Hundreds of thousands show up to encourage increased restrictions on firearms
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hundreds of thousands of students made their voices heard in the nation’s capital Saturday to demand action on gun control from the nation’s policymakers, in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14.
“We stand at a moment when our nation’s laws are guided not by what is right or wrong, not by what is morally sound for the many, but is instead limited by the insatiable greed of a few,” said Matt Post, one of the speakers at the event and student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education. “In their greed, the gun lobby and their politicians have tried to deflect and distract us, they’ve tried to twist what is so clearly a gun issue into anything else but we won’t fall for it.”
Hundreds of thousands of attendees – which included both students and adults – urged that their elected officials take legislative steps in an effort to curb mass shootings.
“Use efficient regulation that doesn’t make any exception, close the cracks and loopholes with thorough background checks and psychological evaluation, protect our schools like we do our other government establishments, use security protocol methods that are efficient, and one more request: listen,” said Sam Fuentes, a survivor of the Feb 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida., speaking from the stage.
Students traveled to the event from around the region.
“I’m protesting the fact that our government is doing nothing to help keep us safe and help us feel safe, it’s not fair,” said 14-year-old Emma Goodman from Silver Spring. “I’m proud of my generation because we’re speaking up … a lot of us are too young to vote but we’re still making a difference.”
In addition to saying Montgomery County Public Schools could do more to protect the students, Goodman, who attends James Hubert Blake High School, said teachers she admires stated that “if necessary, they would sacrifice themselves for us.”
Mona Gaidon, 16, attends Clarksburg High School said “the guns have taken too many lives.”
“Sandy Hook should have been a big sign but enough is enough,” she added.
Abigail Westman, 14, from Reston, Virginia, explained students should feel safe when attending school.
“We shouldn’t be scared in schools … and deal with gun shootings,” she said. “This is our future and I think we should be fighting for what we believe.”
Westman added her school has regular lockdowns and drills to practice and said arming teachers is “not a good idea.”
“As much as people think it might work, most teachers don’t have the mental capacity … to be shooting other people and it’s just not in their mind.”
Adults attended in solidarity with the students and children.
“At the national level, we need serious legislation, we need a national registry that removes the loopholes,” said Debra Delavan, honors NSL teacher at J.S. Blake. “My students have talked about their contingency plan in the event of a shooting. They say they’d jump out a certain window or hide in a closet. That breaks my heart. Students should not have to make those sorts of plans.”
Jean Patterson, 51, from Falls Church, Virginia and Jennifer Barry, 48, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, expressed concerns about assault rifle ownership.
“I just don’t think anyone needs an assault rifle,” Patterson said. “I want these children to be safe but I don’t think anyone needs an assault rifle.”
“We have the police that have assault rifles and if we have people that have more than what the police have then we’re not protected,” Barry added.
The march also included numerous attendees personally affected by gun violence.
Shannon Goode, 43, from North Carolina said she attended the march saying she did not want “one more parent or brother or best friend to have to lose someone that they love for no reason.”
Goode added that her father, who served as a police officer, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after having to shoot an individual while on duty.
“He was never the same after that shooting,” she said.
A survivor of the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia, Jason Walters, 32, from Alexandria held a poster with the names and photos of those killed. He said he marched “for those who longer can.”
Walters recounted how he was at a nearby building as the perpetrator killed 31 students.
“I was in the basement … and I walked out of the building to be surrounded by folks with large guns saying ‘get away from the building,” he said. “I remember getting home and finally being able to tell my mom I was okay.”
Closer to Montgomery County, one student said she attended in response to the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County, in which the perpetrator killed Jaelynn Willey and left another student injured.
“My friend … had two periods with Jaelynn … it was very scary,” said Arabelle Brianna Kemp, 17, a student at Chopticon High School, located just 14 miles from Great Mills.
“Kids have a voice, and we say no, something has to change,” Kemp added.
One educator in attendance opposed the idea of arming teachers in the classroom.
“The kids can’t be afraid to come to school. I will do my best to protect them. However, I refuse to carry a gun,” said Kate Kelly, a retired special education teacher from Neversink, NY.
Brandon Stratford, 41, an education researcher, said, “Mental health and violence don’t necessarily go together.”
“When we talk about mental health as the only solution to preventing violence, it continues a stigma that makes it hard for people with mental health issues to feel comfortable getting the help they need,” he added.
Stratford, who previously worked as a social worker in Washington D.C., explained that students who witness neighborhood gun violence outside the school suffer from academic difficulties and lead to disobedient behavior.
“When we treat kids as if they’re just being disobedient without addressing the fact that they’ve faced trauma … then they often get re-traumatized by the discipline and suspensions when what they really need is help to deal with the violence they’re exposed to,” he added.
Several attendees, having lived in other countries, compared their foreign educational experiences to the U.S.
As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Denmark, Christina Gleason, 20, from Fairfax, Virginia, explained “guns are illegal [in Denmark] … unless you have a license to own a gun for your job … that is the only reason why you would own a gun.”
“My students do talk about the issue and they keep comparing their school in their home countries to the schools here and they all come up with pretty much the same experiences,” said Claudia Paiva, ESOL teacher at Wheaton High School. “They have never felt so insecure in their home schools despite the violent countries they come from. Their home schools are really poor, but never have they felt so vulnerable. School for them was an extension of home and here is just a place where they have to be careful.”
Phil Evans, 38, a Washington, D.C. resident originally from Australia, attended the march concerned with the availability of assault rifles to the general public.
“As an Australian citizen living in the states, it’s kind of ironic that it’s supposed to be the freest country yet you can’t go to a concert, you can’t go shopping, kids can’t go to school without fear, without having to go through drills and extra measures of security … to protect you against people who have the right to own a gun.”
He explained that the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania, which left 35 dead, prompted policymakers in Canberra to enact the ‘National Firearms Programme Implementation Act 1996’ which introduced uniform licensing and restricted the ownership of handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and shotguns.
After its enactment, gun deaths in Australia decreased from 428 in 1997 to 226 in 2012, according to the Sydney School of Public Health.
Evans added U.S. lawmakers could learn by example from their Australian counterparts.
“Tough gun laws, fair gun laws, work,” he said. “You’re not stripping people of their rights; we still have gun ownership through strict laws of vetting and wait periods.”
Sarah and Ruth Aitken, both alumni of Montgomery Blair High School, have a younger sister who still attends.
“We were following in our younger sister’s footsteps because she is part of the group that organized the two walkouts at Blair,” Ruth Aitken said. “She was at Driver’s Ed today, so she couldn’t make it.”
Sarah Aitken said, “It’s really inspirational seeing students younger than us organizing on this issue. People tend to condescend to the younger generation because they’re seen as being absorbed in social media, but it’s that same social media that’s made it possible to organize this rally.”
Sentinel reporter Peter Rouleau also contributed to this report.