HARTFORD, CT — Thousands rallied at the state Capitol Saturday in one of hundreds of marches across the country to demand more gun-control measures.
The events organized by March for Our Lives is part of the student-led movement following the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Fla.
It was students who took center stage in Hartford.
Tyler Suarez, a college student who was in charge of organizing the Hartford rally, is the nephew of Dawn Hochsprung, the school principal who was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“School safety should not be a political issue,” Suarez said. “There should not be two sides in ensuring the lives of our children. There’s not a left school or a right school. These are our children.”
Capitol Police estimated Saturday’s crowd in Hartford at about 10,000.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy told the crowd he was recently brought to tears when his 6-year-old son came home and told him about his first active shooter drill.
He said his son was locked in the classroom bathroom with 25 other 6-year-olds and told to be quiet. Murphy said he couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down his face when his son said, “Daddy, I didn’t like it.”
“No child should have to go to school wondering if they’re going to survive the day,” Murphy said, and he told the young people at the rally that this is their moment.
“There is no social change movement in this country that wasn’t led by young people,” he said. “I am more confident today that there’s no way you can stop us from winning.”
Will Haskell, who is 21 and running for state Senate, said his generation is stepping forward and finding their voice.
“We don’t need Washington’s permission to protect our schools,” Haskell said.
He said Connecticut can take action and increase regulations by banning bump stocks and ghost guns.
“Please don’t tell me to pray,” Haskell said. “Instead, help me to act. Don’t tell me to call my legislators. Instead, help me replace them.”
Connecticut’s Judiciary Committee spent 14 hours receiving public testimony Friday into Saturday morning about bills that would ban bump stocks and ghost guns.
Erica Lafferty, the daughter of Hochsprung, said she thought having to grieve her mother’s death in such a public way or having to bury her mother a few days before Christmas was “as bad as it ever would get.” But she said she didn’t know then what she knows now.
“Every time there’s another school shooting I have to live it all over again,” Lafferty said.
She said the shooting in Parkland was the hardest for her. She said the media coverage and the outcry from the public have been just as intense.
“Just like after Sandy Hook we saw inaction from our leaders in Washington,” Lafferty said. “Parkland was sent thoughts and prayers just like Sandy Hook was, but then something happened. The Parkland students started to speak out.”
She said the students at Sandy Hook were too young and the adults tried their best to do it for them.
“But it’s not the same as what we’re experiencing today,” Lafferty said.
She said students are standing up and demanding that adults do more to protect kids rather than guns.
But for all the idealism, Lafferty said “we need to be real.” As someone who has lived through this for the past five years, Lafferty warned “it will happen again, and again, and again. We have to know that there will be another shooting and it will hurt. Something you hear a lot in this movement is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Take that to heart. Know that just because change doesn’t happen overnight does not mean we are not winning.”
She said they are changing the dialogue about the culture of gun violence in America.
Major companies are changing their policies, others are stopping discounts that were formerly given to NRA members. “This is a huge deal,” she said. “CEOs are hearing our message and changing their policies and that didn’t happen when I was brought into this movement five years ago.”
She said the tide is changing.
Isabella Segall, head of the new Connecticut Teens Against Gun Violence group, said “change begins and ends with us. It can either end with us sparking this movement and pushing for reasonable gun laws, or dead on the classroom floor.”
She said her fear is that one day she will walk into school and not walk out.
“I fear that one day I will have to watch my best friend carried out in a body bag,” Segall said. “I fear that one day is tomorrow.”
She said people question them constantly about how they can be so knowledgeable about the impact of an AR-15 or a bump stock.
“We have no choice,” Segall said. “We have no other option but to learn and advocate for our own safety.”
She said politicians are still taking money from the NRA and ignoring the blood on the classroom floor.
“We’re teens. We’re here. We will vote. We are coming,” Segall said.
She reminded the crowd that if they will turn 18 before the November election, they can vote in the primary.
The rally in Hartford was just one of a dozens rallies to demand more gun control.
More than 1,000 people gathered on the Guilford Green.
“Just look at this crowd,” state Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said. “It speaks to people’s desire to see change — 80 to 90 percent of the country wants to see tougher gun laws.”
Asked what’s different about this gun control movement than past efforts, Scanlon said: “It’s being led by kids. They’re leadership is having an impact and is going to lead us forward to make real change happen this time.”