passes, and nothing gets done,” said Petty. “I’m not a policy expert just because I’ve been through a tragedy, but there’s enough we can agree on to let us take effective action.”
“This time must be different,” he said emphatically. “This time will be different, because we are going to focus on school safety and keeping guns away from those who would hurt themselves or others.”
One major frustration was the horrifyingly long list of missed opportunities where the authorities had failed to intervene in the shooter’s life as he exhibited increasingly threatening and violent behavior. The Broward County police were called to his home dozens of times, the FBI failed to follow their own protocols after receiving a tip that he was a potential school shooter, and the Broward County School District shuffled him into various “alternative” programs. Not once was he charged with any crime or referred to mental health treatment that would have blocked him from legally buying his guns.
Then there was the failure of the school to secure the gates around the campus, miscommunications by security personnel when they saw the shooter enter the campus, and – perhaps most heartbreaking of all – the multiple Broward County Sheriff’s deputies who waited in the parking lot while the shooter was slaughtering innocent people inside.
In Florida, then-Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) had stepped forward with a reform package that substantially increased funding for school security measures and mental health services, created a gun violence restraining order procedure, allowed properly trained school personnel to carry guns, increased criminal penalties for threats against schools (including social media threats), banned bump stocks (the device that the 2017 Las Vegas shooter used to fire his weapon so rapidly), imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, and raised the age to purchase guns to 21 years old.
At the federal level, the STOP School Violence Act (providing funding for threat assessment training and school security improvements) and the Fix NICS Bill (fixing flaws in the national background check systems) had bipartisan support, including both of Florida’s senators, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The families planned multiple trips to Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee to meet with lawmakers and staff and organized phone and email outreach efforts. A gun control bill had been hastily drafted by Democratic Florida legislators in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, skipping the normal committee process and getting voted down while a gallery audience full of Stoneman Douglas students and families tearfully watched. No one wanted to repeat the trauma or futility of that scene again, and it was necessary to win the support of Republican lawmakers to vote for bills that a Republican governor and president would sign.
In Tallahassee, the families found a unique guide to help them navigate the Republican-controlled chambers: Steve Schale, a locally-based operative for Democratic candidates, including directing Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida. “I called that guy all kinds of strange hours,” said Petty, calling Schale an “awesome” and “invaluable” ally.
Schale described himself as their “Sherpa,” noting that the Florida legislative process “doesn’t always make sense” and he was happy to help them navigate through the complex rules, procedures, and unwritten customs that rule in Tallahassee. He also quickly realized that their unified stance was possibly their greatest asset.
“They are 17 families like any 17 families picked out of a lottery,” said Schale, “and they represent as many random views as any people but, to their credit, they figured out that they had to speak in one voice.”
This unified voice “gave some cover for legislators” to support the bill, noted Schale. “Had they not come from a place of unanimity it would have been much harder to get that done.”
The looming deadlines worked to both increase the pressure but also keep focused when their grief threatened to overwhelm them. “All we’ve been doing is working against other people’s deadlines since our children passed,” said Tony Montalto, Gina Montalto’s father, “but the fact that there was a tight time frame helped us. Those guys knew they had to act, they knew they couldn’t go into their elections without doing something in response to this tragedy.”
The families’ initial efforts were successful. The STOP School Violence Act and Fix NICS bills were included in the omnibus spending bill that would be signed into law by President Donald Trump at the end of March. The Florida bill was a more uphill climb, going through several rounds of contentious debates and dramatic amendments, but the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was ultimately passed and signed into law by Gov. Scott on March 9, the last day of the session.
The work is far from over, and the families continue to engage with a variety of reform efforts. They work together when they can, including forming an organization called Stand With Parkland. In addition to supporting last year’s bills, this group has held town halls and school safety forums with recognized experts in security and suicide prevention (the warning signs for suicide and mass shootings have substantial overlap). When Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) removed Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office shortly after taking office in January, Stand With Parkland issued a press release applauding the decision.
Of course, complete agreement is not possible on all issues. Andrew Pollack, Meadow Pollack’s father, holds very conservative views on gun rights issues, and has even appeared on NRA TV programs recently, while several other family members have joined the March For Our Lives gun control movement and the “Ban Assault Weapons Now” political committee supporting a 2020 ballot initiative to amend the Florida Constitution to ban assault weapons.
The Tampa Bay Times unfortunately added confusion to the issue in a story this week where both the headline and initial paragraphs claimed that “the families of slain Parkland students” and “relatives of the 17 people killed” supported the assault weapons ban. The facts are that several relatives support a ban (later on, the article cites support from relatives of 3 of the 17), but not all do.
The lack of media clarity, along with the conflation with the more visible March for Our Lives movement, has occasionally put the families in an uncomfortable position, but they continue to work for unity where they can, and to protect the legacy of the loved ones they lost.
“My biggest fear,” said Petty, “is that the community looks at this anniversary and thinks that it’s ok to move on. We’ve made a lot of progress in the past year on school safety, more than perhaps any other time in recent history, and it would be a shame to lose the momentum.”
“I hope that our community and our state and our country don’t move past this.”
Petty voiced approval of the “Honor17” effort to honor the 17 Parkland victims through random acts of kindness, including a Facebook page and template to download, and a similar #17DayCelebration organized by the Gainesville chapter March for Our Lives, which encouraged people to do a different activity each day to celebrate the lives of the victims, such as listening to the Beatles or Aerosmith for Nicholas Dworet, watching basketball and eating chicken nuggets for Luke Hoyer, and displaying the American flag or wearing purple for his daughter Alaina, the Junior ROTC cadet’s favorite color.
Several months ago, Montalto shared with me memories of his daughter Gina, “a kind-hearted kid with a big smile, a great big sister, and an excellent student.”
“She loved school and she loved her family,” said Montalto. “She would’ve gone on to do great things in this world, and maybe through this movement she will.”
[Note: quotes in this article were taken from in-person and telephone interviews conducted at various times over the past year.]
Sarah Rumpf is a communications strategist, writer, and caffeine addict living in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow her on Twitter @rumpfshaker.