TALLAHASSEE - Vernon resident Patrick Watkins was one of hundreds of individuals who observed a moment of silence at the state Capitol on Sunday to remember the far-too-many lives lost to mass shootings.
Ironically, the occasion was a gun rights rally. Gun rights advocates across the state descended at the Capitol to remind legislators that the Second Amendment is a Constitutional right, and to seek solutions to gun violence that don't infringe on that right.
Watkins attended the rally with his wife and friends. He emphasized that attendees were non-militant.
"At our rally, we had a moment of silence for everyone who has ever died in a mass shooting; so, it's not that we're insensitive to mass shootings," Watkins said. "We believe that things need to be done. But we don't believe that our gun rights should be stripped because mad men choose to shoot people."
This weekend, the state senate passed - then reversed - its decision on Senate Bill 7026, a $400 million public safety package, and said to be first-of-its-kind. By Monday, in a narrow 20-18 vote, legislators passed the bill, which calls for the development of a school marshal program that allows some teachers to be armed. Along with prohibiting adjudicated mentally ill persons from obtaining firearms, it also raises the minimum age for buying guns from 18 to 21 and imposes a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases.
Senator George Gainer (R-Niceville) voted for the bill when it was at appropriations. However, he voted against the amendment that would ban the sale of AR-15s - the one used in the Parkland shooting that claimed 14 student and three adult lives on Valentines Day. And he voted against any amendments that involved banning the sale of guns, including that of sales to buyers under 21 years of age.
Senator Gainer was not available at the time of press for comment. The House has yet to make its own version of the bill.
Although he reflected on legislation that crept its way into law under the shock of previous mass and tragic shootings - such as the now ended 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that imposed federal background checks and a five-day waiting period on gun sales - Watkins said he feels as though the rally was effective and legislators are acknowledging their voice.
"It got a little bit of national news coverage," Watkins said. "But it's not only rallies that will bring attention. People have to step up and make phone calls to their representatives; they have to be active."
As an area native, he was raised with guns, receiving his first gun from his grandfather at the 13 years old. Also, he was taught about the Second Amendment.
"To me, all freedoms are protected by the Second Amendment," he said. "Every time there is one of these shootings, the big push is gun control; nobody talks about these shootings happen in gun-free zones," he said.
But at the Capitol on Sunday, plenty of people had guns and the rally was peaceful.
"The Capitol police did a wonderful job, they were very receptive to us," Watkins said. "We're not like a militant group of people - we're Americans, we love law enforcement and we love our elected officials that are doing the right thing."
At the end of the national conversation on gun rights vs. public safety, Watkins said it's a matter of protecting Constitutional rights.
"We would like to stop seeing the attempted infringements that we have been seeing," he said.