The stillness felt eerie on Friday outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Roads were closed. News crews waited across the street. A police helicopter thrummed overhead.
Everyone present — and all the surrounding neighbors — knew what was about to happen. At noon, it began. Two loud sounds. Pop, pop!
Gunfire. The rare re-enactment of a deadly mass shooting was underway.
More than five years after a former student killed 17 people and injured 17 others at Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018, ballistics experts and technicians were reconstructing the massacre, gunshot by gunshot. The sounds were recorded for possible use in a civil trial against a former sheriff’s deputy who failed to rush into the building as the shooting unfolded.
In a separate criminal trial in June, a jury acquitted the deputy, Scot Peterson, who was the resource officer assigned to the school that day, of child neglect and other charges. But a survivor and the families of four victims are seeking to hold him liable for not doing more to try to stop the gunman.
Last month, the judge overseeing that case, Carol-Lisa Phillips of the Broward County Circuit Court, ruled that the plaintiffs could pay for a re-enactment of the shooting, though whether any video or audio recordings will be admissible in court has yet to be litigated.
Initially, the re-enactment was supposed to take place with an assault-style rifle loaded with blank rounds. But blanks sound much different from real gunfire, so the judge ruled that live ammunition could be used, along with a safety device to catch the bullets. Parkland officials warned residents that gunfire might be heard up to a mile away and could continue into the evening hours.
In a country that for years has experienced a seemingly unending cycle of mass violence, the re-enactment was a new and difficult chapter that forced the scarred Parkland community to relive some of its trauma. (The gunman was spared the death penalty by a jury last year and instead sentenced to life in prison.)
Mr. Peterson’s defense argued in the criminal trial that he heard only a few shots when he was standing near the large 1200 building, though about 70 were fired during that time, and that he could not be sure whether the shots were coming from inside the building or elsewhere because of how they echoed. His lawyer in the civil case did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
“We believe that it will show that there’s no possible way that Scot Peterson didn’t hear the 70 rounds from an AR-15 when he was just feet away from that building,” said Max Schachter, one of the plaintiffs, whose 14-year-old son, Alex, was killed.
Also killed in the shooting were Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Christopher Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.
Their families backed the re-enactment request from the plaintiffs.
This being Parkland, an affluent and liberal community that birthed a national youth movement against gun violence in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 shooting, Friday also became an opportunity to push for stronger federal regulation over school safety, mental health and guns.
Representative Jared Moskowitz, a Parkland Democrat who graduated from Stoneman Douglas High in 1999, and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, led a bipartisan, nine-member delegation from Congress to walk through the school in the hours before the re-enactment. Some families joined them, as did the Democratic state attorney, Harold F. Pryor, and the chief prosecutor in the criminal case against Mr. Peterson. The prosecutors gave the lawmakers a minute-by-minute breakdown of how the shooting unfolded over less than seven minutes on Valentine’s Day in 2018.
Afterward, the lawmakers, families and prosecutors held a nearly two-hour closed-door meeting to discuss potential legislation. They shared few specifics but said walking together through the building — a “time capsule” of almost exactly how it looked immediately after the shooting, as Mr. Moskowitz put it — was a powerful bonding experience.
“To tell you the truth, I was kind of dreading this moment,” Mr. Diaz-Balart told reporters, his voice catching from emotion. “But I’m glad I was here.”
The building where the shooting happened, which has been fenced and closed since the massacre, has been slated for demolition. But the school district has said that will not happen before the school year starts in the next couple of weeks. Mr. Moskowitz said he would invite more lawmakers to see the building’s bullet-pocked walls and bloodstained floors in the meantime.
“There’s value in giving it a little bit more time to bring decision-makers through that building,” he said.