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The March for Our Lives, explained

Thousands turned out for rallies in Washington, DC, and hundreds of cities across the United States.

Celebrities Attend March For Our Lives Rally In Washington, DC Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Thousands rallied in Washington, DC, on Saturday for a March for Our Lives protest to advocate for gun control. Thousands more joined them at other marches in cities large and small across the country.

Their motto is “never again.”

The march marked most dramatic and powerful show yet of teenage activism against gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Close to a million students stood up and streamed out of classrooms across the country last week as part of the National School Walkout, which honored the victims of the Parkland shooting one month ago and called on lawmakers to pass gun control legislation. Another national school walkout is planned for April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

But the March for Our Lives signals that this renewed push for gun reform is gathering strength. It’s sign that this time might actually be different.

Parkland survivors spearheaded the March, and many of the leaders of the movement — Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Delaney Tarr, among them — delivered passionate, wrenching, and sometimes angry speeches. Sarah Chadwick, held up an orange tag with the amount of $1.05 cents — the amount of Sen. Marco Rubio’s NRA donation divided by the number of students in Florida. Emma Gonzalez honored the 17 people killed with a speech and a moment of silence, lasting 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the total time it took the Parkland gunman to carry out his massacre.

Alongside the Parkland survivors, activists and gun violence survivors from Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles shared their frustration, their hurt, and their next steps. Edna Chavez, 17, from Los Angeles, lost her brother to gun violence, saying it was normal in her neighborhood to see candles, posters, balloons, and flowers. Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old student from Chicago, recalled staring down the barrel of a pistol. “He said, ‘If you say anything, I will find you.’ And yet I’m still saying something today,” “ she said.

Thousands of other students participated in sibling marches across the country, joining the crowds that packed the streets of Washington, D.C.

Haley Zink, a 21-year-old community college student who helped to organize a “sibling march” in St. Louis, Missouri, had a message for those who think this movement is just a bunch of loud kids: “I want to it be clear to everyone that, no we are not.”

They have a plan, she said. “Just because of our age, that doesn’t mean we can’t be structured and be smart about our actions because this is about our future,” she said. “This is the world we grew up in, and this is the world we have sitting out in front of us. Most of us have never gone to school in a place where gun violence was not normalized, and that is not okay. And so we have to take it in our hands to fix it.”

The March for Our Lives drew thousands to D.C.

Survivors of the school shooting in Parkland organized the March for Our Lives in DC, on March 24 with the support of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun law reform advocacy group.

“Politicians either represent the people or get out,” Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky boomed from the podium during the rally. “The people demand a law banning the sale of assault weapons. The people demand that we prohibit the sale of high capacity magazines. The people demand universal background checks. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”

In Washington, protesters rallied along Pennsylvania Avenue starting at noon -- though students, parents, and others began showing up with their signs much earlier. The demonstration was expected to draw as many as 500,000 people to the nation’s capital.

“It starts here,” said Krista Vanderpuye, a 17-year-old student at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia, who attended the March in D.C. on Saturday. “But it doesn’t end here.”

Activists join in “sibling marches” across the country

More than 800 “sibling marches” were also planned worldwide, from Maui to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Hong Kong. Organizers hosted rallies in large cities, in small towns, in blue states, in deep-red pockets, in places where guns are knitted into everyday life.

Zink, in St. Louis, said their event will focus not just on school shootings, but the violence that punctuates life for some teenagers in places like east St. Louis. “It’s so much bigger than schools,” Zink said. “So using this political movement to get everyone to paying attention to how bad it is here, and how can we fix that.”

The “sibling marches,” like the main event in Washington, D.C. included speeches from students about their fears, and their anger, their plans to fight gun violence. Zink’s will feature activists, a mother, a youth from Chicago, a local politician. They consider the march nonpartisan, and invited anyone running for office to attend.

Hamdia Ahmed, a 20-year-old college student and activist, was supposed to speak on the steps of city hall at a rally in Portland, Maine. “This is about the safety of the citizens and our leaders just really need to step up,” she told Vox.

She remembers Sandy Hook, watching it on TV, and how it worked its way into her consciousness. “Some of us when we walk into schools we always think about where we want to sit and where is the safest place is for us to sit in case an active shooter was to come in,” Ahmed said. “Do you know how terrifying that is? It’s like they’re creating this whole trauma within this generation of mass shootings.”

“They” for Ahmed, are those in government who are failing to act. She, and other organizers, want to get lawmakers’ attention with these marches. Let them know they’re not going away.

Brock Pate, an 18-year-old high school senior, is organizing a march in Hickory, North Carolina, about an hour outside Charlotte. It will be small by DC standards — 135 have said they’d attend, about 300 are interested. The participants have a list of talking points: universal background checks, banning assault weapons for civilians, and better mental-health reporting to NICS. “This does not end after March 24,” he said. “Or even after April 20.”

Maria Maring, 18, and Alexis Jones, 17, both seniors at Carbondale High School in Illinois said the march is about honoring the people who weren’t as lucky as they are. Jones said, everyone thinks “this will never happen to us.” After a shooting, it transforms to “how could this happen to us?” They are trying to interrupt that cycle, protect themselves, and others, from joining that sorrowful group.

Maring and Jones said they never had a big incident -- a shooting — at their school. But the threat loomed. “We’ve been on lockdown before, there have been rumors, there have been police in our hallways searching for whatever kid that made whatever threat,” Maring said. Her generation, she added, has been trained to be paranoid. “You don’t know who has a gun under their coat,” she said.

It is why Jones and Maring were a little worried before the march. The Illinois Rifle Association appeared to be planning counter protests, including one in their town. Jones said it’s worth it to go forward, and she’d tell anyone else to do the same.

“If I’m being completely honest, I’m kind of terrified about Saturday,” Maring said. “There will be opposition. This is such a controversial subject, I don’t want somebody to bring a gun to the march, and that is what is on my mind — that someone will come and turn this peaceful event into another tragedy, which is what we’re trying to prevent.”

Owen Edwards, a 21-year-old student at the University of North Alabama in Florence, was a little nervous, too. Before the march, he worked on his speech, trying to find a way to appeal to parents, to help people understand the huge responsibility of owning guns, of something that can injure and kill. To give that speech, he would be exposed, the center of attention. “We all just kind of looked at each other,” Edwards said of himself and fellow organizers, “and said, ‘what if we get shot?’”

“That’s a fear that we used to not have as Americans, in general,” Edwards added. “But it’s looming in all in our minds now: What if we get shot?”

AJ Chavar/Vox

Expect another big walkout on April 20

A month after the march, students will walk out of classrooms against on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting in Colorado. Lane Murdock, a sophomore at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut came up with the idea and started an online petition immediately after the Parkland shooting; she was tired of how numb America was becoming to yet another school shooting. “But I also just felt really powerless,” she told Vox. So, she thought, “what could I do to help other kids who felt really powerless?”

On the day of the Parkland shooting, Valentine’s Day, she said, she created a petition: a rough outline of what she wanted to see happen, which was for kids to pledge to walk out. “It kind of blew up overnight,” she said.

Indivisible, a progressive organizing group founded after the 2016 election, is backing the April 20 walkout and helping Murdock and some of her fellow students organize.

Some students who participated in the March 14 walkout told Vox they would also demonstrate on April 20, though not all had events planned. Students at more than 1,500 schools have signed up so far, though that number will probably balloon as the date gets closer.

“April 20 isn’t the end of this,” Murdock said. “April 20 is the launch. We want to make sure we take all this momentum, power, and interest and turn it into concrete, actual change.”

Teen activism is driving a new push for gun control

The Parkland survivors ignited a new gun control movement by finding a platform in their tragedy. David Hogg rode his bike to school after the shooting to film as a journalist and then found himself on Fox News, where he said there couldn’t be another mass shooting. Emma Gonzalez’s speech led to a chant: “We call BS.” Cameron Kasky challenged Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on accepting donations from the National Rifle Association during a CNN town hall.

Student activists are tired of being numb to school shootings, of simply moving on, of referring to “another” school shooting. Some have watched guns steal away family, friends, and classmates.

Kari Gottfried, a junior at Corvallis High School in Oregon, is 17; she wasn’t even born when the shooting at Columbine High School happened. “I’ve never known a world where there aren’t mass shootings,” she said.

Gottfried and her fellow student activists feel this issue personally. They were in middle school when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened — old enough to understand the savagery, young enough to remember their own elementary school classrooms. They’ve grown up with active shooter drills, watched protocol morph in response to the latest tragedy. Gottfried said that now if the fire alarm goes off, students are told to go into lockdown mode. “It’s more likely there would be a shooter than a fire in Corvallis,” she said.

“We’re no strangers to gun violence,” Fiorina Talaba, an 18-year-old senior from Carson High in California, said of herself and her fellow students. “When we heard about the shooting in Florida, it really spoke to us, and we wanted to have some type of change.”

The teenage activists have another thing in common: social media. Students across the country are connecting with each other, sharing strategies and stories. Maxwell Nardi, an 18-year-old senior at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia, made the case that those who demeaned his generation for being obsessed with their phones are in for their own awakening. “We’re fighting for this issue, we’re making our voices these tools,” he said.

Arielle Geismar, a 16-year-old junior at the Beacon School in Manhattan, is organizing a bus to DC for the March for Our Lives. She said she felt an “urgency of collaboration.”

“Our generation is so easily discredited as the social media generation, always on our phones,” she said. “But look what social media has done for this movement. It turned into this national thing.”

The public pressure has pushed lawmakers to act

Students pushed for gun law reform with the National School Walkout. They’re focusing on small actions — what teenagers can do to get more involved, including registering to vote and writing to lawmakers.

But they can already claim some victories. The big one: refusing to let the country move on and forget.

That has put pressure on lawmakers to act. Staunchly pro-gun Florida bucked the NRA to pass the first gun restrictions in the state in more than 20 years, in consultation with the families of Parkland victims. The law increased the age to purchase a firearm to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period, and created a system for police to petition to remove guns from someone deemed a threat. It put millions of dollars toward school safety and mental health initiatives, though it included a controversial, voluntary program to arm some school employees.

Dozens of other states passed new gun safety measured in the aftermath of Parkland or are mulling new restrictions. Kansas, New York, and some other states are considering legislation similar to Florida’s that would allow for judges to temporarily remove guns if people are deemed a threat. These “red flag laws” existed in five states before the Parkland shooting. Rhode Island’s governor signed an executive order to institute such a policy after Parkland.

Washington state banned bump stocks, devices that effectively let semiautomatic weapons function like fully automatic ones. Cincinnati, Ohio, wants to do the same. Illinois is trying to pass a measure that would require criminal background checks for all gun shop employees; the Parkland shooting has reanimated debate over the legislation.

And some states have backed away from loosening gun control laws. Iowa is letting a bill die that would have removed the permit requirement to carry weapons.

The Trump administration took steps to ban bump stocks in the wake of Parkland and released a school safety plan. It calls for “risk protection orders” to confiscate weapons from those deemed a threat and has a proposal to arm teachers. The White House’s plan is largely NRA-friendly — but the administration did not take similar action in the wake of massacres in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs.

Even Congress has taken action. Lawmakers passed Fix NICS Act, a bipartisan plan first introduced after the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting to strengthen the background check reporting system, in its omnibus spending bill. That package also included the STOP School Violence Act of 2018, doesn’t include any specific gun control measures, but increases grants for school safety measures, such as security training and metal detectors. Finally, lawmakers took a small but potentially important step toward allowing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study gun violence.

Student activists said they’re open to different ideas and debates about the Second Amendment. Their goals vary, but most but agree on measures that have broad public support, such as universal background checks.

Elizabeth Love, a 17-year-old advocate and march organizer in Salt Lake City, said mentioned parts of their platform, which includes universal background checks and a waiting period for gun purchases. She is adamant their march, and their movement, is not anti-gun. “I want to make clear that we support the Second Amendment,” she told Vox. “I don’t want our message to get twisted by those who oppose us, and so I want to be clear we support reforms that are constitutional, and we are being careful about that and we’re doing our research.”

Geismar said she and her fellow activists are just looking for middle ground. “It’s not Republican or Democrat; it’s about keeping people safe,” she said.

Talaba said she and her fellow students were focused particularly on mental health. She believes tighter background checks will help. But she also sees that as a first incremental, achievable step.

The walkout and other events are a chance to stake out their role in this debate. “I just don’t like how congressmen, or these older people, just don’t see that even us kids, we can have these very serious conversations,” Talaba said. “We know what we want from our society: to have less guns and, at some point, no guns at all.”

These demonstrations are also a reminder for lawmakers to listen and take these student activists seriously. All they can do now is lobby for change. But soon they’ll be the ones with the power to decide politicians’ fates — if not in 2018, then in 2020.

But it’s bigger than elections, and uncomfortable conversations. As Nardi, the senior from Richmond said, “This is literally matter of life and death.”

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