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Thursday, Jan 17, 2019
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Ruth: Building on the lobbying success of Douglas High families

There is a theory being bandied about Tallahassee following the rather extraordinary vote by the Florida Legislature to risk the ire of the National Rifle Association with a new state law dealing with gun sale restrictions and public safety.

Responding to last month’s massacre of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, lawmakers provided more money for mental health programs, raised the age limit to 21 to purchase all firearms, imposed a three-day waiting period to complete the sale of all guns and allowed for the arming of school personnel. They refused to ban assault weapons or large magazines. So let’s not get too carried away with responsible governance.

There has been some thought that even the modest reforms only came about as a result of tragic timing, since the shootings occurred while the Legislature happened to be in session.

After all, when the Pulse nightclub bloodbath occurred in June 2016, the Legislature was not in session and lawmakers were scattered around the state. They only offered up obligatory "thoughts and prayers." Your government did absolutely nothing.

And so the Legislature was caught in a bind when more than 100 Douglas students, along with some of the families of the victims, arrived in Tallahassee to lobby legislators to do something to address the scourge of gun violence. That created a political challenge for lawmakers dealing with the optics of emotionally drained and traumatized students and families who were demanding their elected officials take on the National Rifle Association.

Whom would you rather offend at a moment like this? The students and families, or the NRA’s Marion Hammer?

Many legislators are big NRA fans, but they are also calculating politicians who want to remain in office.

The Douglas students won the day. They forced the Legislature and the governor to embrace a package of gun and public safety measures that would have been unthinkable before Feb. 14. They deserve all the plaudits and admiration being heaped upon them.

But they must also remember that after they went back home, the NRA remains a potent political force in Tallahassee.

What now?

What the Douglas students accomplished, while important, represents only the first baby steps in forcing elected officials to take on the gun lobby. That crusade is at risk. After all, these young people are going to soon move on with their lives, graduating and heading off to college.

If the Douglas High activists want to turn their short-term efforts into a lasting legacy, they need to create an entity that is as politically brutal and unforgiving and deep-pocketed as the NRA. They could create something along the lines of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Political Action Committee that focuses exclusively on gun control and aggressively targets any elected official, regardless of party affiliation, who falls short on supporting banning assault weapons.

And for that they need adult supervision — people who understand fundraising, messaging and navigating the shady halls of government in Tallahassee.

Over the coming days there are marches and demonstrations planned around the country under the broad theme of marching for our lives. No doubt these events will be quite inspirational as survivors of gun violence, including the Douglas High students, deliver emotional testimony of their experiences.

Massive expressions certainly have their place in any national dialogue. They contribute to changing hearts and minds.

Ultimately, however, the road to genuine gun reform is through the ballot box and the unsexy nitty-gritty of knocking on doors, getting petitions signed, asking for money and rewarding and punishing candidates.

The Douglas High students won a hard-fought victory last week. But as long as the NRA haunts the halls of Tallahassee, will those gun reforms still be around in the years ahead?

That requires vigilance.

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