Demonstrators channel anger, sadness over Florida and Maryland school shootings into calls for action

WASHINGTON — Chanting “No more” and “Vote them out,” hundreds of thousands of students and protesters poured into the nation’s capital Saturday to channel sadness and anger over school shootings into spirited demands that lawmakers curb gun violence.

Less than six weeks after one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history — and four days after two students were shot at a school in St. Mary’s County — participants in the March for Our Lives rally said the event would take its place in history alongside past rallies on behalf of women, black men, gay rights, and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the Vietnam era.

“I think it's amazing,” Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights veteran, said from a protest in Atlanta, one of hundreds across the country, including in Baltimore and Annapolis. “They will be the leaders of the 21st century.”

Following Baltimore and Great Mills students at March for Our Lives »

The Washington rally, held on a brisk, sunny day, was distinguished by the youthfulness of its organizers and many of its participants. It was led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people last month. The survivors of the Valentine’s Day massacre have emerged as undaunted advocates for gun policy reform. A few of the speakers were as young as 11; Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is 9.

The mood of the demonstration was alternately sad — some of the students’ speeches read like eulogies for slain classmates — defiant and angry. “Either represent the people or get out!” shouted Cameron Kasky, a Parkland survivor.

“Make America kind again,” one demonstrator’s read sign. “Open arms, not firearms.”

The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Nicholas Dworet, a slain Parkland student who would have turned 18 Saturday.

The featured musicians included Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Platt, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and the choir of Baltimore’s Cardinal Shehan School, which joined Andra Day in singing “Rise Up,” a performance of which went viral last fall.

The marchers included more than 100 students, alumni and teachers from Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, where authorities say a 17-year-old boy fired his father’s gun Tuesday in a first-floor hallway, mortally wounding a 16-year old girl, who died Friday. The shooter was killed; another boy was injured.

Many in the Great Mills group wore green and gold, the school’s colors. As they made their way toward the main stage Saturday, they chanted, “We are Great Mills!”

“After hitting so close to home, it becomes that much more real to us,” said 18-year-old Jillian Carty, one of the march’s organizers. “We want to be part of the movement to stop gun violence.”

Organizers said there were more than 800 demonstrations around the world on Saturday, mirroring their call that “safety become a priority, and that we end gun violence in our schools and communities.”

In Baltimore, a crowd several blocks long marched through downtown chanting: “Not one more in Baltimore” and “The NRA has to go.” One marcher carried a sign that read “Thank you students for leading the way!”

The crowd included many children and parents. At one point it stretched from Key Highway to Pratt Street downtown. Drivers honked their horns in support.

In Annapolis, a crowd rallied at Lawyers Mall.

The Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, a gun rights group, said “We respect their right to exercise their Constitutionally-protected right to protest. We wish they would respect our rights as well.”

Contacted by The Baltimore Sun, the group said Maryland “already has some of the strictest anti-gun laws in the nation. It’s not that public sentiment has shifted, but the incessant media focus on anti-gun activism has made the political establishment believe that is has.”

About 50 members of the Patriot Picket, a gun rights group based in Annapolis, went to Washington with big Maryland and American flags. Spokesman Paul Brockman said they wanted to “show the other side.”

“The group that’s out here wants to ban an inanimate object,” he said. “They want to ban a tool. Guns are much like knives or baseball bats or trucks full of fertilizer. In the wrong hands, they can be used for evil.”

He said the group got shouted at, but also engaged in constructive dialogue with people who want stricter gun control measures.

Students from Baltimore demanded not only safe schools but also safe streets.

Seventeen students of Baltimore's Excel Academy gathered outside Baltimore City Hall Saturday morning to board a bus to the nation’s capital. The public high school has lost seven students to gun violence in the last two school years.

Arron Fleming, 17, a junior, said passers-by were stopping to notice a sign he held up reading: “In one school year we lost 7 of our children to gun violence!”

“They’re paying attention. It’s nice to have positive attention for once,” Fleming said.

Dashay McCrae, an 18-year-old Excel student who lost a close cousin, said she was ready to be heard.

“Hopefully it will change people’s minds and affect them in a different way,” McCrae said. “It just feels like we could do better. The world doesn’t have to revolve around violence.”

Deaundra Fisher, another 18-year-old senior, lost a brother. She said she feels “like we’re making something happen, like we’re making something change.”

By the end of the day, Fisher said she felt like she’d accomplished what she’d set out to do: To make sure people at the rally understood that gun violence doesn’t come only occasionally in the form of mass shootings, but also routinely on the streets of cities such as Baltimore.

“Now they understand where we come from and how bad gun violence is for us,” Fisher said. “It’s not just one day. It’s all the time.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city provided buses for several thousand kids. NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, MTV and the NAACP said they were also helping send Baltimore kids to the rally.

The Parkland shootings rank with Columbine in 1999 and Sandy Hook in 2012 among the worst in U.S. history.

Kayla Renert, a 15-year-old student at Stoneman Douglas, sheltered in a classroom during the attack. A friend was wounded in the leg.

“I look at the younger kids and the future generations and I never want them to go through what we went through or see what we saw,” she said.

A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 69 percent of Americans think gun laws in the United States should be tightened. That's up from 61 percent in October 2016 and 55 percent in October 2013. Ninety percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of gun owners now favor stricter gun control laws.

Speakers at the rally repeatedly invoked the names of the NRA and gun-rights advocates in Congress. Delaney Tarr, one of the Parkland students, laid down one of the students' central demands: a ban on assault-type weapons.

“We will continue to fight for our dead friends,” Tarr said.

The Associated Press and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Jessica Anderson, Phil Davis and John Fritze contributed to this article.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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