WASHINGTON: Students across the United States walked out of classes Wednesday in the largest protest against gun violence seen in years, demanding action following last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.
Hundreds of teenagers from Washington area schools gathered outside the White House chanting “Never again!” and “Enough is enough!“
They held up signs reading “Books Not Bullets” and “Protect People Not Guns.”
With the crowd swelling into the thousands, the students marched to the grounds of the US Capitol where they were joined by Democratic members of Congress and denounced the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful US gun lobby.
“You, the young people of this country, are leading the nation,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont shouted to the crowd through a megaphone.
“People are sick and tired of gun violence and the time is now for all of us, together, to stand up to the NRA.”
At 10:00 am (1400 GMT), students in numerous US cities held a moment of silence to honor the 14 students and three adult staff killed on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
At a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, students marched to the football field and assembled in a heart formation to pay tribute to the victims.
At a Los Angeles high school, students spelled out the word “Enough” — the gun control movement’s catchphrase — by lying down on the ground on a football field.
In New York, students, many of whom wore orange — the color of gun control — walked out from more than 50 schools.
“We want change,” and “Am I next?” they chanted.
The “National School Walkout” was intended to last for 17 minutes, one for each victim.
But it quickly became apparent that tens of thousands of students around the country decided not to go to class at all and to protest instead.
Brenna Levitan, a 17-year-old who goes to high school in Silver Spring, Maryland, attended the White House demonstration with her mother.
“We want to show Congress and politicians we are not standing by, we are not silent anymore,” Levitan said. “Parkland is going to be the last school shooting.”
Farah Parmah, also 17, said “gun violence has taken way too many lives this year.”
Parmah, who goes to Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland, said President Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to arm and train teachers “is just a bad, bad idea.”
“There should be no guns in schools,” Parmah said.
The nationwide protest is being held one month to the day after Nikolas Cruz, a troubled 19-year-old former student at Stoneman Douglas, unleashed a hail of gunfire on his one-time classmates.
The United States has more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually but following the Stoneman Douglas killings students launched one of the most concerted movements for gun control seen in years.
Students from the school have taken the lead in a national campaign, meeting Trump and other politicians, and helping force through a new law on age limits for gun purchasers in Florida.
The US public supports tougher gun laws, according to polls taken since the Parkland shooting, but there is little support for meaningful reforms in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Trump momentarily signaled support for curbing access to guns, notably by raising the age for purchases from 18 to 21, but now stands accused of bowing to the NRA.
The president backed away from supporting age limits on gun purchases — sending the proposal to a commission on school safety — as well as from expanded background checks for gun purchases.
Such checks are currently only performed on people buying firearms from licensed gun dealers. Sales online and at gun shows are exempt.
Efforts to ban semi-automatic weapons have made no headway.
Cruz, the Parkland shooter, used a semi-automatic AR-15 military-style rifle, a type now being targeted by activists, who are also against high-capacity magazines.
Organizers of Wednesday’s walkout were also behind the Women’s March, which saw millions of demonstrators take to the streets across the country in January 2017 to protest Trump’s inauguration.
According to the #Enough campaign, students from more than 3,000 schools nationwide signed up to take part in Wednesday’s demonstration.
Another nationwide student-inspired protest, the March For Our Lives, is to be held on March 24.
Some schools forbade their students from taking part in Wednesday’s walkout.
Florida prosecutors have announced plans to seek the death penalty against Cruz, who is due to appear in court on Wednesday to be formally charged.
His lawyers have indicated he would accept to plead guilty in exchange for guarantees that he would not face capital punishment.