Led by West Virginia high school students, a large crowd gathered on the state Capitol steps Saturday morning calling for lawmakers to pass stricter gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.
The demonstration in Charleston was among hundreds of “March for Our Lives” rallies planned throughout the country. In Washington, D.C., survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting led a rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people, The Associated Press reported.
Speakers at the Charleston rally, mostly students from George Washington High and area schools, called out President Donald Trump and lawmakers, who they say have offered only “thoughts and prayers” throughout years of mass shooting events in the United States. They also called out the National Rifle Association’s influence in politics.
“How do you live with yourself, knowing that the NRA is buying your silence at the expense of your slaughtered son or daughter, now 6 feet below the ground and drenched with tears from those who love them?” said Sarah Zanabli, a 17-year-old George Washington student.
The speakers also let West Virginia legislators know their voices would one day be heard at the ballot box, and they voiced disapproval for two gun-related bills passed during the 2018 legislative session.
Muna Lentison, a 16-year-old Poca High student who was one of the event’s organizers, said area students were inspired by the action taken by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and had been planning this demonstration for weeks.
“We were calling the news, telling other people, talking to fellow classmates and just working overtime,” she said after the march.
Genna Martin, a 14-year-old student at Poca, said she learned to shoot a gun when she was 7 years old, adding that she is “not anti-gun.” But the day after the Florida mass shooting, she walked into class wondering if that morning would be her last.
“If a school shooting happened at Poca, would I only get thoughts and prayers instead of demands of change?” Martin said.
Martin said she began researching school shootings, gun laws and mental illnesses after the Florida massacre so she could contribute to change. She argued that people don’t need military-grade weapons to protect themselves and their homes, and she said more restrictions are necessary to prevent further tragedies.
“I’m at school eight hours a day,” she said. “I’m vulnerable and unprotected, and in America, school shootings are a regular occurrence.”
James McJunkin, injury prevention chair of the state’s American Academy of Pediatrics chapter, raised issue with two bills the state Legislature passed this year, saying they endanger lives — especially children’s lives.
House Bill 4187 requires private businesses and associations to allow employees, customers and visitors to keep firearms in vehicles parked on private property. Gov. Jim Justice signed the NRA-backed bill into law.
Senate Bill 244 would weaken current prohibitions on carrying firearms at school-sponsored functions off of school campuses. That bill is awaiting Justice’s signature.
“People say, ‘Why do you speak up in a Second Amendment state?’ It’s because if I don’t speak up, I can’t sleep,” McJunkin said. “I hope all of us will start to speak up more.”
McJunkin then led a chant of, “No more 244,” referring to the Senate bill.
Lentison said lawmakers have turned their backs on students by not passing enough gun control legislation. She said Trump’s proposal to arm and train school teachers wouldn’t help matters.
“I can’t rationalize the idea behind introducing more guns to an existing problem,” she said.
Both of West Virginia’s U.S. senators have raised issues with Trump’s plan, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., saying previously that he hasn’t “talked to any teachers whatsoever that thought that was a good idea.”
Zanabli also criticized Trump’s proposal in her speech.
“What’s next, Mr. President? Bulletproof school uniforms? How do you plan on solving this problem, by telling everyone to pray for the victims and then forgetting about it a few weeks later, only to realize that the words ‘never again’ have truly lost their meaning?” Zanabli said.
Iman Shere, a George Washington High School student, asked the crowd to imagine having to experience a school shooting themselves, attempting to escape or hide from a mass shooter while seeing classmates gunned down.
“Imagine losing someone you love because the government is too scared to make stricter gun laws,” Shere said.