"It's a whole different bunch of emotions. I'm scared but I'm also happy to get back to a sense of normalcy."
PIC: A general view of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as staff and teachers prepare for the return of students. (AFP)
CRIME | SCHOOL SHOOTING
Students grieving for slain classmates prepared for an emotional return Wednesday to their Florida high school, where a mass shooting shocked the nation and led teen survivors to spur a growing movement to tighten America's gun laws.
The community of Parkland, Florida, where residents were plunged into tragedy two weeks ago, steeled itself for the resumption of classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where nearby flower-draped memorials and 17 white crosses pay tribute to the 14 students and three staff members who were murdered by a former student.
"Looking forward to tomorrow Eagles! Remember our focus is on emotional readiness and comfort not curriculum: so there is no need for backpacks," school principal Ty Thompson tweeted.
"Come ready to start the healing process and #RECLAIMTHENEST."
Some students were filled with trepidation about the day ahead.
"It's a whole different bunch of emotions. I'm scared but I'm also happy to get back to a sense of normalcy," 16-year-old Tanzil Philip told AFP.
"I just don't know how I will feel until I get back in there without my parents and we are all sitting down."
Philip was among several students allowed into the building over the weekend, when the shock of seeing his school "frozen in time" from when the killings occurred hit home.
"I'm a little nervous. But we have to be strong in these kind of situations because we are family and we are all in this together," added student Jenna Korsten, 17, who was at the school when the shooting erupted but escaped unhurt.
Survivors of the Valentine's Day assault have emerged as impassioned young advocates for gun safety.
Several spent Monday and Tuesday on a grim but vital mission in Washington: urging US lawmakers to curb or end sales of semi-automatic weapons like the one that was used to slaughter their fellow students.
Democrats hailed the young activists as an inspiration. But even with polls showing overwhelming public support for stricter gun laws, it would be a steep climb to achieve dramatic changes to gun laws in a Republican-dominated Congress.
Among Republicans, there was little enthusiasm for legislative action beyond closing gaps in a national background check system, a move supported by President Donald Trump.
'Time for action'
And the White House said he "still supports" raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 for some gun purchases, a policy opposed by the National Rifle Association, America's powerful gun lobby group.
Republicans blamed the Florida tragedy on a "colossal breakdown" of law enforcement rather than the easy availability of assault rifles.
"Let me just say we shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters.
Ryan and other Republican leaders until now had largely been absent from the debate that has raged since a troubled 19-year-old armed with a semi-automatic rifle mowed down innocent people at the high school.
The speaker met with the "smart and passionate" Stoneman Douglas students, saying that "we had an important discussion about how to keep our kids and our schools safe."
"We will continue to work to find common ground on solutions that can help prevent the kind of senseless violence these students endured," Ryan said.
But in his remarks to reporters, he blamed the rampage on the failure of local authorities to heed numerous warnings about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, rather than lax US gun laws that have been sharply criticized by some survivors.
Student Delaney Tarr thanked Ryan and other lawmakers -- including Republican congressman Steve Scalise, who was shot and nearly killed in June at a congressional baseball practice by a heavily armed man -- for meeting with her group, but pressed them to act.
"We spoke, you listened. But now it is time for action," she said on Twitter. "We hope to see you follow through."
Trump has pushed for arming teachers as a first line of defense, an approach favored by the NRA but widely criticized by teachers themselves as an impractical and unreasonable burden on them.
In Florida, the state legislature is weighing whether to raise the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 and imposing a three-day waiting period for gun purchases as part of a package of measures sponsored by the state's Republican governor.
An assault weapons ban is not among the proposals.
Parkland residents, some sobbing, paid tribute at the sprawling memorial outside the school.
"It's tragic. It's surreal," said neighbor Marie Donnelly, 51.
"You hear about it all the time and suddenly it happens in your own backyard."