WASHINGTON — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in hundreds of protests across the country Saturday to push lawmakers to take action on gun violence in the wake of recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Buffalo, New York.
Protesters are turning out to more than 450 rallies nationwide, with the largest gathering taking place in Washington DC, which started at noon.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser drew loud cheers from the crowd as she called for common sense gun laws, including mandatory background checks and a ban on assault rifles.
“We don’t have to live like this,” she said, adding that people in other countries “don’t live like this.”
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., shared a story of having been in an abusive relationship when she was younger in which her partner shot at her multiple times. “That moment when gun violence strikes is so dramatic and so preventable,” she said. “I didn’t know when he would stop.”
The rallies were organized by March For Our Lives, a youth-driven organization first created by students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school mass shooting in 2018.
In Parkland, Florida, where the movement began, hundreds of demonstrators had gathered outside the Pine Trails Park Amphitheater Saturday morning to demand background checks on all gun sales, the implementation of “red flag“laws and raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21.
Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, was among those killed in Parkland, also addressed the crowd in DC “Our elected officials betrayed us and have avoided the responsibility to end gun violence,” he said, calling for students not to attend school until elected officials “stop avoiding the crisis of gun violence in America.”
At around 1:30 pm, a person standing near a group of counter-protesters began yelling during a moment of silence for victims of gun violence, prompting some in the crowd to run away. Several attendees were seen crying in the crown after the incident. Shortly after, a man took to the stage to reassure the crowd, saying, “There is no threat.”
As gun restrictions talks remain ongoing in Capitol Hill, the House passed a so-called “red-flag” bill Thursday that would allow a judge to take firearms away from a person who poses an imminent danger to themselves or others. The legislation, which drew five Republican votes, is viewed as having a greater chance than some of the other legislation of advancing in the evenly split Senate.
On Wednesday, the House also passed a series of new gun measures, including raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. That legislative package is all but guaranteed to fail in the upper chamber due to Republican opposition.
“We need to put aside our politics and save our kids and loved ones from this senseless and horrific violence before it impacts them,” David Hogg, a 2018 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the cofounder of March for Our Livessaid in a statement ahead of the rallies.
According to Serena Rodrigues, a national coordinator for March For Our Lives, the organization participated in 71 meetings with elected officials on Capitol Hill this past week.
“I feel confident that we’ll get something probably like universal background checks,” she told NBC News. “But we’ll keep pushing for more.”
Since March for Our Lives last organized nationwide protests in 2018, mass shooting have become increasingly more common.
At least 254 mass shootings have taken place in the US so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. These include the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings.
“We’re coming out of Covid and people are trying to go back to normal, get back into schools and into work, but I think as a society right now, we’re realizing that this is not the normal we want to go back to,” Rodrigues said.
In Buffalo, a white gunman killed 10 people and wounded three others in a local supermarket on May 14 in a shooting authorities deemed as a “racially motivated, hate crime.“
Garnell Whitfield Jr. whose 86-year-old mother, Ruthwas gunned down during that attack, said he was at the DC protest to demand sensible gun reform.
“We hear a lot about prayer and prayer is wonderful,” he said on stage in front of a crowd of several hundred people. “But prayer requires action. You pray and then you get up and walk.”
Responding to calls for stricter gun laws, some Republicans have proposed increasing mental health services to help prevent the next tragedy. Aim experts in the field say blaming mental health is a deflection from the fact that gun control is a necessary part of prevention.
“Let’s stop using mental health as a scapegoat from confronting white supremacy in our country,” Hogg told the crowd.
Ten days after the Buffalo shooting, 19 children, mostly fourth graders, and two teachers were killed by a gunman who entered an elementary school in Uvalde on May 24.
The President of March For Our Lives in Parkland, Zoe Weissman, told MSNBC she was rehearsing for a play when she heard about the tragedy at Uvalde.
The 16-year-old survivor of the Parkland shooting recalled feeling devastated by the news, saying she will continue fighting against gun violence to prevent more children from being killed and from living with the life-long trauma that comes with surviving a mass shooting.
In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death among young people ages 1 to 19 in the US than vehicle crashes, drugs overdoses or cancer.
Zoe Touray, who survived a shooting at the Oxford High School in suburban Detroit nearly seven months ago, showed up to the rally in Washington hopeful that this time something will be done to save more lives.
“I wasn’t old enough to remember the last march. I probably was in middle school,” Touray said. “So, to be able to see it all come to fruition in person, it gave me so much more optimism.”
Nicole Acevedo reported from New York, Aria Bendix and Janelle Griffith reported from Washington, DC