WASHINGTON — Thousands of people, many holding signs with names of gun violence victims and messages such as "Ban Assault Weapons Now," joined a rally for gun control on Saturday, marching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.
Leading the crowd were marchers with "We Are Sandy Hook" signs, paying tribute to victims of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and other city officials marched alongside them. The crowd stretched for at least two blocks along Constitution Avenue.
About 100 residents from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, traveled to Washington together, organizers said.
Participant Kara Baekey from nearby Norwalk, Conn., said that when she heard about the Newtown shooting, she immediately thought of her two young children. She said she decided she must take action, and that's why she traveled to Washington for the march.
"I wanted to make sure this never happens at my kids' school or any other school," Baekey said. "It just can't happen again."
Once the crowd arrived at the monument, speakers called for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition, and for universal background checks on gun sales.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the crowd it's not about taking away Second Amendment gun rights, but about gun safety and saving lives. He said he and President Barack Obama would do everything they could to enact gun control policies.
"This is about trying to create a climate in which our children can grow up free of fear," Duncan said. "This march is a starting point; it is not an ending point. … We must act, we must act, we must act."
Molly Smith, the artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage, and her partner organized the march. Organizers said that in addition to the 100 people from Newtown, buses of participants traveled from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Others flew in from Seattle, San Francisco and Alaska, they said.
While she's never organized a political march before, Smith said she was compelled to press for a change in the law. The march organizers support Obama's call for gun control measures. They also want lawmakers to require gun safety training for all buyers of firearms.
"With the drum roll, the consistency of the mass murders and the shock of it, it is always something that is moving and devastating to me. And then, it's as if I move on," Smith said. "And in this moment, I can't move on. I can't move on.
"I think it's because it was children, babies," she said. "I was horrified by it."
After the Connecticut shootings, Smith began organizing on Facebook. The group One Million Moms for Gun Control, the Washington National Cathedral and two other churches eventually signed on to co-sponsor the march. Organizers have raised more than $50,000 online to pay for equipment and fees to stage the rally, Smith said.
Smith said she supports a comprehensive look at mental health and violence in video games and films. But she said the mass killings at Newtown, Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colo., all began with guns. "The issue is guns. The Second Amendment gives us the right to own guns, but it's not the right to own any gun," she said. "These are assault weapons, made for killing people."