WASHINGTON – They have come from all over, an outpouring built on the tragedy of 17 lives gunned down in Florida and fueled by the anger and hopefulness of youth.
Hundreds of thousands of people will participate in the March for Our Lives beginning at noon as sister demonstrations take place across the country – indeed, the world – the biggest showing yet in five weeks of activism since Parkland.
"Students and parents of America unite. Use your voices, they are powerful, they are worthy," Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Demitri Hoth said at an event Friday on Capitol Hill. "America we are your future, why won't you protect us?"
The march is spearheaded by the Parkland students, who through social media, national TV appearances and forceful challenges to politicians have awakened a national conversation and kept it alive, bucking the trend of what usually happens after mass shootings.
A week ago, on the one-month anniversary of the Valentine's Day shooting, an estimated 1 million students nationwide participated in walkouts, one of the largest youth demonstrations since Vietnam.
"There have been so many national shooting tragedies since Donald Trump was elected, including the worst mass shooting in our history. Each time we've been given thoughts and prayers with no promise of action. I really do think this is a tipping point. Americans are just fed up," said Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. "It's our job now to take this moment and make sure it turns into action in the midterm elections."
The marchers, who will be joined by celebrities such as Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, will call for stricter gun laws, including closing loopholes in gun-purchase background checks and reinstating an assault weapon ban – measures that lack enough support in Congress.
The massive spending package lawmakers approved this week includes school safety provisions and modest changes to improve background checks.
"It's a step forward, albeit a small step," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who will attend the march in Washington.
Sen. Marco Rubio will not attend and has faced withering criticism from some Parkland students over his support from the NRA. At the same time, the Florida Republican has met with students and helped champion the legislation that passed.
On Thursday, Rubio and Nelson introduced a bill that urges states to create programs in which a court order could be obtained to prevent the purchase or possession of guns from people deemed a danger to others.
"The march and the events surrounding it can be very effective in terms of not allowing the attention to be diverted from this issue onto something else – until the next shooting," Rubio said. "But the only way we're going to get things passed here – that makes things better, not perfect, but better – is if people who disagree on things are able to work together on the things they do agree on or can come to agreement on. I would encourage everyone involved in this to understand that."
In Tallahassee, state legislators have responded to demands for action from Parkland students and families. A bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott devotes money to school safety and institutes a three-day waiting period for the purchase of all firearms and raises the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21. But even as many celebrated the bipartisan effort, critics said it did not go far enough. The NRA is suing.
Saturday's march has attracted criticism from gun control opponents, who say the students have been co-opted by liberal special interest groups – charges the young organizers reject. Support was provided by Women's March and gun control groups such as the one founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a gun violence victim.
News organizations have also been accused of giving little coverage to students who disagree with more gun control.
"I could march but I think my time would be much better well spent meeting with legislators," Kyle Kashuv, a Parkland junior who is a strong 2nd Amendment supporter, said Friday on Fox Business. He has advocated for school safety measures.
While the spotlight will be on Washington, some 800 sister marches will take place across the U.S., including events in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Miami and Orlando, as well as in Japan, Ireland, Germany and other countries.
"The Parkland shooting took place on Feb. 14," Parisa Akbarpour, who attends Sickles High School in Tampa, said this week. "The fact that a student-led movement has been kept at the top of the news for 35 days demonstrates that students are demonstrating change and will not stop until that change is seen."
Trump will not be in Washington. He flew Friday evening to Palm Beach and will spend the weekend at Mar-a-Lago. About 2,000 people plan to march Saturday afternoon toward his estate.
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.