On Gun Violence Awareness Day, Tampa area residents call for stricter gun laws and safer schools
Attendees at the gun violence awareness event in Tampa's Curtis Hixon Park say they want to see a ban on assault weapons, among other reforms. The recent shooting at a Texas elementary school heightened anxiety for families and educators.
About 100 people gathered in Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa on Friday evening to remember lives lost to gun violence and call on the state and nation to pass stricter gun laws.
Most people wore orange shirts, a color that has come to symbolize gun violence awareness. Advocates and area officials spoke in the park before the group embarked on a peace walk along the Hillsborough River.
“It’s heartbreaking to see these mass shootings and it’s just every day now, every day, and we can’t become numb to it,” said Sherry Pagut, 65, of Land O' Lakes.
She wants there to be a national gun registry and voiced concerns about calls to change Florida gun laws to allow people to carry firearms without permits, which has support from Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"That is so reckless," Pagut said.
Pagut joined friends from the Democratic Women's Club of Pasco County, including Raquel Rivera, 68.
Rivera was a teacher before retiring in 2020 and lamented having to do lockdown drills with students because of mass shootings like the ones in Uvalde and in Parkland in 2018.
“We’re here because we’re sick and tired of this nonsense of apologies and thoughts and prayers. Let’s do something, let’s get these AR’s [AR-15 style rifles] off the street,” she said.
Most people in attendance echoed desires to ban assault weapons, one of several reforms President Biden called for this week.
Rivera said gun control would help prevent massacres like the one in Uvalde, not arming teachers with weapons.
Miguel Ynoa, president of the Students Demand Action chapter at Hillsborough High School, agrees. He is frustrated that lawmakers have not taken stronger action to crack down on gun violence as kids continue to face threats.
“I have anxiety, not really bad, but I get scared sometimes because you never know. There’s so many students that are scared and bothered by the idea that we constantly have to go into lockdown once a month and then sit in our hard corner and sit there for five to ten minutes and it’s kind of scary,” said Ynoa, 16.
He and other teenagers at the event want more young people to be educated about gun policy and vote for lawmakers who support gun control. They particularly took issue with Florida's Stand Your Ground law that justifies the use of lethal force if someone perceives they are in danger. Students said they believe it has led to more violence.
The event was personal for Temple Terrace resident Annie Kwarteng, 33. She lost her son Antonio "Jay Jay" McGuire, Jr. in 2020 when he was shot and killed near Curtis Hixon Park. He was 18 years old.
"The pain that I felt, I don't want anyone else to feel," Kwarteng said.
She showed up to the gathering with a group of kids who are members of the organization she founded in memory of her son called Jay Jay Forever. It teaches kids in Hillsborough County about entrepreneurship and teams them up to run small businesses. Kwarteng hopes by giving them opportunities to succeed, they will stay from gun violence.
"The whole purpose is to teach them that they are loved, they are valued, they are needed," she said.
Kwarteng said while lawmakers have a role in addressing gun violence, parents and community members do too. She said more needs to be done to instill positive values in kids and keep them away from violent behavior.
Other advocates, including Johnnie Johnson with Rise Up For Peace and Markita Robinson with Helping Thru the Hurt, agreed that community groups can do a lot to reduce gun violence. But they need more resources, including volunteers and funding.
“We need more support at ground level for grassroots organizations to be effective, the ones that are making these personal relationships with families and victims of the senseless gun violence,” said Johnnie Johnson, with Rise Up for Peace.
Robinson said improving mental health care is vital to addressing the issue, and not just after mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, but to respond to the everyday violence plaguing many neighborhoods.
“The children are scared. They’re seeing their cousins, their brothers, their friends shot and killed, so then they’re going and picking up guns, or they’re afraid to even go to school or play in their neighborhoods,” Robinson said.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor and other officials, including Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, attended the gathering and spoke as it rained early in the evening.
O'Connor delivered a proclamation to recognize National Gun Violence Awareness Day to the Florida chapters of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action on behalf of Mayor Jane Castor, who did not attend the event.
“There are things we can do, including risk protection orders, mental health counseling and intervention, and, most importantly, continued community engagement,” O’Connor said.
Warren called for tightening background checks for gun purchases and vowed to fight against efforts to pass laws in Florida to allow people to carry guns without permits.
Gail Powell-Cope, the Hillsborough lead for Moms Demand Action, said her group will be closely following those efforts as well.
She said Florida did a good job passing some gun reform after the Parkland school shooting, including a "red flag" law that gives law enforcement authority to remove guns from people who could be a danger to themselves and others.
But Powell-Cope said state and lawmakers didn't go far enough. She said it's encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats in Congress talking together about gun safety legislation now and hopes this time is different.
"On my optimistic days I feel like we're at a tipping point now," Powell-Cope said. "I hope that's the case, because of the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde that happened right on top of one another. People want to go to the grocery store and feel safe. They want to go to their church or a synagogue or a park like this."