On Saturday, thousands of people descended on Washington, D.C. — and many other cities around the country — to take part in the March for Our Lives, a protest serving as a call for action on the issue of gun violence and reform.
The March for Our Lives was created in response to the recent onslaught of mass shootings in the United States, particularly the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead last month. Just on Thursday, another teen, Jaelynn Willey lost her life after her ex-boyfriend opened fire on her and another student at their Maryland high school last week.
Survivors from the Parkland shooting quickly picked up their proverbial picket signs and started appearing on television to speak out against gun violence. Their collective furor — and the nation’s — seemed to converge on Saturday when activists gathered for a demonstration organized by the Parkland students themselves.
Many of the activists’ signs harped on the toll gun violence took on young people, the same age demographic that appeared to turn out in droves for the event.
Abi Simmons, a 17-year-old from Baltimore, and Marrisa Dyer, a 16-year-old from Michigan, were just two of the many young people calling for action at the event.
“I feel really strongly about school shootings,” Simmons told IJR when asked about why she attended Saturday’s demonstration.
“It keeps happening over and over again, and no one’s really doing anything about it, and it’s just going to get worse,” she added.
Dyer, who wore a shirt lamenting that the government regulated her uterus more than firearms, described gun violence as an “epidemic.” “It is so ridiculous what’s going on,” she said before describing events like Saturday’s as bringing activists closer to making a difference.
While much of their rhetoric focuses on gun violence in general, the Parkland students have criticized elected officials and decried the National Rifle Association’s influence on politics.
Media outlets like CNN continually interviewed the students and amplified their demand for action on gun control. They also won the support of a long list of celebrities, liberal advocacy groups, and even the White House.
In a statement, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the president and his staff “applaud many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today.”
But some, like conservative writer Michelle Malkin, portrayed teenagers as unreliable authorities for discussing gun control. “America is not a juvenilocracy,” she wrote at the end of last month.
“Pubescents are fueled by hormones and dopamine and pizza and Sonic shakes. They’re fickle and fragile and fierce and forgetful,” she said.
Many of the attendees, including 18-year-old Jaedyn Putnam, rebuffed that line of argument. “We are the ones that are being directly affected. So for them to say that we shouldn’t have a say in things that are directly killing us, that’s just ridiculous to me,” she said.
She and her mother Barbara felt so strongly about the issue that they traveled from North Carolina, bypassing affiliated demonstrations in their own state. Jaedyn indicated that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary invigorated her to care about gun violence.Sam Dorman/IJR
When asked about gun advocates’ argument that firearms provided means of self-defense, Barbara, who owns a pistol, said “you don’t need an AR-15 to defend yourself.”
Activists like Barbara and Jaedyn generally supported gun ownership but wanted stricter regulation on who could access firearms and, in particular, sought to prevent the mentally-ill from obtaining weapons.
Shootings like Parkland have often drawn attention to mental illness and how to stifle the dangerous combination of instability and firearm access. Shortly after the Parkland shooting, news surfaced that the shooter — 17-year-old Nikolas Cruz — had Autism, ADHD, and depression.
Nancy Connors, a 60-year-old mental health therapist, argued the issue wasn’t one of a “supernatural evil that we cannot understand.” “Often it’s mental illness,” she told IJR.
“There are mentally ill people all over the world,” she added. “But only in the United States do we have our mentally ill armed.”Sam Dorman/IJR
Both Connors and 32-year-old Miri Jung stressed that they didn’t support blanket bans on firearms, but rather sought to preclude certain individuals from owning them.
“I just don’t trust everyone to be able to buy guns,” Jung told IJR. She said people should be able to own guns but “I think that it needs to be regulated somehow either through some sort of [psychological] testing, some sort of background check.”
Strengthening background checks, a common interest for many participants, seemed to gain steam in the Republican-controlled Congress after Parkland. President Donald Trump threw his weight behind a bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), that incentivized authorities to report criminal records to the FBI’s background check system.
Cornyn pushed the legislation after his home state experienced a mass shooting in which the gunman obtained a semi-automatic weapon despite his history of domestic violence. The Air Force said it neglected to tell the FBI about shooter Devin Kelley’s criminal history. The FBI similarly admitted it failed to notify its Miami field office of a tip it received about Cruz.
Cornyn didn’t get his legislation through his chamber after the Texas shooting but was able to get bipartisan support and pass the bill this week despite some Republicans’ worries that it block due process for taking away Americans’ second amendment right to bear arms.
Jung, who carried a sign reading “repeal and replace” the second amendment, told IJR that the Constitutional provision was “dated” and didn’t “apply currently.” “It was made back when there was militia and there were wars going on,” she said.Sam Dorman/IJR
“Right now, we don’t need to defend ourselves the way that America used to,” she added. Jung said she would replace the second amendment with “gun control and being able to have some sort of regulation.”
Vaivahv Vijay, a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University, similarly told IJR that there were “obviously flaws with the second amendment.”
“It hasn’t been modernized enough,” he said. “It’s important to consider the fact that when it was created, there were only muskets,” he added after calling for an assault weapons ban.
Vijay said he became passionate about gun violence after his middle school almost experienced a mass shooting of its own. While he was in seventh grade, Vijay said, police caught a sixth grader who had “guns ready.”Sam Dorman/IJR
Organized by individuals who survived a school shooting themselves, the march drew people like Vijay who had a personal experience with the dangers or the consequences it presented.
Mindy Sandler of New York City was one of those people. Sandler held a poster-sized photograph of her cousin Alex Schacter, one of the 17 who died in last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. “I’m here because of Alex’s death,” she said.
Sandler touted a scholarship — started by Alex’s father Max — that funneled money into making schools safer.Sam Dorman/IJR
“I am tired of seeing children murdered,” Celeste Mhoon, who traveled from Savannah, Georgia, told IJR. Mhoon, now 28, was 16 when she became the victim of an armed carjacking in which she acquired an injury.
Mhoon’s sign repeated a common refrain among gun control proponents: Politicians’ thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.
“I’m angry at politicians that think that’s enough when it does absolutely nothing in reality for the people that are murdered, and the people that are going to be murdered the next day,” she said.Sam Dorman/IJR
In Congress, Democrats haven’t focused on a blanket ban but have sought a ban on assault-style weapons. Those, and other proposals, likely won’t pass under the current government in which Republicans dominate both the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Republicans, instead, backed measures that would prevent individuals like Cruz from committing violent acts with firearms. The House of Representatives, for example, passed legislation this month that would provide funding to train law enforcement and school personnel to respond to mental health crises.
Both lawmakers and Trump, however, received sharp criticism at Saturday’s demonstration. Despite Trump’s proposal to raise the minimum age for purchasing firearms, Mhoon, who also supported doing that, said Trump handled the gun violence issue “terribly.” That was a sentiment that others shared with IJR as well.
“It’s been a non-issue for him. Aboslutely zero forward progress,” Mhoon said.
While the White House did release a series of school safety and gun control proposals in March, Democratic leaders criticized him for, they said, backing away from his proposal to raise the minimum purchase age.
“He’s flip-flopping,” Barbara Putnam said of Trump. “I think he’s doing nothing but appeasing the NRA.” The White House, however, claimed Trump never backed away from his proposal.
Trump also tasked Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ new commission with evaluating whether or not to arm teachers, a measure that several teachers told IJR was inappropriate.
Vinda Barrett, a 60-year-old pre-school teacher, joined others in arguing that school security was not a teacher’s proper role. She walked with a sign that targeted Trump, a self-described “stable genius,” telling him that “We teachers pack brains! We won’t pack guns!!!”Sam Dorman/IJR
Amid those rising voices, Florida governor Rick Scott signed legislation that took a multi-pronged approach to fighting gun control and offered localities the opportunity to arm school employees.
Fifth-grade teacher Anna Bernardo said she would be open to having armed school employees but, like several of Saturday’s activists, told IJR that schools should spend their resources on other things.
“We have other things that we need to be focusing on,” Bernardo said. “If we teach our kids citizenship values, that will help.”Sam Dorman/IJR
“My job is to mold the minds of the young people that I teach and mold their behavior. I am not there to be a policewoman,” she also said.
Bernardo indicated both sides in the gun debate needed to compromise in order to ensure school safety. “Arming everybody will not solve anything,” she said, “but we can have a compromise. It’s not totally zero, nothing, no guns at all … we gotta meet someplace, halfway.”
A compromise could be difficult to achieve, however, with both sides hurling charged rhetoric to advance their positions.
Throughout the massive crowds at Saturday’s event, bystanders could easily see signs attacking the NRA and even accusing it of being a “terrorist organization.”
The NRA, for its part, said at CPAC 2018 that it was “terrifying” how liberals sought “to make their socialist agenda more palatable.”
Those are the kinds of words that 68-year-old Charlie Connors, Nancy’s husband, cited when discussing his “NRA is a terrorist organization” sign. “They promote fear and hatred through their organization to accomplish their goals,” Charlie told IJR.Sam Dorman/IJR
When asked why he thought the NRA was a terrorist organization, Charlie said “I don’t know how you can look at any of the mass school shootings and not come to that conclusion.”
Charlie went on to compare the NRA to foreign terrorist groups. “It’s hard for me to believe that we as a country are quick to judge terrorist acts and terrorist organizations that promote death. And yet, here we have it in our midst and we won’t call it out,” he said.
Reesa Herberth, who worried every day about her partner’s life while she taught at an elementary school, said she began to understand why people called the NRA a terrorist organization.
“They want to put guns in everyone’s hands because they don’t serve their members. They serve the weapons industry,” she said.Sam Dorman/IJR
The NRA seemed to draw most of the participant’s ire, with many suggesting politicians were too weak to resist the organization’s stranglehold on the government.
In an apparent dig at the NRA’s political influence, Federico Casillas brandished a sign that asked “Why is buying a gun as easy as buying a senator?”Sam Dorman/IJR
Although gun control advocates see roadblocks to advancing their agenda in a Republican-controlled government, they set their sights on the 2018 midterm elections.
David Hogg, one of the most high-profile Parkland survivors, told the crowd of activists that “if you listen real close, you can hear the people in power shaking. They’ve gotten used to being protective of their positions, choosing the safety of inaction. Inaction is no longer safe. And to that, we say, ‘No more!'”
But most of all, activists seemed interested in making their voices heard and refusing to let victims die in vain.
When asked about the march’s purpose, Marrisa told IJR that even if Saturday’s protests didn’t pressure lawmakers, “it’ll just prove to the world that people are not going to forget about this … It’ll show that we care and that we’re not going to stop.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.