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Passionate protest from hundreds of thousands marks Washington’s March for Our Lives

The demonstration coursed with emotion and demands for stricter gun laws and vows to turn youthful activism into a formidable political movement.

WASHINGTON — Tearfully, angrily and passionately united over the Parkland school massacre, hundreds of thousands of people protested Saturday in the nation's capital — with vast gatherings taking place across the country and the globe — to demand stricter gun laws while vowing to turn youthful activism into a formidable political movement.

"The march is not the climax of this movement. It is the beginning," said Cameron Kasky, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one of the first speakers at the three-hour rally on Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol. "To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down and stay silent, wait your turn, welcome to the revolution."

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The demonstration, coursing with emotion on a sunny, crisp day and punctuated by music performances from Miley Cyrus and others, came five weeks after 17 people were gunned down in Florida by a former student. But it also represented a broader call to attention to mass shootings, including the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando that killed 49, and everyday gun violence in areas that lack the affluence of Broward County's Parkland.

Protesters during March for Our Lives to demand stricter gun control laws on Saturday in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

"All our lives are important. And all of our stories need to be heard, no matter what color you are, what school you go to, what neighborhood you live in," said Parkland student Aaliyah Eastmond, who was studying Holocaust history when the gunman began shooting into the classroom.

"I'm here to represent the hundreds of thousands of students who live every day in constant paranoia and fear on their way to and from school," said Zion Kelly, a senior at a school in Washington whose twin brother was murdered by a robber last year.

One Parkland student was so overcome with emotion she threw up during her speech but then continued. Another, Emma Gonzalez, stood silently for several minutes, tears rolling down her cheeks, after naming the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting.

"Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds," she said, breaking her silence. "The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job."

• • •

Emma Gonzalez, a student and survivor of the Parkland shooting, speaks during March for Our Lives to demand stricter gun control laws on Saturday in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Called the March for Our Lives, it was collectively the largest gun control protest in a generation and Washington drew as many as 800,000 people, organizers said. Big rallies took place from Florida to California as well as in cities across the world. Smaller groups of counter demonstrators turned out in some places.

"All you're going to hear from one side is guns are evil," said Paul Brockman, 50, of Maryland, who stood with several others a few blocks from the Washington rally, holding signs that read "Constitution and Bill of Rights matter" and "Liberty is not a loophole."

"We understand the grief and the passion, we totally get that," Brockman said, but he added that blaming "an inanimate object" is not the answer and more attention should be paid to mental health. He rejected calls to raise the minimum purchase age for guns. "You can be 18 years old and vote, but you can't buy a gun?"

One Parkland student who opposes more gun regulations, Kyle Kashuv, walked through the crowd and later appeared on Fox News. "It's so easy to just bash the Second Amendment and bash guns," he said. "It's hard to look at all the facts. It's hard to realize that guns aren't the issue here. It's easy to regurgitate talking points. It's easy to do what your peers say."

Speaker after speaker urged the audience to register to vote and go to the ballot box in the upcoming midterm elections to oppose politicians who do not support gun control.

"Never again," came the chant from the stage. Volunteers circulated in the crowd with voter registration forms.

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"This is not cutting it," said Parkland student David Hogg, turning to the Capitol and slashing his arm. Hogg, who like other survivors has become a presence on national TV news shows and has gained a large social media following, using it to amplify the message. He took aim at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, over his NRA support.

"If you listen real close, you can hear the people in power shaking," Hogg said.

Rubio drew considerable heat from demonstrators and on Twitter, he wrote: "Today many are peacefully exercising their #1A right to march for gun ban. Many support gun ban. But many others see it as infringement of #2A that won't prevent shootings. Protest is good way of making a point, but making a change will require both sides finding common ground."

Rubio pointed to legislation that was included in the massive spending bill that President Donald Trump signed Friday, including provisions to improve school safety and identify threats and to bolster background checks. Rubio also highlighted a bill that he and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, have introduced that would encourage states to create programs so court orders can be obtained to prevent dangerous people from buying or possessing guns — something Florida has done in the wake of Parkland.

But the students and their supporters say those things fall far short.
They are demanding tighter background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault-type rifles like the one used by the Florida killer, school security, and a raising of the age to buy guns. (The Florida Legislature moved to increase the age for rifles, drawing an NRA lawsuit while illustrating the political forces coming from Parkland.)

A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 69 percent of Americans think U.S. gun laws should be tightened. That is up from 61 percent in 2016 and 55 percent in 2013. Overall, 90 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of gun owners now favor stricter gun laws. At the same time, the poll found that nearly half of Americans do not expect elected officials to take action.

The mere mention of Trump's name brought sustained boos at the march. The president spent the weekend at his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago and he visited his nearby golf club Saturday.

"We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today," a White House spokeswoman said, noting the legislation that was signed into law. "Additionally, on Friday, the Department of Justice issued the rule to ban bump stocks following through on the president's commitment to ban devices that turn legal weapons into illegal machine guns."

• • •

Protesters during March for Our Lives to demand stricter gun control laws on Saturday in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The day was a powerful moment for a generation often characterized as coddled or self-absorbed and the young faces in Washington at once marveled at the turnout and pushed back at skeptics.

"When Joan of Arc fought back English forces, she was 17 years old. When Mozart wrote his first symphony, he was 8 years old. To those people that tell us that teenagers can't do anything, I say we were the only people that could have made this movement possible," said Parkland junior Alex Wind, who railed against the idea of arming teachers.

"Are they going to arm the guy scanning tickets at the movie theater? Are they going to arm the person wearing the Mickey Mouse costume at Disney? That is what the NRA wants and we will not stand for it."

Students from across Florida traveled to Washington along with adults. "We wanted to support the students from our county who organized this march," said Elisa Cartagena, 43, a speech pathologist in Broward County schools who wore a pink hat from the Women's March. "Our students are strong and they are the next voters and people better watch out. It's a movement. It's not stopping here."

Kim Larrabee, of Morton, Ill., came to Washington with her teenage daughters Tara and Tori, driving all night after a school band concert. The mother, who'd attended the Women's March in Washington a year earlier, reminded the girls they'd be passing dozens of marches in other states they could stop in, since it was so late, "but we told her 'no, we want to do what you did, we want to go to the big one' in Washington," Tori said.

"It's not what you'd expect when you get this many people crammed into one spot. Everyone's so nice to each other and really supportive of each other. You just feel it."

Mrs. Larrabee was proud. "I'm just glad I had an opportunity to let them see what kids their age can accomplish."

Laila Burege, a sixth-grader from Takoma Park, Md., said the Parkland survivors are teaching younger people like her to push on through a traumatic experience and fight for change. "I know the thrill of being part of something where all races and all genders come together and fight for one cause," the Women's March veteran said, standing with a parent. "It makes me feel really good inside. I feel like people are listening to us and that we'll get regulations for guns."

Don Schrieber, a 69-year-old cattle rancher with a grey mustache and a black cowboy hat, flew in from Gobernador, N.M., and was carrying a banner and a Sharpie. He said he'd been so moved by a 2017 shooting of two students at a high school near home that he came up with a plan to collect signatures and bring them back to the school to demonstrate support for gun control legislation from across the country.

By the end of the day, the banner was covered with names of marchers from Kentucky, Delaware, Michigan and Florida, among others.

"I've been in that town 70 years, and nothing like this had ever happened," Schrieber said. "I'm a gun owner, but I believe in responsible gun legislation. We owe it to all of America. I've never had a fear I'd lose my guns because we ask for background checks."

Times staff writer Christopher Spata contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.