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A pair embrace at the memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as teachers and staff are allowed to return to the school for the first time since the mass shooting on campus on Feb. 23 in Parkland, Fla.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Standing outside on a recent overcast morning, Emma Stravitz checked her phone as she waited for her elder sister, a fellow student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Emma, 14, in round glasses and clear braces, was nervous. She had never been to the state capital of Tallahassee, much less spoken to lawmakers. She grew up with lockdown drills as a regular part of her childhood, but did not give much thought to the debate over gun control.

Now, it had her full attention. Pinned to her grey sweatshirt was a rainbow-coloured ribbon, a gift from a survivor of the 2016 massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Another two ribbons were attached to her T-shirt, one orange and one blue. Those were the favourite colours of two of the victims of the mass shooting at Emma's high school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. She had just attended their funerals.

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"We all have a voice," Emma said as she prepared to head to the state capital. "This can't happen again."

In recent days, Emma and her peers have achieved something remarkable. For the moment at least, they have shifted the ground in the entrenched battle over guns in the United States. Over and over, survivors of the shooting and relatives of the victims have confronted elected officials with anguished demands for action.

In response, several Republican lawmakers in Washington, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have said they would consider changes that would have been unthinkable a month ago, such as raising the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic rifle.

Earlier this week, Florida Senator Marco Rubio publicly reversed his previous position in support of large-capacity ammunition magazines. On Friday, Governor Rick Scott of Florida, a reliable ally of the National Rifle Association, defied the group's wishes and proposed raising the minimum age to purchase a weapon in his state to 21.

Of course, these measures may not be enacted in the end. But even the shift in rhetoric on gun control is striking when compared with the reaction to other recent mass shootings. After the worst such shooting in modern American history in Las Vegas in October, Republican legislators made no changes to gun laws at the federal level. And after a gunman killed 49 people in the Pulse shooting, Florida's Republican-controlled legislature did nothing to tighten gun restrictions.

"This time does feel different," said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a book about the United States' fight over gun rights. "All of these kids and students rising up, we just haven't seen that before." In the past, he said, mass shootings "have often stimulated more debate about guns and even efforts to regulate guns, but not the mobilization of a whole new constituency."

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group she created after the carnage in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, said that the outpouring of interest in her organization in recent days has surpassed anything in its history. In the past week, it has signed up 75,000 new members across the country, she said. The group is backing nationwide marches organized by the Parkland students on March 24 and also a push to register first-time voters before November's midterm elections.

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The obstacles ahead for gun-control proponents are formidable. The conundrum of the firearm debate in the United States has long been that while huge majorities support certain restrictions on guns, the money of the gun lobby and the passion of gun-rights supporters have combined to foil attempts to institute such policies. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University last week, for instance, found that 97 per cent of respondents supported universal background checks, 83 per cent favoured a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases and 67 per cent supported a nationwide ban on assault weapons.

"The cost of elections in the U.S. requires millions of dollars and the NRA has some of the deepest pockets of any organization," said David Jolly, a former Republican member of Congress from Florida. They also have "one of the best mobilized and most effective voting blocks," he added.

Mr. Jolly said he had spoken with Republican members of the Florida legislature in recent days and urged them to find ways to address the public mood. "Unless you're prepared to move toward some greater protection from guns, you're out of step right now," he said he told them. Some companies are reaching a similar conclusion: This week, a number of firms, including insurer MetLife, car rental chain Enterprise Holdings and Wyndham Hotels, severed ties with the NRA. The gun group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sarah Clements, a student at Georgetown University and a long-time activist against gun violence, said that she had been inundated by calls and e-mails from young people "who were just ignited" by the activism of the Parkland students and sought ways to join their cause.

Few people are in a better position to understand how the students feel and the challenges they will face than Ms. Clements. In 2012, she was a high-school student in Newtown. Her mother, a teacher, survived the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that killed 26 people, most of them children.

Ms. Clements spoke to one of the Parkland students on Thursday and tried to temper expectations. She too once believed that after Newtown, federal gun laws would change quickly. "This is something we're going to be fighting for our entire lives," Ms. Clements told the student. But "our children and grandchildren are going to hear stories about how we once had lockdown drills, and say, 'Thank God we don't have that any more.'"

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In Tallahassee, legislators who favour gun control had one message for the visiting students from Parkland: keep going. Clovis Watson Jr., a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives welcomed nine students into his office on Wednesday and urged them not to be satisfied with the minor fixes to gun laws now under consideration.

"You all have a movement and the movement shouldn't stop with these little window-dressing changes," he said. Mr. Watson is himself a gun owner and voiced strong support for banning assault weapons. He acknowledged that such a step might be unrealistic today, but not in the future. "You all have tremendous power if you continue, if you don't weaken," he said.

The students asked questions about strategy and policy, posed for a picture, then filed out to find their next meeting. They were pleased but impatient. "I like how he tried to empower us," said Suzanna Barna, 17. "But we're already empowered."

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, demanded that Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee on Wednesday act on gun control following last week's deadly school shooting that left seventeen people dead. Reuters
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