WASHINGTON — With a combination of silence and chanting, students left area schools to participate in the National School Walkout to protest gun violence.
Hundreds of students gathered in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes of silence — one minute for each person killed in the Florida school shooting last month.
“We’re tired of seeing children die,” one protester told WTOP.
Students then marched to the Capitol, with chants including “Hey hey ho ho/The NRA has got to go,” “What do we want? Gun control!/When do we want it? Now!” and “How many more?”
‘I’m proud to be with you’
At about 11:15, a group of lawmakers descended the steps of the Capitol to address the marchers.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi drew an ovation when she was introduced, and told the students, “I’m proud to be with you.” She praised “students who have sacrificed so much and spoken so eloquently,” and adopted their slogan of “Enough is enough.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer cited 7,000 students lost to gun violence, calling them “7,000 kids whose lives could have been before them. Enough is enough.” He added that he was the National Rifle Association’s “Public Enemy No. 1 and I’m proud of it.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, got a rock star’s welcome when he addressed the crowd, telling them “All across the country, people are sick and tired of gun violence, and the time is now.” He told the students he was proud of “your courage and your intelligence and [your] leading the nation in the right direction.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, told the crowd they were “too young to work, but old enough to become the first generation to fight for their own lives.” She praised the students’ “determination of your new generation to do what we before you have failed to do.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said the students comprised “the new ingredient” that was “changing the terms of the debate.” He drew parallels to Martin Luther King’s work desegregating public accommodations, in which the involvement of teenagers – which King resisted at first – tipped the scales.
“In the past, it seemed despairing – that after a shooting there’s a little bit of talk, and then nothing happens,” Kaine said. Among the changes he suggested were universal background checks and reauthorizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence as a health issue.
Also Wednesday, parents of Parkland High School shooting victims are testifying at a Senate committee on school safety. At the same time, the House was set to vote on a bill providing more money for school security and efforts to identify potentially dangerous behavior. House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the chamber’s emphasis was on “stopping people who should not get guns from getting any kind of gun – period.”
‘We don’t have to live like this’
But the kids had the most to say.
Michael Sullivan, a sophomore at Spring Brook High School, told the crowd they were on “the right side of history.”
“In an ideal world, none of us would be here,” he said. “In an ideal world, the 20 first-graders and kindergartners who died at Sandy Hook would be in middle school today. In an ideal world, the 58 concert-goers who were gunned down in Las Vegas would have returned to be with their families. In an ideal world, the 32 students who died at Virginia Tech would be employed professionals, and the 17 victims from Stoneman Douglas would probably be eating lunch at school right now, and the only thing they would be worrying about is a test next period. But this isn’t the case.”
His message to Congress: “A lot of us will be 18 by November, and that’s when midterms start. … For once, value our lives over your bank accounts, or we will vote you out.” Sullivan recalled the Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements, predicting that “we too will remain persistent until there is real change.”
Eri Shay, a freshman at Quince Orchard High School, said she had once lived in Japan, where people are allowed to own guns – after taking a class, a shooting test, a mental health test, a drug test and a background check. “There has never been a mass shooting in Japan – ever,” she said.
“Other countries made these laws to protect their citizens, and it works. We know that we don’t have to live like this in the U.S. And our children don’t have to die like this. It could have been any one of our schools, and it still can be.”
More than 28 D.C.-area schools participated; more than 3,000 school districts nationwide are taking part, ABC News reported.
Emily Schrader, a high school junior and one of the student organizers from Montgomery County, told WTOP, “I’ve seen more energy in this gun-violence prevention movement than I’ve ever seen in high school before.”
Yasmine Benderson, of Rockville High School, told WTOP, “Honestly, we’re here because we’ve been failed. We expected our government to help us, to [protect us, and over and over again we’ve been repeatedly failed. We were watching our peers being gunned down in school, and it’s unacceptable.”
She added, “It sucks to have nightmares about having something like this happen, and having to plan out what you would do at your school if it happened to you.”
‘Very energetic and passionate’
Standing in front of the wind-whipped Capitol, D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham said students had exercised their First Amendment rights peacefully.
“They seemed very energetic and passionate about their issue, but they were very cooperative with law enforcement,” he said.
Police coordinated with area schools ahead of the planned walkout, Newsham said. Many D.C. high schools held their own rallies in remembrance of the 17 people killed in Florida last month.
“I don’t think there’s any need to have those types of firearms in our community under any circumstance,” the chief said. “And we’ll continue to say that, and hopefully, somebody will listen.”
WTOP’s Nick Iannelli, Dave McConnell and Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.
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