Joaquin was one of the 17 people killed in a February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. His 18th birthday would have been Saturday.
“I don’t know what the right way is to celebrate today,” said his sister, Andrea Ghersi, 26, after the crowd had dispersed. “There’s nothing I can do that will make today feel okay. He should have been here. He should be here.”
The birthday tribute served as the emotional climax to a rally that brought hundreds to the doorstep of the NRA, demanding stricter gun laws and the revocation of the gun group’s nonprofit status. They were met with dozens of counterprotesters, some of whom arrived with guns strapped to their hips or across their chests.
The protest, which was organized by a coalition of anti-gun-violence organizations, included survivors of gun violence from around the country — though the headliners were students from Stoneman Douglas. They have been touring the country registering young people to vote and raising awareness about gun violence.
Organizers, who dubbed the protest the National March on the NRA, said they were there for multiple reasons: to confront the NRA and condemn the lobbying efforts of the group, and to make demands of local and federal lawmakers who may be watching.
Their demands include instituting universal background checks of gun buyers through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and banning high-capacity magazines and “any weapon of a caliber higher than .30-caliber or more and any rifle, long gun, or short-barreled rifle that fires in semi-automatic and takes self-loading magazines,” according to a website for the march. They also called for a searchable database of gun owners through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
Though police separated the groups, placing thick orange barricades and a chunk of space between them, several activists said they came to Saturday’s rally to engage the other side and have a conversation.
“When you’re just yelling at each other, nothing is going to change and no one is going to change their minds,” said Lindsey Nystrom, 18, who carried a sign listing NRA contributions to prominent Republican lawmakers. “It’s such a different energy when you take the time to really listen and have a conversation. That’s why we came today. That’s what we wanted.”
She and her sister, Grace Nystrom, 16, spent much of the day speaking to NRA members and gun owners who milled around on their side of the barricades.
Wade Guzman, 31, of Aberdeen, Md., had similar motivations — he wanted to engage people on the other side of the gun debate. So he stood with the student protesters and their supporters, refusing to move to the other side of the barricades where his fellow pro-gun activists were corralled.
With his 9mm gun strapped to his hip, Guzman greeted passersby with a smile and a hand-drawn sign that challenged people to “disarm” their expectations and assumptions.
Though he’s a gun owner, Guzman is not a member of the NRA. He grew up near Parkland, Fla., and felt personally affected by the attack on students there. But he said he doesn’t believe stricter gun laws will fix the problem.
“We can find middle ground if we work together and see past what we assume about each other,” he said. “People look at me and they think they know all about who I am and what I believe. But they would probably never guess that my parents came here illegally from Guatemala, my sister is married to a black woman, I personally disagree with the Muslim Ban — there’s a lot you can learn when you just talk to people,” Guzman said.
“I’m here because I’m trying to hear them. I’m trying to be sensitive and help them hear me, too,” he said.
Several counterprotesters said they support better enforcement of existing gun laws, broader mental-health checks and safety training for gun owners. But they dismissed attacks on specific firearms, such as the AR-15, which was used in the Parkland attack.
Despite the occasional heated exchange, the event remained peaceful.
Fairfax County police Lt. Eli Cory said one arrest was made. A man, crossing from the counterprotester’s side, was charged with unlawfully crossing a police barrier.
Similar “sister marches” took place in nearly two dozen cities, where marchers were expected to target local guns groups or state legislatures.
Outside the NRA headquarters, a pile of sunflowers was left beside a mural that Joaquin’s father, Manuel Oliver, created to honor his slain son. He had painted the teen’s face, framed by 18 small flames and the words: “We demand to blow out our candles.”
Then, with a hammer, he struck a hole through each flame, blowing them out.