She has been unusually supportive of the march, taking every opportunity to promote it in ways that she hasn’t for other large-scale demonstrations that are routine in the nation’s capital.
The mayor highlighted the coming rally during her State of the District address last week, and sent a robo-call to 100,000 households on Friday to encourage residents to attend. For the first time during Bowser’s administration, the mayor’s office is recruiting volunteers to help march participants navigate the city. And she has appeared at events related to gun control every day this week — sometimes multiple events in one day — except for a snowy Wednesday.
Some of her actions are aimed at an audience beyond Washington’s borders.
Bowser co-starred with Justin Timberlake in an Instagram video to promote the march, which garnered nearly 1 million views. She wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald and released a video slamming Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as hypocritical because he wants to tighten federal gun laws while loosening restrictions in the District. Increasingly, she also has been using a national, not local, frame to discuss gun control.
“We deal with the impact of guns in our city every day,” Bowser said at a Tuesday news conference. “We can come up with our laws in D.C., but if our neighbors don’t have strict gun laws, it affects us too. The time is now. I believe very strongly on a federal level, Congress has to act. I couldn’t agree more with these students.”
She is pushing the D.C. Council to ban bump stocks — the device a gunman used to accelerate gunfire in the Las Vegas massacre — as a way of forcing congressional Republicans to take a stand against gun violence, since Capitol Hill has final say over D.C. laws.
Observers say Bowser is tapping into the momentum behind gun control that has been building since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.
“The narrative about gun violence has changed,” said Matthew Green, a political-science professor at the Catholic University of America. “It makes sense for Bowser to embrace the gun control issue right now.”
Bowser’s position is not new. Gun control is broadly popular in the District, which has some of the nation’s strictest restrictions on firearms. In her first week in office in 2015, Bowser told residents, “You have a mayor who hates guns.”
National gun control groups see the urban mayor as a valuable ally.
“She can bring into the fold diverse voices in this movement,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the advocacy group Giffords. “Students in D.C. are going to be part of this national movement, and it’s really important for the District of Columbia to not just be represented in Congress, but in the national discourse.”
But staking out a higher national profile is not without risk for Bowser.
At a recent D.C. Council discussion about the march, which is being led by mostly white, suburban students from Parkland, several lawmakers representing parts of the city with the highest crime cautioned that they don’t want to appear blind to gun violence in their own back yard.
D.C. is no longer the “murder capital” it was in the early 1990s, but it’s common for young people in Southeast Washington to fear stray bullets and to have lost loved ones or classmates to gun violence. While homicides dipped in the city last year, seven teenagers were among the victims. Six teenagers died of gunshot wounds this year.
“We have this tragedy that occurs in Florida and credit to those kids, they have created a national issue out of something that black and brown people have largely been ignored over,” said Michael Fauntroy, a political-science professor at Howard University. “It’s a tough spot for the mayor, but to be fair, if you are an advocate for gun control and gun safety and you have a big event happening in your city, you have to be involved.”
For Bowser, that means navigating local and national stages as they overlap.
Neither she, nor any adult, will speak on the main stage of Saturday’s march. But she will lead other elected officials and local students at a pre-march “Rally for D.C. Lives.”
At the D.C. government building on Thursday morning, Bowser met with students from Dunbar High School who wrote a federal bill to ban assault weapons for their social studies class.
Then she traveled to Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast to open an assembly where Parkland students met D.C. high schoolers and lamented how stories of D.C. students don’t get the same level of national attention. Introduced as “an important adult leader,” Bowser was filmed by at least 20 television cameras.
But her critics see opportunism.
“What you have is a mayor who is taking advantage of the national spotlight. She’s playing to the cameras,” said April Goggans, an organizer for the local Black Lives Matter branch, who watched the assembly and had encouraged March for Our Lives organizers to come to the school. “Why would she march or do anything with Justin Timberlake when she has black kids in Thurgood Marshall and other schools who deal with gun violence every day?”
Bowser backs stricter gun legislation pending before the D.C. Council, including a bill that would allow people to petition a court to remove guns from those who pose an immediate danger to themselves or others.
For some residents, that’s greatly appealing.
“I listen to the radio and you hear bad news about kids and grown people getting killed,” said Dorothy Smithers, 65, a housecleaner who lives in Chinatown. “That’s what I worry about: [How to get] rid of guns. People killing kids. But she’s working on that to get those guns off the street.”
Several observers noted the timing of Bowser’s gun advocacy comes after a particularly low point in her tenure.
Bowser spent the winter confronting a number of schools scandals, including one involving fraudulent graduation rates that sparked a federal probe, an investigation into enrollment fraud at a renowned public school, and the ouster of her handpicked schools chancellor after he skirted city rules to place his daughter in a sought-after public school.
“When you have been getting hammered on public education, it’s good to have something else to point to and say you’ve been a leader,” said Fauntroy, the Howard professor.
“It’s not disingenuous because she believes in this [gun control] issue, but it’s not coincidental she ramped it up,” said Chuck Thies, a D.C. political operative and frequent Bowser critic. “It’s necessary for her to steer attention away from schools because as mayor you don’t have very many arrows in the quiver when something is dogging you like a scandal.”
Bill Lightfoot, who chairs Bowser’s reelection campaign, said the reason for the mayor’s recent focus on guns is simpler: It’s a “D.C. value.”
“She’s unopposed in the primary, so this allows her to take a strong position on those things she knows are very dear to her constituents and to her,” Lightfoot said. “It’s not like she’s traveling someplace else to do it. It’s in her back yard.”
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report