WASHINGTON: Hundreds of thousands of Americans galvanised by last month’s Florida school massacre rallied in cities across the country on Saturday to demand tighter gun laws.
Carrying signs with slogans such as “If they choose guns over our kids, vote them out,” protesters in Washington jammed Pennsylvania Avenue as students from the Parkland, Florida, high school where 17 people were shot to death called on lawmakers and President Donald Trump to confront the issue.
The massive March For Our Lives rallies, some led by student survivors from Parkland, aim to break the legislative gridlock that has long stymied efforts to increase restrictions on firearms sales in a nation where mass shootings like the one on February 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become frighteningly common.
“Politicians: either represent the people or get out. Stand with us or beware, the voters are coming,” Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior at the high school, told the crowd.
Another Parkland survivor, David Hogg, said it was a new day. “You can hear the people in power shaking,” he said to loud applause.
“We’re going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run not as politicians, but as Americans. Because this — this — is not cutting it,” he said, pointing at the white-domed Capitol. “We can and we will change the world!”
Youthful marchers filled streets in cities nationwide including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Diego, and St. Louis.
More than 800 demonstrations were scheduled in the United States and abroad, according to coordinators, with events as far afield as London, Mauritius, and Stockholm.
Underlining sharp differences among the American public over the issue, counter-demonstrators and supporters of gun rights were also in evidence in many cities.
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” said Connor Humphrey, 16, of San Luis Obispo, California, who was visiting Washington with his family for spring break.
Humphrey, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt, said he owns guns for target shooting and hunting and uses them responsibly. His school had a lockdown exercise last week.
“I think teachers should have guns,” he said, echoing a proposal made by Trump after the Parkland killings.
Organisers of the anti-gun rallies want Congress, many of whose members are up for re-election in November, to ban the sale of assault weapons like the one used in the Florida rampage and to tighten background checks for gun buyers.
On the other side of the debate, gun rights advocates cite constitutional guarantees of the right to bear arms.
“All they’re doing is asking the government to take their liberty away from them without due process,” Brandon Howard, a 42-year-old Trump supporter, said of the protesters in the capital. He had a sign saying: “Keep your hands off my guns.”
In New York, a handful of counter-demonstrators waved placards with messages such as “Keep America Armed” and “Re-elect Trump 2020.”
‘This is the norm for us’
Among those marching nearby next to Central Park was pop star Paul McCartney, who said he had a personal stake in the gun control debate.
“One of my best friends was shot not far from here,” he told CNN, referring to Beatles bandmate John Lennon, who was gunned down near the park in 1980.
Taking aim at the National Rifle Association gun lobby, teenagers chanted, “Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids have you killed today?”
So overcome with emotion was one of the Parkland students who was shot and survived, Samantha Fuentes, that she vomited on stage during her speech.
“I just threw up on international television and it feels great,” she said to loud cheers afterwards.
The young US organisers have won kudos and cash from dozens of celebrities, with singers Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande, as well as Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, among those performing in Washington.
Actor George Clooney and his human rights attorney wife, Amal, donated $500,000 and said they would be at the Washington rally.
Democrats and nonpartisan groups hope to register at least 25,000 first-time voters at the rallies, potentially a boost for Democrats, who generally favour stricter gun controls.
On Friday, Trump signed a $1.3-trillion spending bill that includes modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and grants to help schools prevent gun violence.
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said the administration applauded “the many courageous young Americans” exercising their free-speech rights on Saturday.
“Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the president’s,” said Walters, noting that on Friday the Justice Department proposed rule changes that would effectively ban “bump stock” devices that let semi-automatic weapons fire like a machine gun.
Former President Barack Obama said on Twitter that he and his wife Michelle were inspired by all the young people who made the marches happen.
“Keep at it. You’re leading us forward. Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said.