JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Students, parents, grandparents and educators gathered in downtown Jacksonville Saturday, adding their voices to nationwide calls for gun control and other steps to stop mass shootings.
The March for Our Lives event at Hemming Plaza was just one of more 800 held around the world in support of a massive rally in Washington, D.C., led by the survivors of last month's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, the left 14 classmates and three teachers dead.
Speeches, signs and chants reflected the passion of those who attended. Many of those who addressed the crowd were students themselves, including Mia Cleary, a Ponte Vedra High School senior.
“Columbine should have been enough. Pulse should have been enough. Virginia Tech should have been enough. Sandy Hook should have been enough. Las Vegas should have been enough,” she told the crowd.
Many of the faces in the crowd were also young -- teenagers attending with friends or younger children with their moms and dads.
“I want to be able to focus on my education and not be scared going to school. And just not be scared in general,” said Athena Skafidas, a middle school student from Tampa who was in Jacksonville for a soccer tournament.
“I think it’s really important that we support reasonable gun reform to make schools safer," Athena's father, Art Skafidas, said.
Serena Ostrowsky works in schools, as does her husband.
“Assault weapons need to be banned,” she said.
The Jacksonville rally was one of five in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. Smaller crowds gathered in Fernandina Beach, Brunswick and Gainesville in the morning and a group marched across the Bridge of Lions before listening to speeches in downtown St. Augustine.
“I’m so grateful that people’s consciousness is awakening and they are becoming more compassionate and want to make a change that there is no room for violence,” Joti Chawla said in Hemming Plaza.
Meanwhile others told News4Jax it wasn't the laws, rather it was the people.
"You can walk in and kill 17 people with a screw driver, a can opener or your bare hands. It's not the guns killing people. It's the people who are killing people," said Michael Fissel in St. Augustine.
Emotions still raw in Parkland
The march approaching Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School snaked for two miles Saturday, with thousands of students, teachers, parents and supporters chanting in favor of tighter gun laws they believe would have prevented last month’s massacre there.
“Enough is enough,” they shouted. “No more AR-15s,” referring to semi-automatic rifle the killer used.
But when they reached the school, the March for Our Lives participants went stone silent to honor the 17 students and staff members who died, martyrs for a movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Washington, D.C., and cities nationwide Saturday. Protesters are demanding new laws and programs that they believe will curtail mass shootings at schools and elsewhere.
Elsewhere in Florida, local media reported that 25,000 people gathered in Orlando, and another 13,000 in Tampa.
More than 20,000 attended the rally and march in this well-to-do Fort Lauderdale suburb of 31,000 that would have been an unlikely spot for a massive street protest before the Feb. 14 shooting put it in the middle of the national gun debate.
“It is ridiculous that we have to do this, that it is even up for conversation,” said Sarah Hingoo, a 17-year-old Stoneman Douglas student. “We shouldn’t have to do this to change lawmakers’ minds. They should just have common sense.”
A morning rally filled much of a park two miles from the school, taking on the air of a campaign event. Voter registration booths dotted the sidewalks, friends welcomed friends and music such as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and David Guetta’s “Titanium” blared from loudspeakers.
Adam Buckwald, a 16-year-old Stoneman Douglas student, told the crowd it’s “incomprehensible” that with the previous mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando and elsewhere in recent years, no significant changes have been made to federal gun laws.
“How was it possible that when so many innocent lives, many of them children, were murdered that there was no meaningful change to protect us? Our society, our system, our laws, our politicians have failed us,” he said.
Samantha Mayor, who was shot in the knee as she studied in her psychology class, hobbled to the podium, her leg in a brace from ankle to hip, to call for funding to retrofit classrooms with bulletproof doors and windows and tighter security. She also pushed for stricter gun laws.
She told of lying on the floor, “hearing and feeling rapid gunfire” as suspect Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student who had been kicked out because of emotional problems and outbursts, stalked the hallways and classrooms for six minutes.
“My class was struck with the greatest sense of fear when we saw the glass of the door broken; that all the killer had to do was reach his hand in...and turn the doorknob. At that point, it didn’t matter that the door was locked,” Mayor said. “It didn’t matter that we were hiding. It didn’t matter that we were silent. He could have entered if he wanted to....He should never have passed a background check. He should have never been able to kill us.”
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting, stood next to his son, who held up a sign reading “My sister could not make it today.” The senior Montalto told the crowd the country needs to enact gun laws most would agree with.
“Compromise, it is not a dirty word,” he said. “It is how the world works. It is the only way the world works.”