At Denver’s March for Our Lives, gun control’s old guard urges thousands of young activists to “show no fear”

The tens of thousands of people who filled Denver’s Civic Center park Saturday afternoon heard longtime gun-control advocates call on younger activists to use their newfound outrage and carry the fight into statehouses, governor’s mansions and voting booths.

“This is your Vietnam,” Tom Mauser told the crowd at Denver’s contribution to the March for Our Lives phenomenon that rippled across the globe over the weekend. The rallies,  held in hundreds of cities, were inspired by the students, survivors and families touched by last month’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

Denver police declined to give a crowd estimate for the rally, which continued to draw people even after a slate of speakers began talking at 2 p.m. The crowd, later led in part by a brass band, joyfully spilled out onto 14th Street and wound its way through downtown.

The fiery Mauser — whose son Daniel was among the 12 children who, along with a teacher, were slain at Columbine High School by two gun-wielding students in 1999 — exhorted those at the rally to fight for gun control measures that adults were unable or unwilling to put into law.

“We have failed you,” Mauser said. “But you are the ones who can tell those that oppose you that their time is up. That’s because the status quo is killing us.”

The students who organized the Colorado rally said they need little convincing that gun laws must be changed.

“We know what the issues are and we want to make a difference,” 16-year-old Rachel Hill said. “Just like the women’s movement or the civil rights movement, it starts small but it can grow quickly.”

Hill helped organize the student walkout at Columbine earlier this month to mark the Florida shooting and worked to put together Saturday’s rally. Hill, who recently earned her driver’s license, on one of her first full days of driving transported her friends to Civic Center to take part in the rally.

She said gun violence in schools has become the biggest concern for most of her generation.

“I am a student, and I shouldn’t be afraid of going to my own school,” Hill said, adding that students can put enough pressure on lawmakers to pass meaningful gun legislation. “I know I can’t vote yet, but we can make enough noise so we can make things change. And I think the adults are finally listening.”

Parents and youths began filling the downtown Denver park as early as noon on the warm Saturday. But the joys of spring weren’t on the minds of many kids, who carried handmade signs that echoed Hill’s fears.

“It’s scary,”  said Violet Gaddy, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at St. Vincent de Paul School in Denver. “We have to do drills to know how to protect ourselves in case someone with a gun comes in to the school. Why do we have to do that?”

Signs carried by demonstrators mocked and decried the National Rifle Association. “It’s an amendment not a commandment,” read one. “If you sell it, they will shoot it,” read another. “Your gun fetish is weird,” read another.

Other signs pointed to the anxiety and anger felt by even the smallest demonstrators. “I’m little and I’m mad,” read a sign held by 4-year-old Sariah LaRue.

Her mother, Kelly, said their family came downtown from Commerce City because she is raising her children to know they have a voice.

Kelly LaRue’s 16-year-old daughter, Haylee, who participated in the national school walkout at Thornton High School, had little trouble summoning her voice.

“We shouldn’t have to send our parents text messages in the morning saying I love you because we don’t know if we will make it home,” she said. “We shouldn’t be scared to go to school.”

Tay Anderson — an organizer of Denver’s event who last year, at age 18, ran for the school board of Denver Public Schools — blamed adults for not doing enough to make sure kids are safe at school. “This is about 20 years of consistently failed policies,” Anderson said Saturday.

“This should have stopped after Columbine, but it didn’t,” Anderson said. “It’s time for students from every age to make some noise.”

Tish Beauford, a Women’s March activist and featured speaker at Saturday’s event, said students are fed up with having to participate in drills that teach them how to survive a school shooting.

“They are going to have to learn lockdown procedures, and that is sad,” she said.

She urged the students to be loud in their push for better gun laws. “You have to come out and show us adults how this is going to get done,” she said. “Be bold, show no filter, show no fear.”

Other signs ridiculed Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner for his support of the NRA. At one point, an airplane flew over Civic Center with a sign decrying the campaign donations the NRA has given to Gardner.

But most sentiments leaned toward the passing of the torch from an older generation of gun-law critics to a new crowd.

That, at least, was the message from Bill Selby, a former military weapons designer and minister who conducted the funeral for Columbine High School shooting victim Lauren Townsend.

He carried a sign that read, “Sorry kids, we adults screwed up. You take it from here.”

Vietnam War veteran Donald Ratliff said America’s youths have a chance to break a vicious cycle of violence.

“I have seen some very violent societies, and we seem to be the most violent one of them all,” Ratliff said. “I feel sorry for these kids and for what some of them have had to go through. No one should have to go through that.”

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