As March for Our Lives champions firearms control at midterm elections, Parkland victim’s father says guns are not the problem

Nine months out, the debate on how to curb America’s gun violence epidemic simmers on as voters take to the polls in the 2018 midterm elections

Clark Mindock
Broward County, Florida
Tuesday 06 November 2018 17:13 GMT
Students on top of a bus during a Vote for Our Lives rally at the University of Central Florida in Orlando
Students on top of a bus during a Vote for Our Lives rally at the University of Central Florida in Orlando (AP)

Andrew Pollack has been on a mission that some may deem inappropriate ever since his 17-year-old daughter, Meadow, was murdered in one of the worst mass shootings in American history.

Many south Florida student-survivors-turned-activists have focused on gun control legislation as a means to stop the next Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, by teaming with Democratic local and state politicians and the March for Our Lives movement. But Mr Pollack has his sights on fixes that run closer to what the Trump administration championed in the days and weeks following the Parkland shooting in February.

The Parkland shooting was a result of lenient criminal justice enforcement in Broward County, Mr Pollack says, not lax gun control laws. An AR-15 didn’t kill his daughter, a mentally ill former student with an extensive violent history who was not arrested and treated did, he argues. And, it is not the National Rifle Association (NRA) who is responsible for his daughter’s spilled blood, it’s the Democrats who run the school district and sheriff’s office there who are.

“To just blame the guns or the NRA is idiotic. Whoever does that, all that is is a distraction from really making a difference in school safety,” Mr Pollack told The Independent. “If someone blames the gun – I take it personally, because it’s a distraction from what we can accomplish”.

Nine months after a gunman armed with an AR-15 opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing Meadow, 13 other students and three school administrators, America remains split heading into the midterm elections on how to combat the deadly epidemic of gun violence that has repeatedly spilled blood in schools, places of worship, and virtually every corner of public and private life.

There may be no greater concentration of that diverse debate than in Broward County, Florida, and Tallahassee – where Mr Pollack, the survivors working with March for Our Lives, and the NRA have all been working to push their agendas.

On local radio talk shows the issue is ubiquitous: how many restrictions should be placed on buying semi-automatic rifles like the one used in Parkland? How “hard” should schools be, so that gunmen cannot hope to access and wreak much damage no matter what guns they have access to? How are we going to pay for armed guards in schools?

To a certain degree, there is a fundamental lack of consensus on what the problem truly is. While Mr Pollack and other more conservative figures – including President Donald Trump – have advocated for armed guards in schools and places of worship, others like Fred Guttenberg – whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was also killed in the Parkland shooting – say that simply arming folks is ignoring the ease with which potential murderers can access guns.

“When I hear the elected leaders talking the same nonsense that they did after Parkland, it says to me they still don’t get the underlying problem and what it takes to fix it,” Mr Guttenburg said during an appearance on Democracy Now!, where he was discussing calls to arm guards at houses of worship following the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshippers a week and a half ago.

The Parkland shooting spurred a massive public dialogue in the United States around guns, as photographs of those killed circulated on the news media and reminded America of the ugly face of gun violence in the country.

In response, a rare movement on gun legislation was seen in states like Florida and elsewhere where the NRA has leveraged considerable power to thwart any effort to push gun control measures.

In Florida, specifically, Governor Rick Scott signed a sweeping school safety bill – that Mr Pollack helped lobby for – into law less than a month after the shooting. That law raised the minimum age from 18 to 21 to buy a rifle, allows police to seize guns from individuals deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, earmarked $400m (£306) to improve school security, mental health services and reporting, and allows some school administrators to carry firearms in school. The law also extended a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long gun purchases – such as AR-15s and shotguns – and imposed a ban on bump stocks. The NRA swiftly filed lawsuits challenging parts of the law.

Meanwhile, student survivors rallied against gun violence and in favour of gun controls that would keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals and those with criminal histories, culminating in a massive march in Washington dubbed the March for Our Lives – and many of those students have continued the effort, urging activism at the ballot box in the midterms to usher in politicians who will push back against the NRA and reject political donations from the group.

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Although Mr Pollack played a part in the school safety bill passed in Florida – and loosely argues that he does not approach the issue from a partisan standpoint – he continues to push back on what he sees as Democratic policies that ultimately set the stage for his daughter’s murder alongside more than a dozen other deaths on 14 February.

The culprit, he says, is a culture of tolerance in Broward schools that allowed Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, to continuously slide by for years without significant punishment for actions that could have been labelled criminal.

Discipline records obtained by the Florida Sun Sentinel appear to support his claims that the gunman slipped through the cracks: Cruz was repeatedly flagged for misbehaving but may have benefited from efforts by administrators to give youth with problems second chances and keep them out of jails, where individuals can be trapped in a cycle that brings them into and out of custody.

March For Our Lives: Martin Luther King's grandaughter Yolanda's speech in Washington DC

That includes a 2013 incident in which Cruz was flagged for vandalising a bathroom – but may have benefited from a diversionary program that lets first-time offenders undergo treatment instead of punishment – and another incident where he was sent to a special school for children with severe emotional and behavioural disorders where he was found to be developmentally delayed.

Meanwhile, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has been criticised as well for repeatedly missing signs that Cruz was a danger. Police records indicate that the sheriff’s office received as many as 45 calls related to Cruz or his brother between 2008 and 2017. Calls related to Cruz himself include descriptions of fights between him and his brother, of him cursing at his mother, and of him throwing his mother against a wall for taking away his Xbox.

In a 2016 call, a neighbour warned the sheriff’s office that Cruz had posted a photo on Instagram saying he “planned to shoot up the school”, and others indicated he had tried to kill himself.

Mr Pollack said that he has never been particularly political, but he has had to wake up every day since Valentine’s Day thinking about the mistakes and policies he says allowed his daughter to die. Now, he knows he is seen as a solid Republican, and he is OK with that, because it means he feels he is fighting for children like his daughter.

“It’s easy to blame a gun, the tool,” he said. “It’s harder to look at the facts and see what happened. I know what happened here in Broward. I know how many times he could’ve been arrested. I know what happened with mental health experts. I know what allowed him to go to school with my beautiful daughter”.

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