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At Tampa event, March for Our Lives works to keep up momentum ahead of 2018 election

Spirited gathering draws a couple of hundred people to Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa.

TAMPA — There's a routinely-violated rule in Christopher Zoeller's family: No politics in the house.

Zoeller, 16, a junior at River Ridge Academy, has been deeply personally affected by gun violence. His grandmother died by suicide with a gun years ago. Since the mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, he's felt less safe at his school.

On Saturday, Zoeller tried to turn that experience into action, volunteering his time at the March for Our Lives Tampa Bay's "Bands and Ballots" voter registration event.

The spirited gathering drew a couple hundred to Curtis Hixon Park as local bands alternated with speakers who talked about the urgent problem of gun violence in America. Zoeller's family — his mother, Laura, stepfather, Gerard Guarino, and stepbrothers, Biagio and Noah, and their beagle hound Rocco — all came out to support him.

They agree that gun violence is a problem. But that doesn't mean they agree about how to solve it.

Christopher Zoeller, 16, helped organize the Tampa Bands and Ballots event at Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)

"Sometimes it can be a little tense," Zoeller said about the conversations around his dinner table.

Gerard, a Democrat, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Laura, an insurance underwriter and lifelong Republican, says she can't stand the president. When Hurricane Irma hit the family's Hudson home in 2017, Laura said, Gerard and his sons wrote pro-Trump messages on the plywood that hung over the windows and doors. Christopher went outside to paint large circles and X's through the words.

"It's like left and right," said Gerard, who runs an Italian food manufacturing company. "There's some heated discussions."

For example, Zoeller's stepbrother Noah, a student at the University of Tampa, isn't on board with everything about March for Our Lives. He said in an interview that the group's stance on banning assault weapons is alienating to more conservative thinkers like himself.

But Noah showed up to support his stepbrother. The spirit of support in the face of division was fitting at Saturday's event. Gun violence is one of the most polarizing topics in America, but as the sun went down over the Hillsborough river, the vibe at Curtis Hixon Park was more family picnic than political rally. Kids ran through the grassy expanse, bouncing beach balls as covers of classic songs played.

Two of the event's biggest draws, Parkland survivors-turned-activists David Hogg and Emma González, declined to give speeches or interviews. Instead, they spent a couple of hours meeting organizers face to face.

David Hogg chats with Tampa Police officers during the Bands and Ballots event. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)

The student-run March for Our Lives has, in a matter of months, become one of the most prominent gun safety groups in the country. But it's struggled at times to live up to its nonpartisan designation. This would be true of any group that advocates for stricter gun laws: liberals generally want more gun regulations; conservatives, generally do not.

That dynamic was on display in Tampa on Saturday, with Democratic causes and candidates out in full force. State Rep. Janet Cruz and her Senate campaign passed out fliers, Andrew Gillum volunteers talked up the candidate for governor and progressive voter registration groups like NextGen America made sure attendees were eligible to vote in the 2018 general election.

Macy McClintock, a senior at Robinson High School and co-president of March for Our Lives Tampa Bay, said her organization invited over 100 elected officials from across the ideological spectrum. No Republican officials were there.

Division over the gun issue is just one of the obstacles that groups like March for Our Lives has to contend with. Despite high-profile shootings this year in Parkland, Santa Fe, Texas, Annapolis, Md., and Jacksonville, a recent survey from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that gun policy ranked just sixth among the concerns of 2018 voters.

"If not more than three people die then it's just not considered news," McClintock said.

For months, March for Our Lives has tried to keep American voters pressing for solutions. Earlier this summer, the group embarked on state and national bus tours, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students headlining rallies from Tampa to Bismarck to Los Angeles.

Zoeller said if March for Our Lives wants to keep the spotlight on the issue of guns, events like Saturday's, where citizens can hear from those affected by gun violence, are going to be key.

"You have to show them what happens when you don't vote," Zoeller said.

Eden Shireen performs on stage at Bands and Ballots. (LUIS SANTANA | Times)