With soaring speeches, emotional chants, and hand-painted signs, the protesters offered angry rebukes to the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), the nation’s most powerful gun rights group, and to politicians who have for decades largely declined to pass stronger gun laws. A sign in Washington declared “Graduations, not funerals!” while another in New York said “I should be learning, not protesting.” Crowds in Chicago chanted “Fear has no place in our schools” as they marched.
Celebrities, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus, performed in Washington, where politicians and adult activists were largely sidelined while the students took centerstage.
The most powerful, and impassioned, moments came from the student survivors of the Parkland shooting, who declared themselves angry, impatient, and determined to stop school shootings.
“Today, we march,” Tarr said. “We fight. We roar. We prepare our signs. We raise them high. We know what we want, we know how to get it, and we are not waiting anymore.”
Emma González, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High who has become famous for her activism in the aftermath of the shooting, spoke for just under two minutes at the Washington march, describing the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and reciting the names of classmates who had been killed. Then she stood silently in front of the sea of people for four minutes and 26 seconds—until a timer went off.
“Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and 20 seconds,” González said, referring to the amount of time the shooting at Stoneman Douglas lasted. “The shooter has ceased shooting, and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape, and walk free for an hour before arrest.
“Fight for your lives, before it’s someone else’s job,” she continued, and then walked offstage.
The Parkland students weren’t the only ones to share their stories. An 11-year-old girl from Virginia, Naomi Wadler, captivated the audience as she declared “Never again!” on behalf of black women and girls who have been victims of gun violence.
“People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own,” she said. “People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know.”
Organizers at national gun control groups, who provided logistical support and public relations advice as the students planned the Washington rally, noted that demonstrations took place in 390 of the country’s 435 congressional districts.
“The mass shooting generation is nearing voting age,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a national group that advocates for tougher gun laws. “They know the midterms are six months away, and they plan to make sure that they vote and they get others to register to vote. They are absolutely poised to turn this moment into a movement.”
Gun rights organizations, which have worked since the Parkland shooting to head off any significant new gun restrictions, largely stayed silent on Saturday. A spokesman for the N.R.A. declined to comment.
But small counter-protests in favor of gun rights did take place in several cities. In Salt Lake City, several hundred people gathered near a high school, some carrying signs with messages like “AR-15’s EMPOWER the people.” Brandon McKee, who wore a pistol on his belt, brought his daughter, Kendall, 11, who held a sign that said “Criminals love gun control.”
“I believe it’s their goal to unarm America, and that’s why we’re here today,” McKee said of the Washington marchers.