WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many young people enraged by decades of political inaction on the issue of gun control, gathered Saturday afternoon at the National Mall and in cities across the country with a singular message for lawmakers they view as sharing blame for the country’s relentless toll of gun deaths: Enough.
The nationwide protests, dubbed The March for Our Lives, were the culminating event for the youth-led, gun control movement that has rapidly built steam since mid-February, when a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Unlike with mass shootings of the past, which have garnered intense attention for a short period of time before fading from the forefront, student leaders from Stoneman Douglas have created a national network of like-minded teenagers who are challenging America’s gun lobby — along with the elected officials it often influences.
The boisterous, singing, chanting crowd in Washington reached well over 300,000, according to a count by the Associated Press. At one point, the protesters jammed the entire corridor of Pennsylvania Avenue that stretches from the White House to the Capitol Building.
“In a little over six minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured, and everyone, absolutely everyone, in the Douglas community had their lives forever altered,” said Emma Gonzalez, a student at Stoneman Douglas who has emerged as a national voice. She addressed the thousands from a stage just a few blocks away from Capitol Hill.
“Everyone who has been touched by the cold grip of gun violence understands,” Gonzales said. “Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
On Saturday, in Washington and in hundreds of smaller marches in other cities, including Boston, that burgeoning political network flexed its adolescent muscle. Speaking rosters almost exclusively made up of young activists called for gun control measures such as increased gun background checks, a nationwide ban on assault weapons, and more measures to specifically address gun violence in minority communities.
Speakers also called for a realignment of the country’s moral compass, because, they believe, society has come to see gun deaths as an unfortunate byproduct of Second Amendment freedoms, rather than a preventable harm, they said.
“Inaction is no longer safe,” said David Hogg, a vocal Stoneman Douglas student who has become a national figure since the shooting. “When politicians send their thoughts and prayers with no action, we say: No more. . . . We will get rid of these public servants that only serve the gun lobby. And we will save lives.”
During the rally, the White House released a statement affirming the students’ legal right to protest. President Trump spent Saturday afternoon golfing in West Palm Beach, Fla., and his usually active Twitter account made no mention of the young people’s cause.
“We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today,” said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. “Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the president’s.”
More than a single-issue gun rally, the protests were a primal scream from a new generation seeking to forcefully assert themselves in a political sphere in which they are often ignored. Many attendees, even those too young to vote, spoke of voter registration drives and mobilization efforts for the upcoming midterm elections.
Exemplifying their frustration, “Vote them out!” chants often rang out as marchers passed the US Capitol, and one attendee carried bright orange price tags that listed how much money lawmakers took from the National Rifle Association.
Across the country, thousands more gathered outside state houses and in city squares both big and small to hold similar rallies. The march in Boston attracted more than 50,000 attendees.
“It feels like a different type of movement here this time,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “All we can do is worry about today and work with our young people today across America and hopefully . . . the people in Congress and the Senate will pay attention to what’s happening outside their windows.”
In Washington and Los Angeles, celebrity protesters included the megastars who had financially backed and publicized the march, including actor George Clooney, moguls Kim Kardashian-West and her husband Kanye West, and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda. However, because organizers did not want adult involvement to distract from the event’s youthful energy, the only speakers at the main Washington event were students ages 18 and younger.
This rule even applied to lawmakers supportive of gun control, who were relegated to watching the march from the crowd. In their place, march organizers said screen time would be reserved for those from communities whose stories are sometimes ignored.
“I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” said 11-year-old Naomi Wadler from Virginia. “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”
The march marks another flashpoint in the rise of political activism since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Since the day of after his inauguration, when the anti-Trump Women’s March became the largest single-day protest in American history, liberals and other Trump critics have often resorted to protests and disruptions to give voice to their displeasure.
This week, Congress used a massive spending bill to enact some gun-related matters, though the proposals stopped far short of activists’ demands. The bill, which Trump begrudgingly signed into law on Friday, included incentives to improve the country’s background check system for gun purchases and new language that will make it easier for the Centers for Disease Control to spend money on gun research.
Trump has expressed sympathy for the victims of mass shootings and took steps to ban bump stocks — the controversial gun device that allows weapons to be fired more rapidly — but the president has also embraced the NRA.
“You came through for me and I am going to come through for you,” Trump said at the 2017 NRA Convention in Atlanta. “You have a true friend in the White House.”
Though the NRA was conspicuously silent for most of Saturday, some of its most vocal spokespeople spent the day sparring with gun control activists on Twitter. One NRA spokesman, Colion Noir, said in a tweet, “so this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”
“In 1963 we marched on Washington for freedom. In 2018 we marched on Washington to give up our freedom,” Noir wrote Saturday.
Trump dined with gun lobby executives at the White House shortly after the Stoneman Douglas shooting. His most recent policy proposal to curb school shootings, which includes a request for additional armed teachers and guards in school buildings, is one firmly backed by pro-gun lobbyists.
“My son is a teacher. Trust me, you don’t want teachers carrying guns!” one sign read at Washington’s march.
Leaders from longtime gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords Courage, and Sandy Hook Promise — many of whom have been toiling against the American gun lobby for years — said they believe Saturday could be a turning point for the country.
Though clear-eyed about the staying power of America’s gun enthusiasts, they pointed to a bipartisan school safety law in Florida and other proposals from lawmakers in Louisiana and Ohio as proof of a changing tide.
“These student leaders are speaking about our country’s moral failings. It’s not a back-and-forth about policy, it’s not even a political question — it’s focused on really big ideas like ‘What kind of country do we want to have?’ ” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, the gun-control advocacy group founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in 2011.
“So not only are lots of young people having their first political experience around the issue of guns, but they’re shaming the adults into actually taking action. And that’s something that’s effective politically,” Ambler said.
Shannon Watts, the founder of a gun control group called Moms Demand Action, said the students have done something no one could have expected months ago — made gun control a leading issue going into the politically contentious election season. Making use of the technology they have long used to socialize, the most interconnected generation of teenagers is now using that collective power to have their voices heard, Watts said.
“What’s different about this is that we’ve seen a clear call to action from the entire Parkland community immediately after the shooting, and we’ve never really seen that before,” Watts said. “We have to keep this momentum going.”
Michaela Hoenig and Mai Canning, two students at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., echoed Watts’s sentiment. Hoenig and Canning, who are 17 and 16 respectively, created a network called DC Teens Action to coordinate temporary housing for students coming into Washington from across the country for Saturday’s march.
The teenagers solicited donations from corporations and lawmakers to provide food and transportation stipends for their fellow students on Friday evening and Saturday morning. In an interview, the teenagers said they coordinated almost exclusively through social media and, of course, outside of school.
“We want politicians to realize we’re serious,” Canning said. “And if they don’t listen to us and they don’t agree with our issues, we’re going to vote them out. They can’t just write us off.”
Hoening also characterized the march as a fight for respect.
“This is a serious movement,” Hoenig said. “We’re tired of wondering if we’re next.”