The air was crisp and also crackling with excitement early Saturday morning, as hundreds started to gather in downtown Washington for the March for Our Lives, the largest anti-gun violence protest in years.
Olivia and her friends Emma Putney and Sarah Croser, also 17, are juniors at a Vermont high school and came to the march with 63 classmates. They were all smiles while speaking with Refinery29 about four hours before the march's programme was supposed to begin, but turned serious when talking about the reasons that brought them to D.C. The three teens said the Parkland shooting had shaken them, even if it happened thousands of miles away. But Sarah also mentioned the case of an 18-year-old man who wanted to carry a mass shooting at his former Vermont high school, though the plan was thwarted.
"That was a wake-up call," she told Refinery29. "Vermont seems like such an isolated place where a shooting wouldn't happen. But here we are. It almost did."
There were some recurring themes in the conversations Refinery29 had with attendants — ranging from ages 11 to 60 — on Saturday: Outrage at lawmakers' lack of action to implement gun safety policies, fear that the person or a loved one could be a victim of a school shooting, and a deep desire to fix the issue of gun violence in the U.S.
It shouldn't have taken the Stoneman Douglas shooting to happen for us to wake up and realize we have to change this.
But even if there was anger in their voice when discussing the impact gun violence has had on the country and the reasons behind the epidemic, it was quickly replaced in conversations by a very different feeling: Hope. Hope that the student-led movement born in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting could finally start to change things. Hope that young people, across communities and with different life experiences, might be able to lead the way in establishing common sense gun safety measures.
After all, these teenagers have already been pushing for change. First, it was a nationwide school walkout on March 14, a month after the shooting. This weekend, it was a protest in D.C. and more than 800 locations across the globe. On April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, there will be yet another national walkout. At the site of the march and peppered throughout the rest of downtown Washington, there were volunteers registering people to vote.
The teens had some policy wins, including changes to gun laws in the state of Florida. But both advocates and attendants agreed that there's more to be done. Among the law changes some of the marchers mentioned to Refinery29 were universal background checks, longer waiting periods when purchasing a firearm, better funding for mental health initiatives, banning assault weapons and its accessories, and increasing the age to purchase guns from 18 to 21.
But marchers like 17-year-old Solea Fiester from Maryland wanted to make something clear: "It's not like we want all guns to be taken away, I just think we need a reform."
According to organisers, the March for Our Lives in D.C. drew about 800,000 people — students and teachers, young and old, families and friends — making it the largest demonstration in the capital's history. The protest, if anything, was a testament to the power of the movement the Parkland student activists have built in recent weeks.
It's also a testament of how long the country has been waiting for change. Since the massacre at Columbine in 1999, nearly 200 people have died in school shootings. And according to the Washington Post, about 187,000 people since then have been exposed to shootings at campuses during school hours.
At the D.C. march on Saturday, her classmates and other members of the school community arrived to the rally wearing their green-and-gold school colours and chanting, "We are Great Mills!" It was a powerful sight.
Before scurrying away with his group, a student named Noah told Refinery29 that about 300 members from the community were set to march in memory of Jaelynn. Some of the students would go on to join the march's stage during the programme.
I should be worried about other things right now rather than sending my son to Kindergarten and him being shot up.
But the gun violence problem in the U.S. goes beyond just school shootings.
"It shouldn't have taken the Stoneman Douglas shooting to happen for us to wake up and realise we have to change this," 15-year-old Alleyjah Thomas, from Florida, told Refinery29."[Lawmakers] need to do something about this."
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, about 96 Americans are killed by guns each day. Nearly 62% of those deaths are suicides. Women and people of colour are especially at risk: On an average month, 50 women are fatally shot by their intimate partners. And Black men are 13 times more likely to be killed with guns than non-Latinx white men.
Melvin Smith and his 15-year-old daughter Melina Smith told Refinery29 they had come to the march because they wanted to demand change when it came to how politicians are approaching the issue of gun violence.
"It's really sad for this to go on, especially in schools, where people are supposed to be safe," she said. "And even gun violence within our cities. We come from Baltimore, where gun violence is on the regular."
Her dad chimed in: "A march like this should have happened years ago."
Melina won't be able to vote this midterm election, but her dad said that gun violence will be a deciding factor for him at the polls.
"We want to bring the people who work at that building," he said pointing at the U.S. Capitol, "we want to bring them out and let them know we have a voice. And if you don't give [gun safety measures] to us, we will find someone who will."
His feelings were echoed by other parents such as 31-year-old Aleksandra Wrobel, a mother of three from Massachusetts, and 35-year-old Hillary Bray, a mother of one from Philadelphia.
"I should be worried about other things right now rather than sending my son to Kindergarten and him being shot up," Wrobel told Refinery29, adding that gun control would be a big issue for her this November.
"I think the NRA is buying our politicians," she said. "We voted them in office and we can vote them out."
As for who is going to lead that charge, it will be the next generation. Parkland activists such as Emma González and David Hogg gave stirring speeches, encouraging everyone to "fight for your life, before it’s someone else’s job." They've joined forces with a diverse group of other young activists, like 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, 13-year-old Mya Middleton, and 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King.
The message is clear: This is just the start of the fight.
"A lot of adults in this situation aren't doing anything," 15-year-old Sydney Robinson from Maryland told Refinery29. "At this point, we just decided that if they're not gonna do anything, we have to step up. I don't want any more people to die."