Thursday 17 January 2019

Call to arms on US gun safety

After last month's Florida school massacre, huge crowds rallied worldwide to urge tighter weapon controls, writes Calvin Woodward

PUBLIC ANGER: Students gather on stage during the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP
PUBLIC ANGER: Students gather on stage during the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP

Calvin Woodward

Tens of thousands of Americans gathered in cities and towns yesterday at 'March For Our Lives' rallies to demand tighter gun laws, led by survivors of last month's Florida school massacre which reignited public anger over mass shootings.

Students from the Parkland high school where 17 people were killed on February 14 were set to speak at the biggest event, in Washington, where organisers said as many as 500,000 people were expected to demonstrate near the capital and call on Congress to fight gun violence.

The protests aim to break a legislative gridlock that has long stymied efforts to increase restrictions on firearms sales in a nation where mass shootings at schools and colleges have become a frighteningly frequent occurrence.

"I don't want any child to be seen as another statistic," said Ashley Schlaeger, an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio State University who drove to the Washington rally with friends.

In the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland, thousands of people passed through police checkpoints to assemble in a park for a rally and march. Many held signs with slogans including "Am I Next?" and "Congress = Killers."

Adam Buchwald, who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told the crowd he and his friends would stay focused on getting new legislation passed. "Sadly, this could be repeated in your city or town. This stops now!" he said to loud cheers.

At a rally in New York, a moment of silence was held for the Parkland victims. The accused gunman, 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, faces the death penalty if convicted.

More than 800 demonstrations were set to take place in US cities from Los Angeles to New York and in countries around the world, according to coordinators.

In Ireland, over 100 demonstrators gathered outside the US Embassy in Ballsbridge, lending their voice to the global protest.

In Scotland, relatives of Dunblane massacre victims were among hundreds of protesters outside the US Consulate in Edinburgh. The Dunblane shooting led to the UK enforcing strict firearms legislation.

In Sydney, Australia, rally organiser Jennifer Smith told a crowd of about 300 people, many of them Americans, that she could "breathe easy" about sending her children to school in Australia with its tough gun laws.

"I never have to worry about them having to do active shooter drills," she said.

Organisers of the US marches retweeted photos from sister demonstrations as far afield as Northern Ireland, Mauritius, and Stockholm. Organisers want the US Congress, many of whose members are up for re-election this year, to ban the sale of assault 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. The teenage US organisers have won kudos and cash from dozens of celebrities, with singer Ariana Grande and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda among those performing in Washington. Trainwreck star Amy Schumer is set to appear at the Los Angeles rally, while actor George Clooney and his human rights attorney wife, Amal, have donated $500,000 and said they would be at the Washington rally.

Last Friday, US President Donald 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.

Democrats and nonpartisan groups hope to register at least 25,000 first-time voters at the rallies, potentially a boost for Democrats, who generally favour stricter gun controls.

White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said the administration applauded "the many courageous young Americans" exercising their free-speech rights yesterday.

"Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the president's," said Walters, noting that last Friday the Justice Department proposed rule changes that would effectively ban "bump stock" devices that let semi-automatic weapons fire like a machine gun.

Sunday Independent

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