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Massive Crowds Descend On Washington, D.C., To Demand Gun Control

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

NPR's Brakkton Booker was at the marquee event here in Washington. It featured emotional speeches from students and survivors of gun violence.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) Guns in schools - we say no. NRA has got to go.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Large crowds descended on the nation's capital. They were packed along Pennsylvania Avenue, the street that connects Congress to the White House. These students are from Burr and Burton Academy, who came by bus from Manchester, Vt.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah, we came from Vermont. We drove down...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Long ways.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: We drove...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Nine hours.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: ...School yesterday at noon and arrived here at 10:30 last night.

BOOKER: One of the young ladies in the group, 16-year-old Ava Zilkha, is holding a sign that simply says enough. She says there was a shooting threat at a high school near hers recently, and that really hit home.

AVA ZILKHA: All these shootings have been, you know, far away. They're, like, oh, my God. That's scary. But it can't happen to us. But with the shocking events of the shooting nearby - or not - the almost shooting nearby - it was just - it was like, this could happen to us. This could be in our school. Like, something needs to change so this doesn't happen to us.

BOOKER: Many people here echoed this fear. Aaron Werschulz (ph) is at the march near the main stage, where hip-hop artists like Common and pop star Ariana Grande performed between speeches from young activists. He's with his two young sons, Xavier (ph), 4 and Benjamin (ph), 6.

So tell me why you're here.

AARON WERSCHULTZ: I'm terrified.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Because you...

BOOKER: You're terrified.

WERSCHULTZ: I'm terrified.

BOOKER: Terrified of what?

WERSCHULTZ: I'm terrified of the same thing happening to Sandy Hook, the same thing that happened in Parkland happening to my two boys. It's something that keeps me up at night. It's just something I can't shake. So I've got to do something, so this is why I'm here.

BOOKER: Demonstrators say they need more than thoughts and prayers from politicians. They want an end to what they see as a stalemate in the gun debate. They say they are inspired by the poise and conviction of the students survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. who helped organize the event in D.C. Cameron Kasky is one of those student survivors. He told the crowd stricter gun laws in the U.S. are needed now.

CAMERON KASKY: Today, we take to the streets in over 800 marches around the globe and demand common-sense gun laws. Today...

(CHEERING)

KASKY: ...Is the beginning of a bright, new future for this country. And if you think today is good, just wait for tomorrow.

BOOKER: Speakers at the rally are calling for cities and schools to be safer. They want to see limits to how many bullets can be held in gun magazines, greater investment in their communities and a ban on assault rifles like the one used in the Parkland shooting last month that left 17 dead. Florida has passed tighter gun control laws, including raising the age requirement to purchase guns from 18 to 21. The U.S. Congress is putting more money into school safety measures.

But former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who served under President Obama, says he's excited to see so many people at the rally pushing for real change.

Are you surprised that it's students that are, like, driving this?

ARNE DUNCAN: I'm not surprised at all. We as adults have failed them, and our kids are saying enough is enough, and our job is to help support them as they lead the country to a better place.

BOOKER: As the crowds were gathering today, the White House released a statement applauding, quote, "the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights." There are more demonstrations planned for next month on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.