On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, Austin students called on lawmakers to take their fear and demands for gun control seriously.
More than 1,000 students from at least 16 Austin schools marched to the Texas Capitol on Friday, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, to demand tighter gun laws. Students and teachers here joined thousands of activists across Texas and the United States for the National School Walkout, the latest round of demonstrations since a February shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead.
“I’m really scared now to go to school,” said Tau Khabele, a seventh-grader at Headwaters School in Austin. “We want to be taken seriously and we need things to change, because I don’t want to be scared and I don’t want my friends to be either.”
Other students voiced their frustration with lawmakers’ inaction on the issue. More Americans than ever — 66 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February — say they want stronger gun control laws.
“I want our politicians to realize that this is important, our voices are important and if they don’t make those changes, then one day we’re going to,” said Sasha Ashton, an organizer of the rally and a sophomore at Headwaters.
The organizers’ demands include enacting universal background checks, banning assault-style rifles, establishing an ongoing gun buyback program, ending the sale of military or law enforcement weapons to the public and limiting the number of guns and ammunition that a person can purchase. Some said they wanted to ban campaign contributions by the NRA.
Chanting “This is what democracy looks like,” the students marched from downtown Wooldridge Park to the Capitol. They carried signs that read “Arms are for Hugging,” “GPA > NRA”, “Books not Bullets,” and “Am I Next?”
State Representative Eddie Rodriguez and Congressman Lloyd Doggett, both Austin Democrats, spoke alongside a handful of students, teachers and other activists on the South Steps of the Capitol after the march.
“Children shouldn’t have to overcome the fear of being shot at school when they get on the bus in the morning,” Rodriguez said.
Some students were bussed to the rally from several Austin high schools through an online crowdfunding campaign that raised $6,000 from nearly 100 people. Students used Instagram and other social media to organize the protest.
Similar demonstrations played out across the state, including a gathering of about 2,000 in Houston and hundreds of students walking out of class in San Antonio. Activists at rallies registered voters. Many smaller demonstrations took place in school parking lots throughout the state. In Frisco, four men toting AR-15s showed up outside Heritage High School, where students were holding a rally inside, but left without incident.
There was virtually no presence of a counterprotest at the Capitol rally, where only one man with a gun and a “Make America Great Again” hat argued with a group of teenagers.
The demonstration comes as the rural community of Sutherland Springs is still reeling from a November massacre that left 26 people dead at a church. The shooter was able to legally obtain a semi-automatic rifle from a sporting goods store in nearby San Antonio because of a failure by the U.S. Air Force to report his criminal history to the FBI’s national database. Two months later, a 16-year-old student opened fire in a school cafeteria in the small town of Italy, Texas, between Waco and Dallas, injuring a 15-year-old girl.
“We don’t want to walk around in fear all day,” said Joseph Pearson, a McCallum High School senior. “I think it’s ridiculous that we have to worry that we will be the next person on TV who got shot by a school shooter.”
At the Legislature, changes to gun laws in recent years have loosened gun restrictions. College students can carry pistols on campus with a license, and Texans are free to openly carry firearms — including shotguns, pistols and semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 — in public under a 2015 law. Lawmakers have also rolled back training requirements to obtain a handgun license in Texas.
“I just want people to take us seriously,” said Xandrea Cockrell, a sophomore at Reagan High School. “I know that people see us as just a bunch of high school kids, just being annoying, but we really want to speak about something important here and I really hope people listen to us.”
According to organizers, participating schools included: Akins, Anderson, Ann Richards, Austin High, Austin Waldorf, Bowie, Griffin, Headwaters, Lake Travis, LASA/LBJ, McCallum, NYOS, Reagan, St. Andrew’s, St. Stephen’s and Westlake.