As hundreds of thousands of people from all over the United States flocked to the “March For Our Lives” rally in Washington on Saturday, the message was clear: Hit the polls this November.
“Vote them out! Vote them out!” the crowd of roughly half a million people chanted throughout the afternoon, referring to members of Congress who have resisted calls to enact sweeping gun control legislation.
Pennsylvania Avenue was packed with people as early as 10:30 a.m. and as late as 3 p.m. A group of a few dozen high schoolers dangled their legs from a limestone ledge on the eastern facade of the National Archives Building. Toddlers mounted the stone horses outside the Federal Trade Commission. When the original route from Twelfth St. to Third St. filled up, the crowd spilled south toward the National Mall into the numbered streets intersecting Pennsylvania Avenue.
Watch: ‘Vote Them Out’: Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, worked with the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety for over a month to organize the march and more than 800 sibling marches across the country Saturday.
A gunman entered the Parkland high school and killed 17 people with an AR-15 on Feb. 14. The survivors of the shooting took to social media to build up a groundswell of pro-gun control sentiment across the country.
Millions of nationwide demonstrators voiced their opposition to gun violence across the nation Saturday.
Marchers wielded signs decrying the National Rifle Association — which spends millions of dollars per election cycle on pro-gun candidates — and the (mostly) Republican candidates backed by the group.
“The only thing easier to buy than a gun,” one sign read, “is a GOP candidate.”
By and large, demonstrators were eager to discuss this November’s midterm elections, which many predicted would result in a “blue wave” to sweep a Democratic majority into the House.
“We can’t kid ourselves. It’s going to take Democrat control to make this change [to U.S. gun laws],” said William Blain, 62, a retired computer systems analyst from Tampa, Florida. “[Republicans] aren’t going to change. They’re not going to make the laws necessary for this new generation coming up.”
Blain, clutching a sign blasting lawmakers for their fealty to the NRA, said he may not see sweeping gun control laws in his lifetime. But he issued a warning to GOP leaders about the power of America’s liberal youth when they turn 18.
“If the Republican Party does not conform to what the kids want, then they’re just going to vote them out,” Blain said.
President Donald Trump on Friday signed the 2018 omnibus spending package, which also included provisions to bolster the federal background check system and clarify the polarizing Dickey Amendment that Democrats said prohibited the government from funding gun violence research.
The bill’s passage marked the first time in a decade that Congress has passed any form of gun control legislation.
“After the tragedy in Sutherland Springs, I vowed to that community to do what I could so no family, school, or congregation would have to go through that again,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said in a statement Friday about the “Fix-NICS” measure in the omnibus to strengthen the background check system and referencing a church shooting last year that left more than two dozen people dead. “While it’s not the only solution, I’m confident this bill will save lives.”
Both parties also agreed to provide funding for grants to schools to implement safety training and protocols, as outlined in the “STOP School Violence Act” the House passed last week.
Demonstrators at Saturday’s march questioned Republican efforts to address their concerns about gun violence and mass shootings.
“It’s definitely not enough,” Taylor Tarter, a 9th-grade teacher from Prince George’s County, Maryland, said of the funding for safety and training programs for teachers.
“I think that what the Republicans will do is superficial,” said Mark Adolph, 61, another Tampa resident. “They’ll do something to make themselves look good for a little bit.”
Ultimately, “it’s going to take people voting out Republicans, voting in new candidates, voting in younger candidates,” Adolph said.
Older demonstrators were struck by the large number of young people in the crowd.
Children not even tall enough to stand in the shallow end of a swimming pool toted signs that read, “I am not a target” and “How many more?”
“I came to the Vietnam march in 1969,” said Ann Arbor, Michigan, resident Brad Wernle, 67, a former high school English teacher. “The ’69 march was college kids. This is college and high school, and even, you know, grade school. There are some real youngsters here. It’s the future generation.”
Two sisters from Newtown, Connecticut — 10th-grader Sophia and 7th-grader Olivia — were among them.
They have classmates whose siblings or friends died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Gun violence is something that has “affected more lives than people might think,” Sophia, the 10th-grader said, toting a sign with the hashtags #SandyHookStrong and #NeverAgain, the battle cry of the Parkland student-activists.
“If we can show most Americans that this is something that affects more people than just the victims, we can make a big impact,” she said.
Paul Galligan, 55, lives in Summit, New Jersey. Lucia Cotelo is an 8th-grader at Good Hope Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
Both cited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez’s television appearance the day after the Parkland shooting as their inspiration for driving down to Washington for the march.
“My friend showed me the speech of Emma Gonzalez online, and she really moved me,” Cotelo said. “She has such a powerful voice. She stands for all of us. She really made me want to share my voice, too.”
After watching Gonzalez’s speech, Cotelo, 13, asked her dad to take her to the march. He said yes. Even if he hadn’t, she believes she still would have found a way to sneak down to D.C.
“I’m very lucky that my parents agree with me. Even if they were against me, I would still go,” she said.
Galligan, who is from Dublin and has been living in America as a permanent resident, was likewise moved by Gonzalez.
“When that girl Emma spoke on TV, I could see her anger and frustration. It was contained anger, but it was powerful,” he said. “It was very moving. I was in tears. … I saw they were organizing the march in D.C., and I said, ‘That’s it, we’re going.’”
The uptick in mass shootings in recent years and what he sees as little action by Congress has lit a fire under Galligan to obtain his citizenship.
“I’m going to get my citizenship,” he said, “so I can vote some of these guys out.”