School shooting puts pressure on Florida lawmakers to act

2018-02-20 14:10
Nikolas Cruz, the accused in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, appears in court for a status hearing. Mike Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Nikolas Cruz, the accused in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, appears in court for a status hearing. Mike Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

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Parkland - The deadly shooting at a Florida high school has put pressure on the state's Republican-controlled Legislature to consider a sweeping package of gun-control laws in a state that has resisted restrictions on firearms for decades, lawmakers said on Monday.

The legislative effort coalesced as 100 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prepared to ride buses more than 640km to the state capital on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to act to prevent a repeat of the massacre that killed 17 students and faculty last week.

The suspect, 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, made his first appearance in court on Monday. Wearing a prison jumpsuit, he kept his head down and didn't appear to make eye contact with the judge or others in the courtroom, though he responded briefly to someone on the defence team. A previous appearance was by a video connection from jail.

READ: Survivors of deadly school shooting lash out at Trump

His lawyers have said he will plead guilty if prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty. No decision has been made on that.

Soon after the shooting, several legislative leaders were taken on a tour of the school to see the damage first-hand and appeared shaken afterward.

Gun restrictions

The attack seemed to overcome the resistance of some in the state's leadership, which has rebuffed gun restrictions since Republicans took control of both the governor's office and the Legislature in 1999.

However, there is still strong resistance by many in the party to any gun-control measures, leaving the fate of new restrictions unclear.

Senator Bill Galvano, a Republican and the incoming state Senate president, said the Senate was preparing a package that would include raising the age to purchase any firearm to 21, creating a waiting period for purchasing any type of firearm, banning bump stocks that can allow semi-automatic guns to spray bullets quickly and creating gun-violence restraining orders.

Authorities said Cruz had a string of run-ins with school authorities that ended with his expulsion.

Police were also repeatedly called to his house throughout his childhood. Cruz's lawyers said there were repeated warning signs that he was mentally unstable and potentially violent. Yet he legally purchased a semi-automatic rifle.

"We need to make sure everything is working and to learn from the experience," said Galvano, who was among those who visited the school.

The Senate is also considering boosting spending on mental health programmes for schools and giving law-enforcement greater power to involuntarily hold someone considered a danger to themselves.

The body will also look at a proposal to deputise a teacher or someone else at school so they are authorised to have a gun.

Galvano said senators want to examine ways to protect schools that do not have resource officers - often armed law enforcement officers - on site.

'Joke'

Still, some Republicans questioned whether additional gun restrictions are the answer.

"I really don't want to see this politicised into a gun debate," said Republican Senator Dennis Baxley.

Referring to gun-control advocates, he said: "Sometimes I wish they were right, that this would fix it, but it won't... We have a terrible problem with obesity, but we're not banning forks and spoons."

Democrats believe raising the age limit and creating a waiting period to buy rifles isn't enough.

"That's unacceptable. That's a joke," said Democratic Senaor Gary Farmer of Broward County.

"I don't see that as a restriction. It never should have been that an 18-year-old could buy an assault weapon. No Floridians should be able to buy an assault weapon."

Since the attack, students from the school have become increasingly vocal in their demands for gun-control measures.

Many have pointed out politicians who take financial support from the National Rifle Association, and some have lashed out at US President Donald Trump, saying he was busy blaming Democrats for failing to pass gun restrictions while taking no action of his own.

After staying largely mum in the last few days about the massacre and the escalating debate about weapons, Trump said on Monday that he was supportive of a bipartisan effort to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchases.

Students are also calling for anti-gun violence demonstrations in Washington and other cities on March 24.

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