This Feb. 21 photo shows Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky, left, asking a question to Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall meeting in Sunrise, Fla.
Michael Laughlin, AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Parkland could be the turning point in the national and state debate over gun regulations, school security provisions and mental health services, experts say. 

In the week since the Valentine’s Day slaughter of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, thousands of people mobilized on Tallahassee. Most were high school and college students locked arm in arm with Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activists who also have been victims of gun violence.

Student survivors met with lawmakers, and lawmakers in turn responded with a raft of legislation to protect school children but stopped short of banning assault weapons and demanding universal background checks.

More: At White House, students call for gun control as part of national protest

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More: Florida Gov. Rick Scott following school shooting: You must be 21 to buy a gun

Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said the Legislature’s production of a flurry of gun reform bills Friday was due to the “tremendous civic outpouring of these children themselves.”

“For any of us to say that a call to action did not come from the direct participation of those victims, being able to sit with them and hear them, would certainly not be honest,” Oliva said.

It’s something that the deaths of 47 Pulse nightclub patrons couldn’t get the Legislature to act on in 2016, even though the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence urged Gov. Scott and the Legislature to take up a special session to ban assault weapons.

Brandon Wolfe, a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, addresses the crowd at the rally in Tallahassee, Florida on Wednesday alongside students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. "Do your job, or stay out of our way!" he emphasized to the crowd and to lawmakers in attendance.
Andrew Salinero, USA TODAY NEWORK

Largely silent through the course of events since the Parkland massacre, Marion Hammer, who has represented the NRA in Florida for decades, finally spoke up Friday.

“I think it’s political eyewash,” Hammer said. “Just because leadership has done this doesn’t mean that all legislators will support it.”

Asked why lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Scott, who has supported the NRA and voted on legislation favoring less gun control in the past would suddenly pivot to support some gun relations, Hammer said she didn’t “have a crystal ball.”

But she warned: “When you abandon law-abiding gun owners to cater to anti-gun groups there’s trouble ahead.”

Several political experts and advocates cited three main reasons why this shooting is different: the children leading the movement, the timing of the shooting while the Legislature was in session, and a volatile election year where voters are angry at government inaction.

“Not only is it an election year but many lawmakers see the blue wave leading the election year, especially here in Florida,” said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.

At least two special elections in Florida turned two GOP legislative seats blue. Democrat Annette Taddeo beat Republican Jose Felix Diaz in September to replace Republican Frank Artiles. Last week, Margaret Good defeated a Republican and a Libertarian to win a seat vacated by Republican Alex Miller.

“Elections matter, and many elected officials are moving in a way not anticipated,” Smith said. “Of course it is one thing to have a flurry of legislative activity and another thing to see if these bills move forward and get voted on or watered down.”

Seeing students lead the way was a significant difference between Parkland and past shootings, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“They headed to Tallahassee in mass numbers but were led by the children who said they had to witness the worst moment of their lives and step over the dead bodies of their friends," Macmanus said.

The shooting created a unified outrage and mobilized enough people to make a huge impression at the Capitol, she said, and that created the tipping point “when you say enough is not enough.”

And GOP lawmakers recognized that for what it was — a movement.

“Nothing speaks louder in politics than numbers,” MacManus said. “Republicans knew they had to do something or they’d be swamped.”

The way to get intransigent lawmakers to move is when lots of people are angry and show no sign it’s going to dissipate soon, she said.

Students are the future of the gun-violence prevention movement, said Patricia Brigham, first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“They are future voters and they just lost their classmates, their friends and mentors in a slaughter with a shooter using an AR 15 semi-automatic assault weapon,” she said.

When the Pulse nightclub shooting occurred on June 12, 2016, the Legislature was not in session and did not immediately address the mass shooting.

“Our coalition formed after Pulse and the first thing we did was ask for a special session to address a ban on semiautomatic weapons and large capacity magazines,” she said.

They got dead silence.

“So now that the legislative session is underway they have to respond,” Brigham said.

The gun legislation being offered is mostly cosmetic, she added. For example, raising the age to 21 for rifle purchases is woefully inadequate. The Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooter was 26. The Pulse nightclub shooter was 29. The Las Vegas shooter was 64.

“So raising the age does not address the problem which is the easy availability of semiautomatic weapons and large magazines,” Brigham said. She said the Legislature also needs to close the gun show loophole and provide universal background checks.

But she is glad for the chance to debate these issues in the Legislature, and glad some of the more extreme proposals are not being embraced.

“I am feeling positive there is finally a conversation happening among our lawmakers about gun violence,” Brigham said. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It’s a public safety issue that affects all Americans no matter what the party.”

Momentum has been building in Florida since Pulse, said Joe Saunders, the senior political director for Equality Florida. It took the effort of LGBT advocates to force Gov. Scott and the Legislature to recognize the shooting as a hate crime and drop the original narrative that it was a terrorist attack orchestrated by ISIS.

“The fact that the Pulse shooting happened to Latino people who were LGBT did affect the response we got from legislators,” Saunders said. “It affected the words out of their mouth, what happened at that moment and whether they were willing to listen.”

Pulse survivors were among the first to go to Parkland students, provide comfort and stand with them in Tallahassee, he said.

“The world that watched what happened at Pulse are the same people that watched what happened at Parkland,” Saunders said.

The coalition is not pleased that the Legislature has not address background checks and banning assault weapons. And there are huge differences in the governor’s plan and what’s been laid out by the House and Senate. For instance, the governor doesn’t support arming teachers, while the House and Senate propose arming teachers.

But at least they are finally at a point where debate is happening, he said.

“It’s exciting that after 10 years the Legislature is willing in this moment to have a conversation about gun safety reform,” he said.