WASHINGTON – Summoned by high school students swept up in school violence, thousands swarmed into the nation's capital and cities across America on Saturday to march for gun control and ignite political activism among the young.
Organizers of the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington hoped their protest would match in numbers and spirit last year's women's march, one of the largest Washington protests since the Vietnam era and one that far exceeded predictions of 300,000 demonstrators.
Bearing signs reading "We Are the Change," ″No More Silence" and "Keep NRA Money Out of Politics," protesters packed Pennsylvania Avenue from the stage near the Capitol, stretching many blocks back toward the White House.
"We will continue to fight for our dead friends," Delaney Tarr, a survivor of the Florida tragedy, declared from the stage. The crowd roared with approval as she laid down the students’ central demand: a ban on "weapons of war" for all but warriors.
President Donald Trump was in Florida for the weekend. A motorcade took him to his West Palm Beach golf club in the morning.
"It’s pretty simple for me," said Zoe Tate, 11, from Gaithersburg Middle School in Maryland, explaining why she marched in Washington. "I think guns are dumb. It’s scary enough with the security guards we have in school. We don’t need teachers carrying guns now. I find it amazing that I have to explain that idea to adults."
Said her mother, Maria Blaeuer: "For our kids, feeling safe is fundamental, and they don’t feel safe."
Large rallies also took shape in such cities as Boston, Houston, Minneapolis and Parkland, Florida, the site of the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
The police presence was heavy as more than 20,000 people filled a park near the Florida school, chanting slogans such as "Enough is enough" and carrying signs that read "Why do your guns matter more than our lives?" and "Our ballots will stop bullets."
"I have decided I will not stop fighting for change," said Max Schachter, whose son, Alex Schachter was killed in the shooting. "The 17 victims’ families will not stop fighting until we make this world a better and safer place."
After the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students have tapped into a current of pro-gun control sentiment that has been building for years — yet still faces a powerful counterpoint from supporters of gun rights. Organizers hope the passions of the crowds and the under-18 roster of speakers will translate into a tipping point starting in the midterm elections this year.
"A vicious murderer should have never been able to get his hands on such a deadly weapon," said Casey Sherman, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who survived the massacre. "We need stricter background checks to stop people who so clearly should not be armed."
Washington is generally nonchalant about protests, but Saturday's gathering prompted more attention and speculation than usual. The protesters, many of them high school students, claim that the youth leadership of this initiative is what will set it apart from previous attempts to enact stronger gun-control legislation.
Polls indicate that public opinion nationwide may indeed be shifting on an issue that has simmered for generations, and through dozens of mass shootings.
A new poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 69 percent of Americans think gun laws in the United States should be tightened. That's up from 61 percent who said the same in October of 2016 and 55 percent when the AP first asked the question in October of 2013. Overall, 90 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of gun owners now favor stricter gun control laws.
“I look at the younger kids and the future generations and I never want them to go through what we went through or see what we saw,” said 15-year old Kayla Renert, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed on Feb. 14.
Renert, who sheltered in a classroom during the attack and had a friend wounded in the leg, was on a bus bringing her to Washington from the airport after flying up from Florida Friday morning. She pointed out that the Parkland shooting wasn’t even the most recent school shooting in the United States. One student was wounded and another later died from her wounds after being shot Tuesday in southern Maryland; the 17-year old gunman was also killed.
“We keep saying, ‘Oh this is going to be the last time.’ But there’s already been another time,” Renert said.
Many of the protesters spoke pointedly about how their parents and others of their generation had failed to bring about the changes they are demanding. They present the youth-led nature of the current movement as proof that they will succeed where their predecessors had failed.
“I’m here because previous generations couldn’t do what we’re doing right now,” said Charlie Shebes, 16, another student from the high school, on a flight from Ft. Lauderdale. “I want to see safer schools. I want to see changes in gun laws.”
The students have tapped into a powerful current of pro-gun control sentiment that has been building for years. They have also partnered with well-funded liberal groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control advocacy group founded by former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
“To me, it feels like this is THE moment when it’s all going to change,” said Anne Tumlinson, who will be hosting about a half dozen high school demonstrators from Jacksonville in her Washington home. A grassroots campaign among Washington residents resulted in more than 1,500 Washingtonians offering their homes to underage out-of-town demonstrators.
But even with claims of historic social momentum on the issue of gun control, the AP poll also found that nearly half of Americans do not expect elected officials to take action. One of the questions facing march organizers and participants will be how to translate this one-day event, regardless of turnout, into meaningful legislative change.
One way is by channeling the current energy into mid-term congressional elections this fall. Students in Florida have focused on youth voter registration and there will be a registration booth at the Saturday rally.
“We’re pushing the message of now is the time for action but also November is going to be the time for action. It’s the time to make our voice heard when we’re voting,” said Alex Wind, a 17-year-old student from MSD. “We are the age of people that don’t vote normally. We’re going to change that.”