National News

What to Watch for at March for Our Lives as Students Protest Guns

Posted March 24, 2018 8:18 a.m. EDT

Thousands of people, outraged by a recent massacre at a South Florida school and energized by the students who survived, were expected to spill out in public protest in Washington and communities across the world on Saturday as they demand an end to gun violence.

The student activists, many of them sharp-tongued and defiant in the face of politicians and gun lobbyists, have kept attention on the issue in a time of renewed political activism on the left, as they helped lead a national school walkout and pushed state officials in Florida to enact gun legislation.

On Friday, the Department of Justice proposed banning so-called bump stocks, but President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that included only some background check and school safety measures. The effectiveness of the students’ efforts will be measured, in part, on the success of Saturday’s events — their most ambitious show of force yet.

Here’s what we’re watching as protests unfurl around the globe:

— More than 800 protests are planned in every American state and on every continent except for Antarctica, according to a website set up by organizers.

— More than half a million people were expected to demonstrate in Washington, where the main event, called March for Our Lives, kicks off around midday.

— Some of the most prominent student activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a shooting left 17 dead last month, will speak in Washington.

— Counterprotests in support of gun rights appeared to be planned in cities including Salt Lake City, Greenville, South Carolina and Helena, Montana.

What Do the Students and Demonstrators Want?

The mission statement on the organizers’ website says the marches on Saturday are to “demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues.”

Several of the Stoneman Douglas students have spent the last few days meeting with political leaders.

Jaclyn Corin, 17, a junior and lead organizer, will give a speech at the rally, and in an interview she compared the march to protests against the Vietnam War and rallies for civil rights. She recently spoke with Rep. John Lewis, a key player during the civil rights era. “He said he saw himself and his friends and his movement in us, in our movement,” she said.

The event will be a show of strength for a group that will soon have access to the ballot box — something marchers plan to emphasize.

“What we’re doing is because we’re not scared of these adults,” Corin said, “because we have nothing to lose, we don’t have an election to lose, we don’t have a job to lose — we just have our lives to lose.”

A group called HeadCount is sending roughly 5,000 volunteers to register people at 30 marches across the country.

The student activists also hope to elevate gun control as a key issue in the coming midterm elections, and to build support for candidates with whom they are aligned on issues such as universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.

In Florida, a state that is notoriously stubborn on guns, the students’ activism helped spur a newly passed law that raises the minimum age for gun purchases and creates a waiting period for buying guns, among other things, but does not ban assault weapons or strengthen background checks.

The Washington march will draw many survivors of mass shootings. It will also draw people like Dantrell Blake, 21, and his cousin Deshon Hannah, 20. Both were shot as teenagers in Chicago, and they said they hoped their visit to Washington would bring attention to the plight of their city’s many shooting victims.

“When something like that happens,” Blake said of Parkland, “it’s like, ‘It’s a massacre.’ But it’s a massacre in Chicago every day — and this definitely can be talked about.”

How Has the Students’ Role Evolved?

In the days after the shooting in Parkland, some of the students began drawing national attention with impassioned speeches at rallies, television appearances and pointed responses to critics on social media. They have also reportedly scarfed pizza and met in secret to try to keep the integrity of their kids-first approach.

Still, they have accepted financial support from adults as well. Oprah Winfrey and the couple George and Amal Clooney each donated $500,000 to the cause, and other celebrities such as Steven Spielberg have followed suit. Big political names in the anti-gun movement, such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety, have contributed help as well.

The activists themselves have raised several million dollars on crowdfunding websites. And Deena Katz, an organizer of the Los Angeles Women’s March, is pitching in as an adviser.

Barack and Michelle Obama hand-penned a letter in support of the movement that was obtained by the news outlet Mic, and former President Bill Clinton voiced his support for the activists on Twitter.

How Have Supporters of Gun Rights Responded to the Students?

Perhaps the most formidable political foe the students face is the National Rifle Association.

Its leaders have questioned whether the students were mature enough to lead a discussion about national policy, and representatives have also accused the movement of being backed by “radicals with a history of violent threats,” a claim that the fact-checking website Politifact deemed untrue.

Supporters of gun rights have opted to protest in some areas on Saturday, and to stand down in others.

In Salt Lake City, a rally for gun rights will begin just before the rally for gun control. Both marches will take the same route, from a high school to the Utah Capitol. The gun rights rally there is led by Bryan Melchior, 45, a co-owner of a website that sells firearms and firearm accessories. Melchior said that in recent days he had been contacted by many young people who felt that the swell of calls for stricter gun laws did not represent their views.

“We’re marching for the safety, security and protection of the children,” he said, adding that he supports arming teachers and fortifying schools and has developed a school safety program he hopes will be adopted by administrators.

Some supporters of gun rights in Vermont said they were not planning to hold counterdemonstrations during Saturday’s march.

“Most times counterprotesting looks bad, especially counterprotesting kids that want to feel safe in school,” said Jace Laquerre, a student at the University of Vermont who has spoken out in support of gun rights. “We agree with their message to feel safe in school, we just have different solutions is all.”

Laquerre said he was still planning to appear on CNN on Saturday with survivors of the Parkland shooting.

Where Does the President Stand?

Trump has grappled publicly with how to respond after the Parkland shooting.

He emerged from an emotionally raw meeting with students, as well as parents of those who were killed, appearing moved. Days later, he declared: “We have to have action. We don’t have any action.”

But in March, he quickly abandoned a brief promise to work for gun control measures opposed by the NRA. He has also discussed measures such as arming teachers and reopening mental institutions to prevent school shootings.

On Friday, he criticized Barack Obama over bump stocks, an accessory that can make a semi-automatic weapon fire more rapidly, in tweeting about the Justice Department’s move.

“As I promised, today the Department of Justice will issue the rule banning BUMP STOCKS with a mandated comment period,” he wrote. “We will BAN all devices that turn legal weapons into illegal machine guns.”

Where Else Are Demonstrations Being Planned?

Among the demonstrations planned for this weekend are small events in Hong Kong and Tokyo, two Asian cities where guns are highly restricted and shootings are rare.

Americans living there said they still felt connected to the events in the United States and wanted to express solidarity with the people demonstrating for stronger gun laws.

Marney Schaumann, who has lived abroad for about 10 years, previously lived in Parkland, less than a mile from Stoneman Douglas.

A friend who still lives in Parkland asked if she would help organize a march overseas, and Schaumann was able to find other volunteers through a local Facebook group for a short march Sunday in the Central district of Hong Kong Island.

“Even though we live abroad we still love and care for our country and the students there,” she said.

At an event scheduled for Saturday in Tokyo, participants planned to hold signs bearing the names of people who have been killed in gun violence.

“I think it is important not just to call for changes to our gun laws, not just to debate the subtleties of the Second Amendment, but to remember that it is people who have died because of our gun laws,” said Linda Gould, an American in Japan who is organizing the Tokyo vigil.

And in Nagoya, Japan, Mieko Hattori, the mother of Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student who was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the early 1990s, said that the students had inspired her.

“I just wanted to convey our message, we support you from Japan,” said Hattori.