Standing outside of the Tarrant County Courthouse on Saturday in 100-degree heat, a pair of mothers compared notes on whether to add a new item to their children’s school supply lists next year: bulletproof backpacks.
Elizabeth Brown, a veterinarian, said she started shopping online for such backpacks for her three children, ages 4, 10 and 12. She saw one that cost $200 each. Jamie Martin, a high school chemistry teacher, said she saw one for $150 that she considered for her 8-year-old daughter.
Both mothers doubted whether the backpacks could stand up to a round from an AR-15 — the weapon used by the gunman who killed 19 students and two educators at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24. They said they were exasperated by the thought of having to equip their children to survive an encounter with a gunman in the halls of their school — and despaired that 23 years after the Columbine High School massacre, school shootings and active-shooter drills have become routine.
They were among tens of thousands of protesters who marched on the Mall in Washington and in cities across the United States and Texas in a nationwide demonstration convened by March for Our Lives, the political movement created after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018. Saturday’s protests were a sequel to demonstrations held on March 24, 2018.
Along with Fort Worth, demonstrations were held in Texas’ largest cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso — and in Amarillo, Longview, Lubbock, Pharr, Rockwall, Wichita Falls and The Woodlands.
In Fort Worth, Barbara Gerke, a 58-year-old gun owner, held a cardboard sign that called for raising the age limit for assault-rifle purchases, expanding background checks and instituting a waiting period for the purchase of firearms.
“Nobody’s saying banish all guns,” she said. “Nobody’s asking for that. We’re asking for common-sense, actual legislation, laws on the books that will do something.”
Brown, the veterinarian, wants to see the state enact “red flag” laws — which would allow a court to confiscate firearms from those who appear to be a danger to themselves or others. The idea of arming and training teachers to confront shooters baffled Martin, the high school teacher, who held a sign outside of the courthouse that read “NO MORE.”
“I’m just a science nerd,” Martin said. “I’m not a military officer.”
After the Uvalde shooting, Brown and her husband considered keeping their children home from school during the last week of the year — but it didn’t feel fair to leave them out of fun end-of-year activities. Brown noted that shootings have happened at day care centers, churches and grocery stores, so nowhere feels safe.
Days after the Uvalde massacre, Brown attended her daughter’s fourth grade graduation. “I was crying because those kids should have been doing that,” Brown said. “I shouldn’t have to fear sending my kids to school. I shouldn’t have to think that they’re not going to come home after I just dropped them off on the way to work every morning.”
There were counter-protesters in Fort Worth, too: Some gun rights advocates waved Don’t Tread on Me flags and argued with gun safety proponents.
In Austin, protesters marched at the Capitol, trying to sway a Legislature that has repeatedly loosened gun laws over the past decade. A relative of two cousins killed in Uvalde — Jackie Cazares, 9, and Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, 10 — told supporters of gun safety legislation about their grief and anger.
“While I was fearing for my own life, I didn’t know that my sister had lost hers,” said Jackie’s older sister Jazmin, 17, referring to a school-district-wide lockdown that was imposed amid the chaos at Robb Elementary. “I am unbelievably angry, but I’m not going to turn my anger into hate. I’m going to channel that anger, and I’m going to create some real change.”
Jazmin said she and her sister had hoped to spend the weekend after the massacre practicing to audition for a summer arts academy. She said of the gunman: “That 18-year-old guy, you’ll never catch me saying his name. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered. Jackie does. I walked past him in the halls, probably waved at him. And he took her from me. He took her friends, my cousins.”
Protests were also held in cities across the nation, including Atlanta; Boston; Brooklyn, New York; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Cincinnati; Detroit; Los Angeles; Louisville, Kentucky; Minneapolis; Nashville; Orlando; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; San Francisco; St. Louis; and Salt Lake City. There were also protests at statehouses in Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
David Hogg, who helped organize the March for Our Lives movement after surviving the Parkland shooting, told the crowd in Washington that some 200,000 people have died of gun violence in the United States since then.
“All Americans have a right to not be shot, a right to safety,” he said. “Nowhere, nowhere in the Constitution is unrestricted access to weapons of war a guaranteed right. We’ve seen the damage that AR-15’s do, when we look at the innocent children of Uvalde. Tiny coffins filled with small mutilated and decapitated bodies. That should fill us with rage and demands for change — not endless debate but demands for change, now.”
He continued: “If our government can’t do anything to stop 19 kids from being killed and slaughtered in their own school, and decapitated, it’s time to change who is in government. As we gather here today, the next shooter is already plotting his attack, while the federal government pretends it can do nothing to stop it. Since the shooting in Texas, the Senate has done only one thing: they have gone on recess.”
Already this year, America has experienced more than 250 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, including 34 since Uvalde.
This week, the U.S. House passed legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21, ban high-capacity magazines, and allow courts to confiscate weapons from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others — also known as a red-flag law. Such sweeping messages stand no chance of getting support from the 60 senators needed to overcome a filibuster. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, with Chris Murphy of Connecticut representing the Democrats and John Cornyn of Texas representing the Republicans, are discussing more modest proposals, including a red-flag law.
At the rally, Hogg said he supported any measure that would reduce the toll of death, and pointed to legislative successes since 2018, including background checks in Virginia and a 3-day waiting period for gun purchases and raising the minimum age for gun ownership in Florida. He also said that more Republicans and independents, and responsible gun owners, were joining the movement for gun safety. “This is not a political issue, this is a moral issue,” he said, calling for higher spending on mental health.
Speaking of Uvalde, Hogg criticized the idea that “more good guys with guns” are the answer, nothing that “19 good guys with guns, heavily armored and trained,” assembled outside the classrooms where the Uvalde gunman holed up and failed to save the victims. “First responders need to be the last resort, and not the first, to saving our kids from gun violence, because the reality is, putting more cops in schools hasn’t worked, and it won’t,” he said. “We need to stop these shooters before they get on campus.”
Hogg said the movement was neither pro-gun nor anti-gun, but pro-peace. “Assault rifles are designed for only one purpose, to be a killing machine,” he said. “Our enemy is not the left or right, our common enemy is gun violence.”
In a tweet on Saturday morning, President Biden noted that young Americans were once again marching “to call on Congress to pass commonsense gun safety legislation supported by the majority of Americans and gun owners,” and added: “I join them by repeating my call to Congress: do something.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 65,000 members in Texas, told the crowd in Washington: “Schools should be places of hope, not fear. Schools should be safe sanctuaries, not fortresses. This is our fight, our fight for a welcoming and safe environment where everyone feels welcome and safe.”
She added: “We’re facing a uniquely American epidemic, a toxic brew of guns and hate that is taking the lives of over 100 people every day.” Emphasizing that many responsible gun owners were part of the movement for gun safety, she said: “The bottom line is, we’ve got to get guns out of the hands of people who should not have them, and we’ve got to get weapons of war off our streets.”
Weingarten implicitly took on debates in Texas, where some conservative policymakers have called for hardening schools and arming teachers — while also passing legislation to limit how race and sexuality can be taught in classrooms or studied in school libraries. “Teachers want to be teaching, they do not want to holster firearms,” Weingarten said. “We need fewer guns in schools, not more of them. And as we head back to school this fall, please arm us with resources, with books, with school counselors, not with bulletproof vests. Ironically, the same folks who say we should carry a gun in a classroom are the ones saying they don’t trust us to pick the appropriate books and curriculum for our nation’s kids. I ask our politicians this: If we have the judgment to shoot a bad buy, why don’t we have the judgment to plan our lessons?”
Other speakers at the event in Washington included Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in Parkland; Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son was killed in Parkland; and Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose 86-year-old mother was killed May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo along with 9 other people. Also addressing the crowd were another Parkland survivor, X González; Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, who said she had an abusive partner once fired a gun at her; Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington; and Yolanda King, a granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
In San Antonio, demonstrators marched from Milam Park to City Hall, chanting, “No More Silence—End Gun Violence” and “Hey hey ho ho — Greg Abbott has got to go,” referring to the Republican governor, who has resisted calls for a special legislative session to address gun violence.
Some protesters made clear that they supported the 2nd Amendment but did not consider gun rights to be absolute. One San Antonio protester held a sign saying, “WE ARE PRO 2nd Amendment, PRO background checks, PRO red flag laws, PRO waiting periods, PRO LIFE.”
In Dallas, protesters marched from Dealey Plaza to City Hall, some denouncing the National Rifle Association. Others chanted, “Two, four, six, eight. We need action, not debate.”
In Houston, a young protester recited the names of the Uvalde victims, and led the crowd in chanting, “We demand change.” A Harris County commissioner, Rodney Ellis, praised those who had turned out: “My simple messages to you is: Don’t give up. You’ve come too far. You’ve fought too hard. And just keep going.” State Representative Ann Johnson, a Democrat, recalled the intimidation she faced from gun owners when she fought against Texas’ permitless carry law, which went into effect last year. “DNA is more important than the NRA, and it’s our job to let them know that human life is more important than rifle life,” said State Representative Penny Shaw, another Democrat.
Al Green, a 74-year-old Democratic congressman from Houston, told the youthful crowd: “My generation has not done what it should have done to keep guns out of the hands of violent perpetrators. Your time has come. And to those who say 18-year-olds ought to be able to buy weapons of war, here’s what I say: Tell that to the ghosts of the persons who died shopping at the Tops Food Market [in Buffalo]. Explain that to the spirit of the people who have their children that have lost their lives at the school in Uvalde. Explain it, if you will, please, to those whose hearts have been broken because the guns have massacred and killed their kids. It’s time to take the guns out of the hands of 18-year-olds.”
The Houston demonstrators later marched from City Hall to the downtown office of Texas’ other senator, Ted Cruz, denouncing him. Cruz, a Republican, has rejected new gun restrictions, arguing that schools should have more armed officers and that the number of entrances to schools should be limited to make it harder for intruders to enter.