WASHINGTON — The student-led national movement against gun violence will face its most high-profile moment on Saturday: As many as 500,000 people are expected to march in the nation’s capital to demand political action on gun control, and sibling marches are set to take place around the country.
The March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. ― which students from Parkland, Florida, began planning after 17 people at their high school were killed last month in a mass shooting ― boasts high-profile donors and celebrity attendees, and has inspired other communities around the U.S. to plan events.
“We have never lived in a world where there weren’t major school shootings,” said Kate Lebrun, 18. “It should have been enough a long time ago, enough for people to start doing this amount of stuff. I realized if we don’t start now, it’s never going to happen.”
More than 150,000 students in the U.S. have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Lebrun and a few other students from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, helped coordinate lodging for teens who are coming to D.C. for the march but might have trouble finding or affording a hotel room.
Teens are expected to travel to Washington from all over the country, and some area restaurants are offering free or discounted meals to student activists. More than 100 GoFundMe campaigns have sprung up to organize bus trips to marches in major cities, according to a spokesperson for the crowdfunding platform.
Lilly Pribish, a 17-year-old high school junior from outside of St. Louis, plans to attend the march by herself and stay with family in the D.C. area.
“Having Congress and the people in power right now see how many people are supporting these victims of gun violence … hopefully that pushes the fact that there needs to be a change,” she said. “This is serious now — like, it’s not a joke, and there’s a lot of people that are done with seeing issues like this on the news.”
March For Our Lives Action Fund, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit connected to the event, has raised millions of dollars. The money is covering expenses associated with the D.C. march, but will also be used to lobby for gun safety legislation. It’s not clear what those legislative priorities are yet, and it’s likely they will continue to evolve. A board of directors, which includes public servants, legal experts and professionals, will work with a student advisory board to make decisions on how to spend the money, a spokesperson told HuffPost.
As a 17-year-old, I really don’t have a voice in Congress or in politics because there’s not much I can do. If there’s an opportunity for my voice to be heard, to do something, I’m going to take that. Lilly Pribish, student
Top Republican lawmakers have so far shown little appetite for major reforms. Generating the political will to take more forceful steps, like mandating universal background checks and banning assault-style weapons — two priorities of the student activists from Parkland — is likely to be a tough road. Both proposals have failed to gain traction after prior mass shootings.
The only congressional legislation that currently has broad bipartisan support is the Fix NICS Act, which aims to reform the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by improving data collection for state and national law enforcement agencies. Capitol Hill leaders included the limited step in this week’s government spending agreement, which also features language that would lift a long-standing ban on federal gun violence research.
In addition to supporting Fix NICS, President Donald Trump released a minimal set of proposals, largely backed by the National Rifle Association. He has backpedaled after boasting that he would stand up to the NRA and suggesting he might be open to measures such as raising the minimum age for gun purchases, which the NRA opposes.
But students planning to attend Saturday’s march in Washington told HuffPost that they hoped the event ― and the “the sheer volume” of activists coming out to protest gun violence, as Pribish said ― could start to move the needle.
“I hope that there will be real change, instead of this bogus [proposal] that the president has put forth, which doesn’t even mention assault weapons at all,” said John Papanier, a 17-year-old high school senior from Staten Island, New York. “I’m talking real laws. They’re just trying to quiet us with a joke of a [proposal].”
It’s unclear how many counter-rallies might take place. Spokespeople for the Second Amendment Foundation and the National Association for Gun Rights told HuffPost earlier this month that they were not aware of any. News reports have since indicated that protests planned in Indiana, Montana (dubbed “March For Our Guns”) and Utah (“March Before Our Lives”). In New Jersey, parents reportedly plan to rally for armed security officers in schools.
March For Our Lives will help gauge whether students can sustain the momentum of their movement and push lawmakers to act. The event follows last week’s National School Walkout, when high school students around the country left class to hold a moment of silence for the Parkland victims. Students are planning a similar walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine.
Perhaps the biggest test of this activism is still to come: It has yet to be seen whether the momentum can make it to the ballot box. But for now, teens — some of whom can’t even vote yet — are leading that charge and refusing to stay quiet.
“As a 17-year-old, I really don’t have a voice in Congress or in politics because there’s not much I can do,” Pribish said. “If there’s an opportunity for my voice to be heard, to do something, I’m going to take that.”