WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of Americans galvanized by last month’s Florida school massacre rallied in cities across the country Saturday to demand tighter gun laws.
Carrying signs with slogans such as “If they choose guns over our kids, vote them out,” protesters in Washington jammed Pennsylvania Avenue. Students from the Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 people were killed Feb. 14 called on lawmakers and President Donald Trump to confront the issue.
The massive March For Our Lives rallies, some led by student survivors from Parkland, aim to break legislative gridlock that has long stymied efforts to increase restrictions on firearms sales in a nation where mass shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become frighteningly common.
Some 800 rallies in every state, and ones on every continent except Antarctica, were planned.
“Politicians: either represent the people or get out. Stand with us or beware, the voters are coming,” Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior from Parkland, told the crowd.
Another Parkland survivor, David Hogg, said it was a new day.
“We’re going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run not as politicians, but as Americans. Because this — this — is not cutting it,” he said, pointing at the Capitol. “We can and we will change the world!”
Underlining sharp differences among the American public over the issue, counterdemonstrators also were in evidence in many cities.
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” said Connor Humphrey, 16, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., who was visiting Washington with his family for spring break.
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Humphrey, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt, said he owns guns for target shooting and hunting and uses them responsibly.
“I think teachers should have guns,” he said, echoing a proposal made by Trump.
Organizers of the gun control rallies want Congress, many of whose members are up for re-election in November, to ban the sale of assault-style weapons like the one used in the Florida rampage and to tighten background checks for gun buyers.
On the other side of the debate, gun rights advocates cite constitutional guarantees of the right to bear arms.
“All they’re doing is asking the government to take their liberty away from them without due process,” Brandon Howard, a 42-year-old Trump supporter, said of the protesters in the capital.
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In New York, a sea of gun-control demonstrators stretched for about 20 blocks. In Boston, throngs of people jammed Boston Common. People gathered outside city hall in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival last year. A march also was planned in Jonesboro, Ark., on the 20th anniversary of a shooting at a middle school there that left four students and a teacher dead. Protesters gathered on Palm Beach, Fla, not far from where Trump was spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Among those marching next to Central Park in New York was pop star Paul McCartney, who said he had a personal stake.
“One of my best friends was shot not far from here,” he told CNN, referring to Beatles bandmate John Lennon, who was gunned down near the park in 1980.
Taking aim at the National Rifle Association lobby, teenagers chanted, “Hey, hey, NRA, how many kids have you killed today?”
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So overcome with emotion was one of the Parkland students who was shot and survived, Samantha Fuentes, that she vomited on stage during her speech.
“I just threw up on international television and it feels great,” she said to loud cheers.
The young organizers have won kudos and cash from dozens of celebrities, with singers Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande, as well as “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, among those performing in Washington.
Actor George Clooney and his human rights lawyer wife, Amal, donated $500,000.
Democrats and nonpartisan groups hoped to register at least 25,000 first-time voters.
On Friday, Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that includes modest improvements to background checks for gun sales and grants to help schools prevent gun violence.
Also Friday, the Justice Department proposed rule changes that would effectively ban “bump stock” devices that let semi-automatic weapons fire like machine guns.
Former President Barack Obama said on Twitter that he and his wife, Michelle, were inspired by the young people who made the marches happen.
“Keep at it. You’re leading us forward. Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said.
The Washington Post and Reuters contributed to this report.