Driving for Their Lives

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Parkland: pressing for change

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The National Rifle Association is facing a new adversary in the form of a political action committee formed by parents in a Florida community scarred by a school massacre.

Families vs Assault Rifles aims to defeat the electoral ambitions of congressional candidates bankrolled by the gun rights lobby and is seeking amendments to the National Firearms Act of 1934, including a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

NRA-supporting politicians have a decision to make: do they want to accept the NRA’s filthy blood money?” Jeff Kasky, a co-founder of the committee, said. “If they do, we will shine a big fat spotlight on the fact that they are selling their vote to a nefarious, unprincipled organisation that exists only to enrich its executive board. It’s a vicious cycle between certain politicians and the NRA — and we are going to break that cycle.”

His sons, Cameron, 17, and Holden, 15, are pupils at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead by an assailant armed with an AR-15 rifle in February. Cameron co-founded March for Our Lives, a pupil-led protest movement that has become a powerful voice in America’s gun reform debate.

Gun stores are now taking online orders for a more powerful weapon, the Gilboa Snake, a double-barrelled version of the AR-15.

Families vs Assault Rifles registered as a political action committee two weeks ago, on the day that ten pupils and teachers were shot dead at Santa Fe High School near Houston. President Trump visited some of the survivors of the shooting yesterday, but caused controversy by telling reporters as he boarded Air Force One for the trip to Texas that he was “going to have a little fun”.

The committee is soliciting $17 donations from supporters, representing the 17 lives lost at the Florida school. In the first few hours after its launch yesterday it received thousands of payments.

Mr Kasky, a lawyer, said that the committee would spend against congressional candidates backed by NRA money, bombarding media with advertising to expose their financial ties.

The NRA’s wealth has made it influential in US politics. It has spent $132 million over the past 15 years on supporting pro-gun candidates in elections, including Mr Trump’s campaign for office in 2016. Mr Trump said in March that he was ready to defy the NRA by banning bump stocks — accessories fitted to semi-automatic rifles to boost their firepower — and raising the age for buying a gun, but he has since backtracked.

Ted Nugent, 69, an NRA director, has dismissed the Parkland pupils calling for reform as mushy-brained children who have no soul.

Parkland outrage over school shooting video game

UPDATE: The game developer has backed down and the game is to be withdrawn

Jacqui Goddard in Miami

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Parents of children killed in Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre have demanded a ban on a video game in which players take the role of a gunman stalking classrooms and hallways shooting students.

Active Shooter, which is due for online publication next week, allows users to simulate a mass slaughter in a school and score points for every civilian or SWAT officer they kill.

“Get ready guys. This is going to be a fun ride for all of us,” the game’s designer enthuses.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was killed when a former student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle opened fire at MSD in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, said yesterday: “I’m enraged, I’m outraged…They are using what happened to my daughter’s school, to my daughter, as a game and they should be put out of business.”

Active Shooter offers a gunman’s eye view of a school, showing the barrel of a gun in the foreground and instructions to “hunt and destroy”. A scoreboard keeps track of the body count.

Alternatively, the player can choose to be a SWAT officer tasked with extracting civilians and neutralising the shooter. Scenes include classrooms, corridors, the assembly hall and the gymnasium. Blood showers from victims’ heads and bodies when they are hit. The shooter’s arsenal also includes hand grenades.

A total of 4,685 people have been killed in gun violence in the US so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit tracking agency. That includes 22 shootings in schools, including at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas, where ten students and teachers were killed by an armed student on May 18.

The trend has prompted an increasing number of schools to seek insurance policies to cover the costs of mass shootings, such as payouts to families and counselling for survivors. Proposals by President Trump to give school districts the option to arm teachers and other school staff have proved an obstacle to some seeking coverage, due to the increased risk of liability.

In New Hampshire, families of teachers “killed in the line of duty” will receive a $100,000 payout under new legislation passed last week.

Jaime Guttenberg’s spinal cord was severed by a single bullet as she ran from the gunman at MSD. Thirteen other students and three teaching staff were also killed, and 17 wounded.

Mr Guttenberg has become a prominent gun reform activist since his daughter’s death and an outspoken critic of the National Rifle Association, which has resisted calls for a tightening of gun regulations. The organisation pumped $30 million into Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign and has faced a backlash for bankrolling politicians opposed to gun reform.

“The NRA should be joining me in the outrage against this game. The president should be joining me. They’ve all blamed video games for shootings instead of guns – where are they now?” said Mr Guttenberg yesterday.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow, 18, was killed at MSD, said the game “crosses the line”. Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina, 14, also died in the shooting, called it “disgusting.”

Neither the game’s developer, Revived Games, the publisher, Valve, nor the game’s storefront, Steam, were available for comment yesterday.

A disclaimer on Steam’s page states: “Please do not take any of this seriously…If you feel like hurting someone or people around you, please seek help from local psychiatrists or dial 911.”

Slippery customers

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They used to be a rare sight, outnumbered by their prey and elusive to all but the most persistent of hunters.

Now, Burmese pythons are being caught at an average rate of three a day in Florida’s Everglades wilderness, where they have established a stranglehold and devastated native wildlife populations.

“We’ve never seen anything like it. We’re seeing a 99% reduction in fur-bearing animals in Everglades National Park and surrounding natural areas,” said Mike Kirkland, manager of a python eradication programme for South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the area’s largest landowner.

“They are just top of the food chain down here. It’s extremely important to push back against this invasive species and restore some balance to the ecosystem,” he added.

Burmese pythons originated in southeast Asia but have had an established breeding population in the Everglades since 2000, as a result of people who once kept them as exotic pets dumping them in the swamps when they grew too big for comfort.

They are prolific breeders and apex predators, even sometimes taking down alligators and American crocodiles, and their effect on native mammals and wading birds — including threatened and endangered species — has been drastic.

“If you go to Everglades National Park right now you’ll be hard pressed to find a single squirrel, a single raccoon, a single possum, whereas if you were a park-goer back in the ‘80s or prior it was just teeming with life,” said Mr Kirkland.

Brian Hargrove, one of 25 hunters hired to search for Burmese pythons on SFWMD land, said: “I grew up here but it’s not the same. We don’t see the same fish, we don’t see any mammals. All we see really are pythons.”

Dusty Crum, also a hunter, said: “You used to drive in the Everglades and you’d see usually 20, 30, 40 rabbits on any given morning. I’ve only seen one since we started this programme – and he looked scared.”

Last week, Hargrove caught and killed the 14-month-old programme’s 1,000th Burmese python, measuring 11ft 2in. The average is 9ft, though the longest was just short of 18ft. Hunters get paid $8.25 an hour, plus a $50 bonus for every one they capture that measures up to four feet long, and $25 for every extra foot beyond that.

Wildlife managers admit that they have no idea of the size of the snake population now, estimating it anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000. About half of those captured were breeding females, which can lay up to 70 eggs in one clutch, once every year.

Randy Smith, a spokesman for SFWMD, said: “We would assume that taking 1,000 out, perhaps half of those being females with eggs, hopefully we’re starting to make a dent in the population but we don’t know.”

March for Our Lives

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Six words changed Robert Schentrup’s life after 12 hours spent waiting for news of his teenage sister following the Parkland school massacre. “Bobby, your sister has been killed,” his father sobbed down the telephone.

Today, the Schentrups and other grieving parents who sent their children to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) on February 14 but got only bullet-riddled bodies back will be among half a million people expected to throng Washington DC for March for Our Lives, a youth-led rally calling time on gun violence in America.

“There are a lot of communities that gun violence has affected disproportionately for a long time and their voices haven’t been heard — kids in places like Chicago who’ve been crying out for years, but where getting shot is something that happens every day,” said Robert, 18.

“Parkland was declared the safest community in Florida the week of the shooting, it’s affluent, it was somewhere people thought it couldn’t happen. Now our voices can help to raise all those others that haven’t been listened to and send a message that we’re all here, collectively, to fight for the right to not get shot. This is a march for all our lives.”

More than 800 other marches will take place across the US, including Parkland, where 17 students and staff were killed and 17 more injured when a former student opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle last month. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz, 19, an expelled student.

Carmen Schentrup, 16, was shot four times. The horror of what occurred haunts her brother, who replays visceral images in his mind of a bullet speeding through her classroom door and through her skull. He has seen his parents, Philip and April, break down uncontrollably and notes that Carmen’s once vivacious presence in the family home “has now been replaced with pounds of ash in an urn”.

In Parkland and the neighbouring community of Coral Springs, from where the school’s 3,300 students are drawn, vigils, memorial events and therapy sessions have become part of the new way of life. Parents, teachers and students talk of being unable to settle at everyday tasks as they continue to grieve.

March for Our Lives, however, has provided a point of focus, after MSD students founded a powerful activist movement calling for gun reform including a ban on assault weapons. Today they will march down Pennsylvania Avenue alongside peers from urban communities where gun violence is commonplace, attempting to broaden the spotlight beyond just Parkland.

“Students from this school have been fighting for this kind of attention for months,” said Lauryn Renford, 16, a student at Thurgood Marshall Academy in DC, whose boyfriend Zaire Kelly, 16, was shot dead outside his house in September. In January, another student at the school, Paris Brown, 19, was also killed by a gunman.

During a visit from MSD students on Thursday, Zaire’s brother, Zion , 17, told an assembly at the school – whose population is predominantly African-American: “Raise your hand if you’ve been affected by gun violence.” Almost every child raised their hand.

“Living in this community forces us to face the impact of guns on a daily basis,” he said.

David Hogg, 17, an MSD student, complained that media and public attention towards shootings is biased towards “white privileged students.”

Hogg, who is white, told peers at Thurgood Marshall: “Your voices are just as important as mine.”

Cameron Kasky, 17, also from MSD, added: “It happened in our community once – but you guys are the experts on this. This is a war you’ve been thrust into all your lives and your voices haven’t been heard. We’re here to listen.”