Thousands of high school students and supporters gathered in Washington and across the U.S. Saturday to demand tougher gun laws from an older generation that’s delivered little change after years of mass shootings.
Participants in the March for Our Lives rally thronged the presidential inaugural route on Pennsylvania Avenue, at times chanting “vote them out” as speakers from a stage at the foot of Capitol Hill proclaimed the beginning of a political movement.
“If you listen real close you can hear the people in power shaking,” said David Hogg, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a Feb. 14 attack by a gunman left 17 people dead — and spurred the movement that flowered Saturday in cities including New York, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta.
“We’re going to make this a voting issue,” Hogg said. “We will get rid of these public servants that only serve the gun lobby. And we will save lives.”
Organizers expected more than 700,000 people at the demonstration in Washington, the largest of more than 800 planned marches nationwide and overseas, according to leaders who organized under the Twitter hashtag #NeverAgain. Protesters are demanding protection from gun violence, including a ban on assault weapons such as the rifle used in Parkland, a prohibition on high-capacity magazines that let killers shoot long bursts without reloading, and more effective background checks for gun purchases.
A little girl held a pink handmade sign that said “too cute to shoot.” Volunteers were helping people register to vote, and speakers from the stage encouraged spectators to channel their frustration to the ballot box.
“Politicians, either represent the people or get out,” said Cameron Kasky, another Parkland student. “Americans are being attacked in churches, nightclubs, movie theaters and on the streets. But we the people can fix this.”
The student organizers raised more than $3 million through an online GoFundMe campaign and worked with Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures. Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group.
“We will continue to fight for our lives, we will continue to fight for our dead friends,” Parkland student Delaney Tarr said from the Washington stage, adding that the pressure is on all those in power. “They know that if there is no assault-weapons ban, we will vote them out.”
Alyssa Parham, a mother of four, attended the Washington march with her 16-year-old son, a student at a Catholic school in Hyattsville, Maryland. She said it’s distressing to see her teenage son and 91-year-old father both worried about the direction of the country.
“When you’re 91, you’ve been through a lot of history — World War II, civil rights, women’s rights. It’s heartbreaking to see him worried about this moment in history too,” Parham said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement Saturday, “We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today.” She pointed pointed to gun-safety actions this week by Congress and the Justice Department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced a proposed rule to ban so-called bump stocks that allow semi-automatic guns to fire more rapidly, similar to a fully automatic weapon. A sniper in the Oct. 1 Las Vegas mass shooting used such a device to kill 58 concert-goers.
Marchers said they want more action.
“When they give us that inch — that bump-stock ban — we will take a mile. We are not here for bread crumbs, we are here for real change,” said Tarr. “They know what is coming. They know that if there is no assault-weapons ban passed, then we will vote them out.”
Congress also voted Friday to bolster background checks for gun purchases, spend more on school safety, and let the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study gun violence, ending what was in effect a 22-year ban that was supported by the National Rifle Association.
The measures — tucked into a larger spending bill signed by President Donald Trump — marked the first congressional action in years on gun legislation. But they’re small steps compared with the 1994 assault-weapons ban that lapsed in 2004. Congress seemed poised to act after the 2012 massacre of 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but the effort failed.
After the Washington march, a number of people left their signs at a temporary fence outside Trump’s hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The president is at his Florida home this weekend.
The street protests and growing congressional attention mean gun control could loom large in the November midterm elections. Democrats have embraced the issue, while Republican congressional leaders and Trump haven’t moved to adopt measures such as ending assault-weapon sales.
At one point Trump said he backed comprehensive gun-control measures, but he backed off after meeting with the NRA’s top lobbyist. The president also said he wanted to allow teachers and other staff members to be armed and trained to confront shooters.
Nadine Hall, a teacher at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said she attended the Washington march to support her children and her students. She expressed skepticism about arming teachers as a way to keep students safe.
“I don’t want to carry a gun,” Hall said. “I want my students to be safe.”
‘Make That Change’
“I have lesson plans I want to get through,” Hall said. “So something has to change and if we adults haven’t been able to do it and the kids can, let’s make that change. We need strict gun control laws. That’s what we need.”
A group of people wearing military-style camouflage and calling themselves the Patriot Picket stood about a block away from the main demonstration in Washington and displayed signs that said, among other things, “good guys with guns stand by you.”
“No matter what you want to do, American freedoms are not the enemy,” said Jeff Hulbert, founder of the group based in Annapolis, Maryland, that mustered about 45 people. The group’s website says it mounts protests to counter anti-gun demonstrators. “Looney lefties everywhere,” said a posting on its Facebook page Saturday.
Saturday’s march follows a nationwide student walkout over gun violence on March 14, the one-month mark since the Parkland killings. Another national walkout, organized by a different group of students, is planned for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the 1999 attack at Colorado’s Columbine High School that killed 12 students and a teacher and left two dozen more injured.
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