Thousands of people in rain slickers and T-shirts gathered in Washington on Saturday to rally against gun violence, and to hear impassioned speeches from shooting survivors and relatives of the slain condemning the epidemic of gun deaths across the country.
With the White House as a backdrop, speaker after speaker took to the stage to criticize government’s failure to stop the gun carnage that continues to afflict the country and expressed outrage at Congress. The rally was one of several held across the country to demand lawmakers do more.
“I’m sorry,” said David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and a founder of March For Our Lives. “I’m so angry.”
“As we gather here, the next shooter is plotting his attack,” he said.
The rally was marred by a panic that broke out when a man yelled something during a moment of silence, and some in the crowd said they heard the word “gun.” People fled from the stage area. It was not clear what was said, police reported. No firearms or weapons were found, police said, and the person was detained by officers.
“The area is safe,” a police spokesman said afterward. “There are no outstanding concerns.”
But the incident spooked many in the crowd, especially those with children, and they began leaving the rally.
One woman rushing off the Mall carried a small boy in her arms as he cried, “Mommy I’m scared.”
Halea Kerr-Layton, 25, said she was near the center of the crowd when people started running in fear. “It was freaky, scary,” she said. She and her friends decided to leave on the spot.
Although the crowd seemed smaller than the 50,000 organizers estimated on a permit issued by the National Park Service, there was tension and frustration at the state of the country’s impasse over guns.
Jamie Abrams, 42, who had come with her husband and four children from Charlotte to attend the rally, said they were near the stage when she heard a muffled shout about a gun.
“Everybody just laid down on the ground,” Abrams said, as one of her children wiped away tears.
Seconds later, she recalled, a mass of the crowd began running, starting a brief stampede that lasted about 15 seconds and rippled at least two-thirds the depth of the crowd before a speaker onstage shouted to stop running.
“It was too much for the little ones,” she said.
A former teacher, Abrams home-schools her children, ages 6 to 11. She said the possibility of a mass shooting and the emotional toll of active shooter drills was “one of our major reasons” for home schooling.
Erik Abrams, 45, said the family came to the rally to show their children they can take action.
“We’re trying to fight for their lives,” he said.
Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told the crowd: “We’ve been here before, and we have been here before too many times. We don’t have to live like this.”
Across the country, rallies were held in Austin, Atlanta, New York City and other places.
In sweltering Austin, Javier and Jazmin Cazares, the father and sister of Jackie Cazares, of one of the victims of the May 24 school massacre in Uvalde, Tex., spoke.
Jackie would have turned 10 on Friday.
Jazmin, 17, told the crowd through tears about how she usually said good morning to her sister while they brushed their teeth. But she didn’t get a chance to on the morning of the massacre because she woke up later than usual. “I think that’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said.
“I am unbelievably angry, but I’m not going to turn my anger into hate,” she told the crowd. “I’m going to channel that anger. I’m going to create some real change.”
“I have no way to express how I feel, how hurt I feel, and the hurt everybody in Uvalde feels,” she said. “I’m doing this for you, sister. If you can see me, I’m doing this for you. You will be remembered. I promise you.”
In New York City, more than 1,000 demonstrators marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan’s City Hall. They held signs announcing, “when will they love their kids more than they love guns,” and, referring to the National Rifle Association, they chanted “Hey hey, NRA, how many kids have you killed today?”
In Atlanta, thousands gathered outside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“Because of gun violence, our children, our beloved, they live in the ground, because they’ve been murdered,” said the Right Rev. Robert Wright, the bishop of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
Felicia Newberry, 55, of Atlanta, attended the march with her daughter, Alex Russo, 28, a teacher in Cobb County. She carried a sign that read “Save Our Children. Mine Are Teachers.”
“I’m over it,” she said. “Something’s gotta give.”
In Milwaukee, a few hundred people in March for Our Lives T-shirts gathered at the steps of the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
Tess Murphy, a college student and gun-control activist told the crowd she was frustrated and angry. “But one thing I’m not is hopeless,” she said. “When we fight, we win.”
The rallies had the support of President Biden who tweeted Saturday morning: “Today, young people around the country once again march with @AMarch4OurLives to call on Congress to pass commonsense gun safety legislation supported by the majority of Americans and gun owners,” he said. “I join them by repeating my call to Congress: do something.”
In Washington, the crowd began forming on the north side of Lincoln Memorial and mingled amid the soggy grass and light rain.
Ray Anid, 22, flew in from Orlando, and donned a bright yellow vest along with other volunteers at the day’s march.
“Hopefully we make a difference today,” Anid said. “Hopefully we push our politicians to do what they’re supposed to do, what the majority of America wants them to do when it comes to guns, and protect us.”
Many in the crowd wore bright blue shirts emblazoned with words “March for Our Lives.” Most appeared young — college and high school students, along with a few parents with younger children. They spoke with excitement as hit songs blared from the staging area — Harry Styles’s “As It Was” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers.”
Near the National Museum of African American History and Culture, demonstrators were greeted by a huge field of orange and white artificial flowers that represent gun violence deaths. “Around 5,000 more people died in 2020 than 2019,” a nearby sign read. “The orange flowers symbolize the increase in lost lives.”
The event came four years after the organization held a huge rally in Washington to plead for action in the wake of the Parkland shooting that killed 17 people.
“Never again!” the crowd had chanted then.
But seven months later, a heavily armed gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two weeks after that a gunman killed 11 people at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif. And seven months after that a disgruntled employee killed 12 people at a municipal building in Virginia Beach.
Calls for change again were heightened after last month’s killing of 19 children and two teachers at the elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., and the killings of 10 African Americans at a Buffalo grocery 10 days earlier. Locally, three workers were fatally shot by a fellow employee Thursday in a concrete molding company near Hagerstown, Md.
Some protesters came with friends or tagged along with their parents.
Mother-daughter duo Carly and Lisa Aughenbaugh came from Carroll County, Md., an hour and a half north of Washington.
“This country is in — emergency seems like such a lame word to use — we’re in a national crisis,” said Lisa Aughenbaugh, 56. “We’re approaching the time when there will be no one left in the country who hasn’t been affected by gun violence.”
For Carly, 24, a substitute teacher studying at Hood College in Frederick to become a school counselor, the threat of gun violence follows her into every new classroom, she said.
She said she is constantly making sure the doors in each room can lock. “If I ever die in my school, I need you to make sure this never happens again,” she remembers telling her mom after the Uvalde shooting. Now, she wants lawmakers to clamp down on assault weapons.
“We need to make it harder for the bad guys to get guns,” she said.
Katie Holloway, 41, an elementary teacher, drove from New Jersey with her mother Gretchen Showell, 63, and her aunt Liz Brophy, 59.
Holloway said she had not attended a political rally or march since she was a college student.
In her hand, she held a sign saying: “...This teacher has had ENOUGH!”
Shortly after the school shooting in Texas, Holloway said, her mother called her and told her how she couldn’t stop worrying about Holloway’s kids — two 12-year-old boys, and Holloway herself, who is a 2nd grade teacher.
They decided to book a hotel in D.C. and attend the rally.
“I teach my kids that you can do anything and change anything in the world if you try,” Holloway said. “So this is me and us doing something, because this whole situation needs to change. The fact that we can’t send our kids to school without worrying what might happen to them is crazy. This doesn’t happen in any other country in the world.”
After the Parkland shooting, the teenage survivors sparked a political movement to demand an end to school shootings and everyday gun violence. Students became activists and parents launched nonprofit organizations, lobbied lawmakers and ran for local school boards.
Still, since the Parkland shooting, more than 115,000 students have been exposed to gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular hours, according to a Washington Post database.
Leaders of March for Our Lives have spent the days leading up to the rally in more than 60 meetings on Capitol Hill, talking with lawmakers and their staffs to advocate for gun-control measures.
The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would raise the minimum age for the purchase of most semiautomatic rifles to 21 and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, among other gun-control measures, just hours after a committee heard testimony from a young survivor of the Uvalde shooting. However, that vote is unlikely to amount to much because of Senate Republican opposition to substantial new gun restrictions.
To some at the Washington rally, the moments of panic over a possible threat demonstrated the underlying fear among those attending public events in these times.
Killian Goodale-Porter, 18, and her parents ran with the crowd. She saw teenagers crying and heard the voice of a young child screaming “what’s happening?”
“I don’t know how to feel because I think it’s important to come here and be a part of why things change, but I don’t want to have to put my life on my line like that,” said Goodale-Porter, a rising sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University studying communication arts. “I know this is most likely a scare but we live in a country where people can just get guns and we don’t address it.”
Mark Shavin in Atlanta, Richard Webner in Austin, Trevor Bach in Los Angeles, Jack Wright in New York City, Dan Simmons in Milwaukee and Peter Hermann in Washington contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Carly and Lisa Aughenbaugh. This story has been corrected.