PARKLAND, FLORIDA – The parents and spouses arrive alone and in pairs. On a scorchingly hot morning in June, they park their cars outside the clubhouse in a pristine subdivision and make their way inside to the “Teen Room.” If any of them notice the grim relevance of this meeting space’s name, no one says so. They wear colorful wristbands and greet one another with a hug but know better than to ask “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” Instead, they say, “How are you doing today?” or “How are you doing right now?”
They are the Parkland families. Each lost a son or a daughter or a partner when a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th, one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. Many of these families didn’t know each other before the tragedy. But they are now the members of what Gena Hoyer, whose 15-year-old son Luke was killed that day, calls an exclusive club “that none of us ever wanted to become a part of.”
On this weekday in June, a small group of them are meeting up for a day of “media training.” They keep time for one another as they practice retelling the story of the worst day of their lives. Their sentences are filled with long pauses and tears as they struggle to keep their composure. But still they press on, firm in the belief that the most important thing they can do right now is tell others what happened – and to enlist them in their cause of stopping it from happening again.
Today, parents and spouses for nearly all of the 17 people killed in the shooting launched Stand With Parkland, an organization created to pass new, bipartisan laws at the state and federal levels to help stop future school shootings. Parents who helped start the group say it grew out of recent victories in Florida and Washington. But it’s also an effort to harness the outpouring of energy they’ve received from across the country.
“Parents everywhere want to know, ‘What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen in our communities and our schools and to our children?'” says Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed at Stoneman Douglas. “Stand with Parkland, in my view, is an organization that’s aimed squarely at the American public with answers to those questions.”
These families share similar goals to the school’s headline-making students, whose massive rallies, national bus tour and savvy use of social media have transfixed the country and elevated the gun-control debate. But the parents and spouses say they plan to take a different approach. Where the March for Our Lives movement has focused largely on gun-related policies, Stand With Parkland’s strategy puts equal emphasis on school security and mental-health treatment in addition to what it calls responsible firearm ownership. And while the Stoneman Douglas students have used their platforms to register new voters and confront foes like the NRA, Stand With Parkland strikes a more conciliatory tone, hoping to work with Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike to pass bipartisan legislation. (Kristen Hawn, a D.C.-based consultant who works with the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, is advising the group.)
“The only way to make this work, in our opinion, is to respect everybody, to listen to everybody, to be inclusive rather than divisive,” says Tony Montalto, who lost his 14-year-old daughter Gina in the shooting. “Hopefully, we can do that. And by talking to both sides – Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, whatever – we’ll find that compromise that makes people safer.”
The first pillar of Stand With Parkland’s policy goals, school safety, could mean anything from implementing single entry points at schools to more advanced access-control systems that monitor who is inside a school building at any one time. Their second pillar is a push for expanded access to mental-health services and increased safeguards against mentally ill individuals owning a gun, which they say is driven in part by the fact that Nikolas Cruz, the gunman in the Parkland shooting, had shown signs of mental illness, including attempting suicide and cutting himself.
The third pillar of their strategy is responsible firearm ownership, a phrase that illustrates just how much Stand With Parkland wants to win over those who might not be considered allies. The group intends to lobby for expanded background checks as part of gun purchases – a reform with strong bipartisan support and support among gun owners – and for more accurate data to be used in the background-check process. But it has deliberately chosen not to use the phrases “gun control” and “common-sense solutions” – the kinds of buzzwords employed by many other organizations fighting for some of the same reforms.
“So many terms get thrown around and immediately you signal to one side or the other whether you’re on their team,” Petty says. “We want to work with everyone.”
The Parkland families were not lobbyists before the events of February 14th. They helped out at school or volunteered with the PTA, but they weren’t politically active. After the shooting, some formed charities in the memory of their loved ones: Meadow’s Movement, Swim for Nick, the Helena Ramsay Memorial Fund. Others decided to run for local school board and to launch various school-safety initiatives. And with the memory still fresh in their minds – the active-shooter alert, the sound of a helicopter’s rotors over the school, the news that their son or daughter or spouse was among those killed – they descended on the Florida legislature to demand that something be done to prevent the next shooting.
Three weeks later, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, signed the bipartisan Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act into law. It gave the courts new authority to prevent mentally-ill people from buying or possessing guns, banned so-called bump stocks, enacted a three-day waiting period to buy a firearm and gave specially trained staff including certain teachers the ability to carry a gun at school. It included hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the hiring of “safe-school officers,” new school-safety measures at the district level and expanded mental-health services specifically aimed at young people.
“Every student in Florida has the right to learn in a safe environment,” Scott said at the press conference, “and every parent has the right to send their kids to school knowing that they will return safely at the end of the day.” As he signed the bill, Gov. Scott singled out the Parkland parents for their “powerful” role in passing the new legislation.
After helping pass the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, the families moved on to Washington. There, they successfully lobbied for two pieces of legislation: the Fix NICS Act, which strengthened the background-check process for gun purchases, and the STOP School Violence Act, which reauthorized a Department of Justice program intended to identify and stop school threats and provided $50 million in grants to fund new school-security measures. Congress enacted both bills with bipartisan support.
Now, the families of Stand With Parkland are ready to take their message and strategy to the rest of the country – even if it means constantly reliving the worst day of their lives. They’re hardly the first group of people directly affected by the epidemic of mass shootings in this country to set out to change our laws, and many such efforts in the past have fallen short of success. But far worse than failure, they told me, would be to not try in the first place.
“If I have to relive some painful moments so that I can motivate other parents or other families to take action and be more involved and push for changes that will keep their family members safe, their kids or their spouses safe, then it’s worth that pain to me,” Ryan Petty says. “It honors my daughter in a way that I think she deserves to be honored.”