Gillian Beard shivered and cried outside the National Rifle Association headquarters Friday night, as she stood among strangers and mourned the killing of her best friend, one of the 17 victims gunned down last week at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
The Coral Gables resident had long planned this trip to the Washington area to celebrate her 19th birthday with family on Friday. Instead, she joined about 300 people who gathered outside the NRA building in Fairfax to pay homage to the victims and to demand a change in the influence they said the gun lobby has on Congress and state legislators to prevent passage of gun-control measures.
Beard was not a scheduled speaker for the program, but as the pleas for change began and the crowd shouted “Enough! Enough!” the Florida Atlantic University freshman shouted out about the loss of her friend, 17-year-old Nicholas Dworet.
“I am burying my best friend next week. . . . I grew up with him. I flew in last night, crying on the plane,” Beard told the crowd, who huddled along the sidewalk outside the building. “This is my birthday. I can’t even celebrate that I am 19 today. I lost one of my best friends because of something that could have been stopped.”
Some tears were shed; others in the crowd hugged one another. Many carried signs with messages such as “#Enough,” “NRA Buys Congress” and “Shame. Shame.” Others held signs indicating that they thought the NRA could be in some degree to blame for the killings.
Many people, however, do not agree. A Pew study from June showed Americans being about equally divided on the influence of the NRA on gun laws. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
However, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), speaking at the rally, pointed directly at the NRA. “The NRA does have blood on its hands. They kill our children. Children are dead because of you, and that’s a literal truth,” he said.
Connolly said 1.5 million Americans have been killed by guns since the Vietnam era and that now was the time to demand stricter gun-control measures.
Specifically, he told the crowd the need to demand “A, B, C” legislative changes, asserting that “A” represents an assault weapons ban, “B” stands for implementing universal background checks for gun purchases and “C” covers closing gun show loopholes, which critics say allow guns to be sold while circumventing checks on buyers.
Organizers of Friday’s rally started singing the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Alexandria resident Kevin Bergen, 78, added words of his own: “We are not afraid of the NRA.”
Throughout the vigil, many shouted pleas for electoral action and a push to unseat politicians who side with the gun lobby against stricter gun-control measures.
Elizabeth Amore, 49, of Fairfax, said she came with a friend because it was time to speak up against elected officials who she said are influenced by NRA money.
“I’m here with a friend because we decided we just can’t take this anymore. We have mothers grieving down in Florida. We’re mothers ourselves, and I can’t even imagine the pain they are going through,” Amore said in an interview. “I am sick and tired of the NRA buying off politicians. We feel like it’s time for change.
“I hope to God that this is finally the time that people take notice and rally.”
Jacklyn Mathew, 25, said she is a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the Wednesday afternoon shooting occurred. The 2010 graduate, who now lives in Washington, spoke on behalf of other alumni who gathered Friday night.
“We stand together and say ‘No more,’ ” Mathew said. “To the people back in Parkland, Florida, know that we as Douglas alumni here in the nation’s capital are standing with you and, most importantly, standing up for you.
“We won’t let the tragedy be in vain, and we won’t let the rest of the country just move on.”