As students were making their way to Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday morning to demand gun law overhauls, a Republican lawmaker a few states away wrote a Facebook post that appeared to question whether the teenage protesters were, in fact, students.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s comments came as right-wing media figures have attacked the credibility of a handful of students who have become the most vocal advocates for gun control since a lone gunman killed 17 people at their high school in Parkland, Fla.
Metcalfe, who once snapped at a male colleague for touching his arm during a meeting, notably used quotation marks twice when he referred to the students and cited his military experience as he argued about gun control.
“I enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17 years old,” Metcalfe wrote Wednesday. “This morning I was working out and listening to the news about ‘students’ being bussed in to the Florida Capitol. The hypocrisy of the left struck me! They expect lawmakers to listen to the policy advice of 18 year old and younger ‘students’ who are advocating for gun control, but they do not believe 18 year olds who are old enough to serve on the battlefields of Afghanistan are old enough to purchase a rifle.”
A spokeswoman for Metcalfe said she could not speak for him regarding the Facebook post, and Metcalfe was not immediately available for comment.
The Pennsylvania GOP and the office of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) have not responded to requests for comment.
Metcalfe’s remarks were condemned on Facebook, where users immediately took notice of his use of quotation marks.
“What are you saying about these kids who were lucky enough to walk through blood and past corpses of friends slaughtered by an AR15? Please remove the quotation marks and be specific,” one commenter wrote.
“Anyone begrudging or mocking (which is what you are doing) these young people and their right to protest and be heard after going through such a horrific experience doesn’t understand what being an American is all about,” another one wrote.
Comments by another Pennsylvania state lawmaker, Rep. Brian Sims, may have been the harshest of them all.
“Every time you step up to prove that you’re even more of an ignorant monster, you hit it right out of the park,” Sims, a Democrat, wrote in reply to Metcalfe’s post. “Attacking the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for taking their advocacy to a state Capitol is one of the most twisted, ghoulish things that you’ve done in a career marked by intense bigotry, discrimination, and divisiveness.”
The students who rallied in Tallahassee have become the loud and sympathetic voices for gun law overhauls. A handful of them have made impassioned comments on national news networks. But their newly found platform and activism have made them a target of right-wing smears and conspiracies, while the more mainstream voices resort to calling them naive victims driven by emotion.
Some prominent figures in the right-wing media have suggested that the students are making it all up, or that the children are paid actors, or that their talking points have been manufactured by public relations experts on the left, The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews and Samantha Schmidt wrote.
On Tuesday, an aide to a Florida legislator was fired after he falsely claimed that two survivors of the shooting were “actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” In a tweet Wednesday, David Clarke, the controversial former sheriff of Milwaukee County, suggested that Democratic billionaire George Soros was behind the “well ORGANIZED effort by Florida school students demanding gun control.”
One article published by Gateway Pundit claimed that one of the students, 17-year-old David Hogg, was being coached to peddle anti-gun rhetoric and that he was a pawn of the FBI. (Hogg has said that his father is a retired FBI agent.) That article features a picture of Hogg with the word “EXPOSED” stamped on his forehead. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday liked a tweet linking to the article.
The students, though, have presented a unique adversary to their detractors. They have shown a willingness to fire back — publicly. And as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote, it is much more difficult for right-wing detractors to assail student survivors with “the kind of full-throated personal attack they’re used to.”
Responding to the innuendo, Hogg told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he is “not a crisis actor.”
“The fact that some of the students at Stoneman Douglas high school . . . are showing more maturity and political action than many of our elected officials is a testament to how disgusting and broken our political system is right now in America. But we’re trying to fix that,” said Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed classmates as the massacre was happening — and while they were hiding inside a small room.
Some conservative legislators have come to the students’ defense. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a tweet Tuesday that claiming the students are actors “is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.” Florida state Rep. Shawn Harrison quickly distanced himself from the aide who claimed two of the survivors are actors.
The Valentine’s Day massacre has since prompted urgent calls for gun-control legislation. By Tuesday, President Trump was signaling an openness to some modest measures, such as raising the minimum age at which a person could buy a semiautomatic weapon from 18 to 21.
Police say Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student with a history of depression and mental health problems, used an AR-15 when he opened fire at the school. On social media, Twitter users who say they’re veterans have used the hashtag #VetsForGunReform as they question whether rifles with high-capacity magazines should be used anywhere other than in a war zone.
Metcalfe was criticized in December after he interrupted a committee meeting because a male colleague sitting next to him, Pennsylvania state Rep. Matt Bradford, touched his forearm for a few seconds.
“Look, I’m a heterosexual. I have a wife, I love my wife, I don’t like men — as you might. But stop touching me all the time,” Metcalfe, a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, told Bradford. “Keep your hands to yourself. If you want to touch somebody, you have people on your side of the aisle who might like it. I don’t.”
Bradford, a Democrat, began laughing while the other people in the meeting giggled and smirked.
Wolf, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, said Metcalfe’s comment to Bradford was part of a “disturbing pattern” and urged Republican House leaders to reexamine whether Metcalfe should continue heading a committee that oversees civil rights legislation.
Metcalfe said Wolf attacked him because of his criticisms of the governor, according to Philly.com.
Travis M. Andrews, Samantha Schmidt and Marwa Eltagouri contributed to this post.