School Climate & Safety

‘March for Our Lives’ Draws Massive Crowds Pushing for Tighter Gun Restrictions

By Catherine Gewertz — March 24, 2018 | Updated: March 25, 2018 11 min read
Demonstrators fill Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington during the "March for Our Lives" rally.
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Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and parents packed streets near the White House and the U.S. Capitol and marched in cities around the globe on Saturday to demand more-restrictive gun laws and decry gun violence, the latest in a series of massive demonstrations sparked by the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 people last month.

Responding to pleas for action by student activists whose classmates were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, young people and their adult allies filled a historic nine-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, the same route presidents take from the Capitol steps to their new homes after inauguration.

Teenagers held signs that said, “Am I Next?” and “The only thing scary about going to school should be what’s served for lunch,” and “Stand Up to the NRA.” Three bore placards showing the outline of a human body and the words “Do not shoot.”

Students from Stoneman Douglas High drew thunderous applause from the crowd as they called on lawmakers to ban assault-style weapons like the one accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz used. People in the crowd wept listening to the teenagers’ stories of fear and loss.

“We will continue to fight for our dead friends,” Parkland student Delaney Tarr told the crowd.

Emma González, a Stoneman Douglas survivor and one of the most visible faces of the movement that sprang up in Parkland’s wake, gave an emotional recitation of the victims’ names, laced with personal detail. She capped it with a dramatic period of silence with tears running down her face in an appearance that, in all, represented the amount of time that ticked by during the massacre. Leaving the stage, she said: “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”

With the U.S. Capitol rising behind the stage, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González is seen on a giant video screen as she addresses the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington.

In an apparent response to criticism that day-to-day gun violence in minority communities has been overshadowed by attention to mass shootings at wealthier, predominantly white schools, march organizers invited speakers as young as 11, from cities including Chicago and Washington, to tell the crowd about how shootings have taken their siblings, friends, and classmates.

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This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the crowd along Pennsylvania Avenue attending the March for Our Lives rally in Washington on March 24.
This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows the crowd along Pennsylvania Avenue attending the March for Our Lives rally in Washington on March 24.
DigitalGlobe via AP
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Edna Chavez, a student from South Los Angeles, lost her brother in a shooting. When she paused, overcome with emotion, the crowd started chanting his name: “Ricardo! Ricardo!”

“I also lost my mother, my sister, and myself to that trauma and that anxiety,” she said. “If the bullet didn’t kill me, that trauma will.”

Students who attended the march described the fear that snakes through their days, saying they want to change laws so they can feel safer at school.

Emma Saunders, 16, who attends Old Mill High School in Millerville, Md., remembers her first active-shooter drill, in 5th grade. She learned to play dead in the event of a shooting, she said.

She was taking the ACT last week when word spread of a shooting at a school 50 miles away that has a name similar to her school’s name. When she turned on her phone after the exam, she found dozens of text messages from frightened out-of-state family members who thought the violence occurred at her school.

“They were freaking out,” she said. “It was scary thinking that it could have been my school.”

Students from Stoneman Douglas High, who have been a catalyst for many demonstrations around the country, dubbed Saturday’s event a “March for Our Lives.” But so many demonstrators flooded the city—500,000 were expected—that the crowd couldn’t move down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Crowds of people hold signs on Pennsylvania Avenue at the "March for Our Lives" rally on March 24 in Washington.

Fernando Mosqueda, an 11th grader, said he and other students came from South-Central Los Angeles to “show solidarity” for all young people affected by gun violence.

“We need to have this conversation not just after mass shootings, [but] on a day-to-day level,” he said. “It affects black and brown students. Why does it have to be a flashpoint to make a change?”

Gun violence is an issue that African-Americans have been fighting in their communities for years, said Meghan Mertyris, an 11th grade student who came to the march from Flemington, N.J. “It’s sad that white people had to say something in order to get it addressed.”

Cynthia Sinclair, an African-American nurse from Maryland who was standing near Meghan, threw her arms around the teenager in a bear hug. “I love what she had to say,” Sinclair said. “She said black lives matter. All lives matter.”

Companion Events

The Washington event was likely the largest of more than 800 planned for Saturday in every U.S. state, and on six continents. Organizers anticipated a total turnout of 1 million. Crowds gathered in cities large and small: Boston and Atlanta, Concord, N.H., and Los Angeles, London and Auckland, New Zealand. Gun-rights advocates staged a counter-protest at the state capitol in Montana.

Protesters march outside the U.S. Embassy in London on March 24 in solidarity with the "March for Our Lives" protest against gun violence.

In Florida, an estimated 20,000 people jammed Pine Trails Park in Parkland under the watchful gaze of Broward County sheriff’s deputies. Many were chanting “Enough is enough.”

Casey Sherman, a Stoneman Douglas student, said young people might disagree on the specifics of how gun legislation should be changed, but they all want the same thing: “to feel safe.”

Samantha Mayor, a Stoneman Douglas student, told the Parkland crowd that she was taking notes in her psychology class when she was shot in the knee.

“It’s a horrific tape that plays in my head,” she said. “He reached through the door—it didn’t matter that the door was locked.” She urged lawmakers to enact tougher background checks.

“One can only begin to feel safer if changes are made,” she said.

Demonstrators march to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a "March for Our Lives" rally in Parkland, Fla. Thousands of people filled a park near the school, site of the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people.

In a highly emotional speech, Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed, told the Parkland crowd, “On Feb. 13, I was just like every other parent” who wants his child to be happy. The next day, his son “was mortally wounded by gunshots that came through the classroom door while he was working on an English paper.”

Ten days ago, on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting, 1 million students across the country staged simultaneous classroom walkouts to call attention to the problems of gun violence and school safety. Another demonstration is planned on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 massacre that took the lives of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.

President Donald Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., during the Saturday demonstrations, 40 miles from Stoneman Douglas High. He never publicly acknowledged the March 14 demonstrations, and by late-afternoon Saturday, his Twitter feed was silent on the latest marches as well. There was no word from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, either.

The White House did release a statement from Lindsay Walters, the deputy press secretary, saying, “We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today,” and citing support of recently passed school-safety related legislation in Congress and moves to tighten gun background checks.

The National Rifle Association made no public comment on the weekend march. During the March 14 student walkouts, the organization tweeted a photo of an assault rifle, accompanied by the comment: “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”

Calls for Action

Saturday’s events were organized around key themes developed by Parkland students and their backers around the country. A petition they’re circulating calls for banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, and closing loopholes that allow some guns to be purchased without background checks.

The students have also embraced voter registration as a pivotal strategy to effect change through more-restrictive gun laws. In speeches and interviews, they have repeatedly called attention to the power they and their peers can wield in the voting booth as they reach their 18th birthdays.

One teenager carried a placard Saturday at the Washington demonstration that read, “Current student, future voter.” Several groups, including the League of Women Voters, circulated through the crowd, offering voter-registration information or registering people on the spot.

Lauren Seliga and Abby Caviglia, high school sophomores who came to the event from Erie, Pa., said they’re eager to wield their voting power as soon as they can.

“We have to keep talking about this,” said Abby. “We will be able to vote in the 2020 elections.”

Despite the high profile of gun-control arguments by students from Parkland and other schools, however, students nationwide are not unified in their views on the best ways to address gun violence in their communities.

A recent Ipsos poll for USA Today found heavy support for active-shooter drills at school and for barring mentally ill people from owning firearms. But only half the students polled said that tightening gun-control laws and background checks would prevent mass shootings.

Aisha Navarrete, a junior at Burr and Barton Academy in Manchester, Vt., attended the Washington march with several other students from the school. She said they do not favor banning all guns; they just don’t want assault weapons in schools.

But Grace Cooke, 16, a student from Cranbury, N.J., said, “Guns are causing the problem. Bringing more guns into schools isn’t going to help anything.”

Student activists nabbed a bittersweet victory in Florida, which passed a law that raises the legal buying age for firearms to 21—a provision being challenged in court by the NRA—and allows courts to restrict gun access for those judged to be a danger to themselves or others. But the students had to watch helplessly as Florida lawmakers refused to include in that bill a ban on assault-style weapons.

Separately, the president proposed banning sales of assault rifles to anyone under 21, but later backed off, saying there was no political support for that idea. Instead, he released a school safety plan that focuses on strengthening the federal background-check system for gun sales and helping states pay for firearms training for teachers. He also set up a commission, headed by DeVos, to study school safety issues.

Schuyler Pietz, an elementary school music teacher from Stevens Point, Wis., who attended the Washington march, said that arming teachers is a bad idea.

“Putting a weapon in my classroom does not make me feel safer,” she said. “If we are expected to carry guns, I’m done. If they think there’s a teacher shortage now, just wait.”

Survivors and family members of the victims of previous mass shootings—including the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the attack at Columbine High—came to the Washington march to show support for the Parkland students and to call, once again, for changes that weren’t enacted after their tragedies.

Julie Shull, who teaches 6th grade in Newtown, said she was frustrated when Congress failed to act on proposed gun restrictions after 20 children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook, where her children, middle-schoolers by then, had gone to school.

“We thought that was going to be it,” Shull said. “Twenty 1st graders. We thought, if something doesn’t change now ... . And then it didn’t. Every time you hear one of these, it rips the Band-Aid off. The wound is reopened.”

Clashing Viewpoints

Police reported no trouble during the Washington march, but at one point some gun-control advocates directed their ire toward a gun rights supporter who was nearby.

Paul Brockman, from Annapolis, Md., came to the march with about 50 members of a Maryland group called The Patriot Picket, which supports the 2nd Amendment. “We are here showing the other side,” he said. “We think we should control violent people instead of controlling an inanimate object and infringing on our freedoms.”

As he spoke, someone yelled from the sidewalk, “I fought in the military, what the f*** have you done? Boo! Boo!” Others then joined in with chants of “Terrorist! Terrorist!” Brockman ignored them.

As policymakers debate what to do about school shootings, they keep happening: Only four days before Saturday’s demonstrations, a teenager with a handgun shot two students at Great Mills High School in Southern Maryland, one of whom later died. The shooter died as a school police officer confronted him. It was the ninth time this year in which people were injured or killed by a gunman on K-12 campuses or buses.

When a contingent of students from Great Mills arrived in Washington to participate in the march, wearing school colors of green and gold, and chanting, “No community has immunity,” other participants greeted them with applause.

Ryan Olden, a senior at Great Mills, said he came to show support for students at all schools that experience gun violence. The shooting at his school “shows how real this is. It can happen anywhere,” he said.

Ryan Olden, a senior at Great Mills High School in Great Mills, Md., stands with his mother, Kim Webb, before the start of the "March for Our Lives" in Washington on March 24. The school was the scene of a fatal shooting last week.

His mother, Kim Webb, said the shooting at her son’s school was “surreal. You just start praying, and thinking, ‘I didn’t think it could happen to us.’ We’re a small county, remote. I cried for all the parents and students because a safe place became violated.”

But her arrival at the demonstration marks a turning point, Webb said. “Our healing begins with this march.”

Cooke, the student from Cranbury, N.J., said she believes that the momentum since Parkland will create real change once and for all.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” she said of the movement since the shooting at Sandy Hook. “The cause has been getting more support with each incident. If we are going to make a change, we have to do it together. I think this will be the moment.”

Education Week staff writers Evie Blad, Stephen Sawchuk, Sarah Schwartz, Lisa Stark, Denisa Superville, and Mark Walsh reported from Washington. Staff Writer Michele Molnar reported from Parkland, Fla.


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