The next generation was center stage at the March For Our Lives in Washington on Saturday. Out on the streets, people young and old, in strollers and with canes, held signs ranging from clever (“Arms are for Hugging”) to somber (“Our Kids Deserve More”). They pushed and squeezed in the crowd to get a glimpse of the screen broadcasting the stage. Most of the speakers behind the podium, and in front of an estimated half-million people gathered on DC’s streets, were younger than the age of 21.
The high-school students who spoke talked about their dead friends and relatives. They shared their realities from South Central Los Angeles and Chicago to Parkland and suburban schools worldwide. They talked about the tragedies that built up to this moment—Columbine, Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub, and Parkland. Every mention of reform was met with a cheer, and every mention of the National Rifle Association was met with cries of disapproval.
Adults have heard the voices of the young, and the pressure is on them.
“I brought my son, he’s 15 years old,” said John Simms, a Florida father and rally attendant. “It’s now up to him. It’s up to them to change things.”
But what do young people want? Depends on who you ask. The Parkland kids, whose peers were shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, posted a manifesto outlining specific policy proposals they would support. Down at the march, their sentiment was echoed—but the specifics were dulled.
Ramsay Eyre, a Columbia University student, supported basic gun reforms and thought that “there shouldn’t be guns anywhere near schools or anywhere in public places where children might be affected.”
“I’d say a lot of people at the march would propose an assault weapons ban, and universal background checks—which a lot of Republican voters support.” said Eyre. “Things like bans on bump stocks, which are just common-sense reforms.”
Sophia Shepard, a 19-year-old from the University of Maryland—who admitted that she didn’t really know gun policy because she was “not a government and politics major”—expressed that she thought the right to own guns and public safety could coexist.
“I mean, my view on guns is that I don’t think people shouldn’t have guns but I think it should be a lot harder to get guns,” said Shepard. “I think the age should go up to 21 from 18.”
Shepard’s friend and fellow UMD student Stephanie Sudit said she just thought “it should be a lot harder to get a gun.”
Maya Millward, a Barnard College student, simply stated she didn’t want “the NRA funding our government or our politicians.”
Sarah Goldman, a East Brunswick High School student who had a sign depicting a devil-eared Betsy DeVos (which read: “Do your job or go back to hell,”) was exasperated at the inaction of politicians.
“I’m really just sick of having to go to school and terrified that this might be the day where I’m trying to go to health class and I’m just trying to get my credits to graduate but I just get shot instead, she said. “[DeVos] needs to get a grip on it, someone needs to get a grip on it and I’m waiting for someone to get a grip on it because if not, we could all die literally any day.”
The frustration towards politicians—particularly towards Republicans—and alarm surrounding recent shootings, was something that permeated throughout the march’s young crowd. Eyre recognized the maneuvering of the G.O.P. to shift blame from guns to people, and he didn’t hesitate to call it out.
“Mental health is a very effective Republican dodge of gun control, and if we actually want to have a conversation about gun control, we can’t just pivot to mental health,” said Eyre. “It’s an important issue in our country but the issue is guns being near people who shouldn’t have them.”
Goldman was unhappy about DeVos specifically, saying that her support for giving schools the option to train teachers to handle guns “really isn’t going to accomplish anything.”
“She’s supposed to be protecting us. She’s supposed to be making sure that we can go to school and not straight-up die, but instead she’s saying we’re arming our teachers,” said Goldman. “If anything, she’s just making things worse for us.”
Shepard, despite not majoring in a politics-adjacent field of study, said she knew there a serious problem in the country.
“School shootings are something that shouldn’t be happening in this country and its happening at an increased rate,” she said.
“It’s becoming unreal of how big of an issue it’s becoming,” Sudit echoed.
Beyond frustration, there was optimism. Crowds chanted “vote them out” and enthusiastically booed at any mention of “thoughts and prayers.” Alex Wind, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, noted during his speech that Joan of Arc was merely 17 when she fought the English.
“When I look forward 10 years, I see hope,” said Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky.
With young people’s hands on the steering wheel to vote—or with their voices loud enough to be effective back-seat drivers if they were too young to mark ballots—there was a sense that something could be done, starting here and now.
“There’s so many people here, but one more person—that’s another person to make change,” said Sudit. “Everyone needs to stand united on this then changes will be made, so I’m here to do my part.”
Eyre said that the presence of gun violence has “gone on too long, and it needs to stop.” He continued, “The only way it’s going to stop is if we show them what we’re about.”
“I hope that we can change something today, I hope that we manage to finally to be heard, to make a difference,” said Goldman. “I hope that something actually gets done today.”