A movement is brewing
A little over a month after the mass shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, FL, Fort Myers took a stance against gun violence. On Saturday, March 24, about 2,000 residents – students, invigorated citizens and political hopefuls alike – took to the streets to make their voices heard.
By midday, protesters from the March For Our Lives rally in downtown Fort Myers flooded the field at Centennial Park, wielding an array of makeshift signs, ready to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Ann Kiely, a 16-year resident of Lee County, said what brought her out to her community’s rally was “common sense.”
The event in Southwest Florida was held on the same day as the march in Washington, D.C., which was led by student survivors of the Parkland school shooting. More than 500,000 walked Pennsylvania Avenue down to the White House.
Similarly, the march in Fort Myers was organized by local high school students.
Max Slafer, a senior at Cape Coral High School, was one of the organizers of the event. “Staying united builds the momentum. We out-number the people who don’t want change. It’s inspiring,” Slafer said.
He and his fellow students have been actively promoting the march to various media outlets such as Naples News-Press and Fox Radio.
As the crowd packed into Centennial Park, people gravitated toward the pavilion where two U.S. Congressional hopefuls were ready to address their potential constituents. Running in Florida’s 19th district are David Holden (D) and Todd James Truax (D) — one of whom is bound to face the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney (R), in November.
Rep. Rooney did not attend the march.
First to take the stage was Holden. Shortly after pledging to never take money from the National Rifle Association, he noted a sign in the crowd that read “the only thing that can defeat a bad-man with a gun is a Congressman with a spine” to which he told the audience that’s what they would have if he were to be elected.
According to his campaign website, Holden is in favor of passing legislation that would implement universal, vigorous background checks for all gun purchases. He also supports better funded and equipped mental health programs, access to high-quality healthcare, including mental health services, for all, and limiting civilian access to military weapons such as explosives, assault rifles, armor-piercing munitions, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks that easily create mass-killing automatic weapons.
“This is a marathon folks. It’s not a sprint. If we’re going to prevail, then we have to get involved today and keep involved not just through this election, but beyond it. Because it’s not enough to elect me to Congress, you have to hold me accountable.”
Truax, who has had students heavily involved in his campaign efforts, said he was in attendance to “share and amplify” his and the community’s voice. “We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons now,” Truax said to the crowd, which received a loud applause.
At a recent Town Hall hosted by Rep. Rooney in response to the shooting in Parkland, the Congressman said “we need to harden up the targets, possibly put armed people in the schools, and improve the sharing of information of people who are unstable and dangerous that have any type of weapon at all.” The congressman’s response was met with a combination of applause and chants of “No more guns.”
According to his page on the House of Representatives website, Rooney too supports a three-day waiting period for all gun sales, the banning of bump stocks, making the minimum age for purchasing any firearm a 21 years old and ending private sale and “Charleston” exceptions for background checks, stating “no gun sale should occur without a complete and thorough check.”
As the protesters began their march southbound down Heitman St., they stumbled upon a few bumps in the road. A lone counter-protester named Gary Snow hoisted a “Don’t tread on me” flag atop a 20-foot pole, drawing the attention of rally goers from time to time.
Snow said he came out to the rally to “march for [his] rights” and to “show dissent.”
“I understand what these kids are going through. I’m from Chicago. I’ve been shot at,” Snow said. “But this is 2018. It’s an election year. They’re using these kids as political pawns,” referring to the political figures attacking the NRA.
Snow said he and “fellow patriots” created a Facebook group to coordinate attending the hearing at the Tallahassee Capitol building in February for Senate Bill 7026 in attempt to counter-protest the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Students who were there in support of gun-reform.
Under the legislation, anyone buying a firearm from a licensed dealer must be at least 21 years old and wait three days before obtaining a weapon, and Florida would have the first statewide program that allows trained school personnel, except those who exclusively teach, to carry guns.
On March 9, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed S.B. 7026 into law.
Constantly chanting and displaying their signs throughout downtown Fort Myers, the protesters eventually made their way from Centennial Park to the Court House on the corner of Main St. and Monroe St. There, parents, grandparents and students shared their stories of fear and desire for change.
After sharing a song she had written about the Parkland shooting, high school freshman Isobel Fitzgerald said “we shouldn’t be terrified to leave our friends to go to class… To the NRA and politicians that would rather have their guns over children’s lives, they can sit and watch us vote them out of office. We are angry. We need change. How many more?”
“Real change is going to happen sooner than people believe,” Truax said. “The blue wave is coming ashore.”
This article was edited on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.