FORT LAUDERDALE —Tens of thousands of people hit the streets Saturday afternoon across Florida, joining hundreds of thousands of others in Washington and cities around the country, in calling for tougher gun laws in a nationwide rally and march inspired by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who have sought to turn a terrible tragedy into a massive movement.
Stoneman Douglas senior Emma González, who along with several classmates have become the face of the fight to end gun violence, was in Washington for Saturday’s “March for Our Lives” rally, which was expected to draw 500,000 people. She was joined by some 250 people, mostly fellow students from Stoneman Douglas, who embarked on buses Friday for the sojourn to the nation’s capital.
In an op-ed she wrote for Teen Vogue published Friday, González said the movement was just getting started.
“In just a few weeks’ time, we, the youth of the United States, have built a new movement to denounce gun violence and call for safety in all of our communities. And this is only the beginning,” she wrote.
In Florida, more than 50 marches dotted the state, from Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle to Jacksonville and St. Augustine in north Florida. And from Tampa and Orlando in central Florida to Miami and Key West in South Florida. Tens of thousands marched and rallied against gun violence and demanded stricter gun control laws.
The march planned near Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was held at a nearby park with speeches preceding the march. As many as 20,000 were to march from the park to the high school, where 17 people, including 14 students, were gunned down on Valentine’s Day by a lone gunman carrying an AR-15 weapon.
In Parkland, Sari Kauffman, a sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, urged the crowd to go beyond marches and protests — and vote in the mid-term elections and every election.
“We can continue to say whatever we want and trash all these politicians,“ she said. “However, this does not do anything and all the politicians know this. They don’t feel threatened or scared because they think we are all talk and no action.“
Kauffman then encouraged the thousands crammed into the park to visit voter registration booths set up at the rally to register or pr-register to vote. And she raised her cellphone in the air in telling everyone to join her and other Stoneman Douglas students in letting their voices be heard by texting the word “march“ to 50409.
Elsewhere, Democratic gubernatorial candidates were all over the state with marchers.
“Together we'll make sure the movement doesn’t stop once the marches end,” he tweeted Saturday morning,” Andrew Gillum tweeted from Tallahassee, where he is the city’s mayor.
Former Miami Beach Philip Levine, who has been running television ads promoting his campaign, spoke at a rally at Miami Beach High School.
“Today we're marching for the 17 in Parkland. We're marching for the 49 at Pulse. We're marching for our lives and our children's lives, and in honor of every life lost to senseless gun violence. It’s time we turn our #OutrageToAction! #MarchForOurLive,” tweeted the former Miami Beach mayor.
In Orlando, where 49 people were slaughtered at the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016, thousands marched in the city’s downtown area.
Organizers honored the 17 Stoneman Douglas victims and the 49 Pulse nightclub victims, along with all victims of gun violence, said Trevor Wild, an organizer with “Never Again UCF,” a group representing University of Central Florida students led by alumni of Stoneman Douglas.
The group is pushing for “common sense gun control reforms at a state and national level.” Wild is an alumni of Stoneman Douglas.
Among the speakers in Orlando: Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.). Others included Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Chris King.
Anna Eskamani, a well-known community activist in Orlando, said she was encouraged to see the “energy” from young people wanting to see a change in gun laws, noting it’s far different from the aftermath of the Pulse shooting.
“Despite sit-ins and protests, nothing happened after the Pulse massacre but this time — it's different,” she said in a statement.
"I have been organizing in our community and holding politicians accountable for the last ten year of my life,” she added. “Never have I ever seen this type of energy and resistance grow from our young people.”
Murphy, a freshman lawmaker facing a tough re-election battle in a swing congressional district, applauded the movement led by the Stoneman Douglas students.
“Young people have long been at the forefront of the movement to stop this needless loss of life, and the recent activism after the tragedy in Parkland represents a historic new chapter in that fight,” she said. “I'm humbled and grateful to be lending my voice to the March for Our Lives here in Orlando, where we still ache for the loss of 49 beautiful souls at Pulse Nightclub."
Activists in West Palm Beach wanted to send a message to President Donald Trump, who left Washington on Friday to spend the weekend at his Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach County. The president plans to spend the weekend with First Lady Melania Trump and their son, Baron, at what’s been called the “Winter White House.”
Florida Democrats pounced on the president’s visit to South Florida, saying Trump was escaping Washington to avoid marchers at the national rally.
"It's no surprise that Donald Trump is choosing to flee Washington rather than face the hundreds of thousands of students who are preparing to March on Washington to protest his inaction on gun violence,” Terrie Rizzo, the Florida Democratic Party’s chairwoman, said in a statement..
"You can run from the students in Washington, Donald Trump, but you can't hide from us in Florida,” she said.
Although the mass shootings, like the one Stoneman Douglas, are rare, The Washington Post reported Friday that more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, according to a year-long analysis by the newspaper.
Overall, more 7,000 U.S. children and adolescents suffer firearm-related injuries each year and gun-related violence is the third leading cause of death among children and adolescents. The deaths of as many as 1,200 youth are linked to gun violence, according to academic researchers.
Whether Saturday’s march will sway public opinion on the contentious subject of gun control remains to be seen.
A majority of U.S. residents, about 52 percent, think the marches will make no difference in ending gun violence, while about one-third, or 36 percent, say the march will help in the national effort, according to the latest Marist University poll published Friday.
But a majority of those surveyed, about 54 percent, said it’s “more important to control gun violence in the nation than to protect gun rights.” That includes about 34 percent of gun owners. Those figures mirror results of a similar Marist poll released in December.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who hosted a town hall on gun policies at Valencia College on Friday night, blasted her congressional colleagues for inaction on gun violence.
“It has been more than one month since the Parkland shooting, and Congress has done nothing,” she said in a statement. “Members of Congress lack the courage to act, and think more about their next election than the right of our children to go to school in safety.”
“Americans across the political spectrum want the same thing: fewer senseless deaths and injuries from guns,” she said. “We may disagree on how to get there, but everyone agrees that something needs to be done.”