March 24. 2018 8:34PM

March for Our Lives: Students rally by the thousands in NH, U.S. to protest gun violence

New Hampshire Sunday News

From left are Milford students Ryan Delano, a senior; Sarah Sawyer, an eighth-grader at Milford Middle School; and Ariana Ercoline, a freshman, during the March for Our Lives rally held at the State House in Concord on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - "This is what democracy looks like."

That's what hundreds of teenagers were chanting as they poured into the State House plaza Saturday morning for the March for Our Lives to prevent gun violence.

It was one of six "sibling" events held in New Hampshire, and more than 800 held across the country and the world, in solidarity with a national march in Washington, D.C. Marches were held in Jackson, Keene, Lancaster, Nashua and Portsmouth, where police estimated the crowd in Market Square at 2,500.

In Concord, under the benevolent gaze of Daniel Webster's statue, students issued a call to action.

Ruby Carr, a sophomore at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, spoke of what the students who have been killed in school shootings might have accomplished. "They could have changed the world," she said. "Maybe one of them would have won a Nobel prize, or become President, or developed a cure for cancer."

Carr also warned that after every mass shooting, the initial outrage soon fades and people go back to their daily lives. "Don't let that happen this time," she said. "Let this be our tipping point. Show the government that we won't give up until we have the change we need."

Rachel Ferrier, a Concord High School senior, had tough words for elected officials. "I am sick of hearing that compromise is too difficult. As a legislator your job is to compromise," she said, to cheers from the crowd.

"Your job is to work together to create bipartisan legislation," Ferrier said. "Your job is to use the power that the citizens of this country gave to you when they elected you. Your job is to take action.

"So take action or get the hell out," she said. "Because I refuse to accept that this is the best our country can do."

That spirit of defiant resolve was evident throughout the rally. But there was one somber moment at the start, when emcee Shannon Jackson announced that the bell at nearby Saint Paul's Church would be rung in honor of the 17 people gunned down at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine's Day.

A window will open upstairs in the church, Jackson, a sophomore at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, told the crowd. "There is nobody there that's threatening you. It's just so we can hear the bells," she said.

It was a sharp reminder of the fear that lies at the heart of this fledgling student-led movement, which began after the Parkland shooting.

Daisy Young, a 16-year-old student from ConVal Regional High School, gave voice to that fear in her poem, "Too Young."

"I suppose I shouldn't worry because 'it'll never happen to me.'/Then tell me why I feel my heart race when I see an unfamiliar face in the hallways/Why my heart races when I see a hooded figure running a little too fast/Why I have to wonder if my teachers will soon become my bodyguards. ..."

Hannah Riley, 17, a Bedford High School junior, held up a photo of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old girl killed in Parkland. "Alyssa was a real person," Riley said. "She had a real family. She had real friends." 

"Feel your own heart beating inside your chest," she told the crowd. "Her heartbeat was just as real as your own."

Caitlin Edwards, a junior at Nashua High School North, said the Second Amendment gives people the right to bear arms but there are limits. “If someone invades your home in the middle of the night, you should be able to defend yourself and your family, but why does somebody need a semi-automatic to do that?” she asked.

“You aren’t allowed to drive military tanks down the highway, so why am I, a 17-year-old girl, allowed to go to a gun show and legitimately purchase a real weapon of war? It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Leeza Richter, a Concord High senior, talked about Jamie Guttenberg, a 14-year-old student shot to death in Parkland. “I feel regret for not taking action before Jamie’s beautiful smile became my driving force,” she said. “And while I’m hopeful — and on days like today, I am certain — that change will come, I regret that for so many, it will be arriving all too late.”

Speeches were interspersed with chants of “No more silence/End gun violence,” “Enough is enough,” and “Hey, hey, NRA, you don’t own the U.S.A.”

There were plenty of older folks in the crowd of about 1,500, and at times, they took up their own chants.

Debbie Gomez of Derry held a sign reading, “This grandma says enough.”

“This should have happened years ago,” she said. “These young people taking a stand, I hope this works. I just admire them,” she said. “Hopefully, Congress will listen.”

A retired fifth-grade teacher, Gomez said she opposes arming teachers. “I signed up to teach,” she said. “If I had wanted to carry a gun, I’d have become a police officer or joined the military.”

But this was the kids' day, and they rose to the occasion.

Eve Caplan of Henniker, a sophomore at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, warned students not to let their efforts wane. "We must protect this movement from dying within the fast-paced news cycle and American attention span," she said.

"It is time to stand up because if we don't, then nothing will change," she said. "Our childhoods were never without mass shootings. They were never without the fact that the people who were dying were us."

Alan Rice, president of New Hampshire Firearms Coalition, said he watched some of the coverage of marches around the country and understands that people are upset about the loss of life in Parkland. But, he said, "I don't believe that taking away the guns of people who have done nothing wrong is going to prevent something like that from happening again."

"Murderers commit murder," Rice said. "Curtailing constitutionally protected civil rights, we don't believe is going to make anybody safer."

At the rally, Katie Henry, a Concord High senior, took on some solutions that have been proposed instead of stricter gun control, such as adding school resource officers or arming teachers. There was an SRO on duty at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, she reminded the crowd. "And 17 people are still dead," she said.

"There are more resource officers than ever, more lockdowns and active shooter drills, more locked doors and buzzers and covered windows. And people are still dying in our schools."

As for arming teachers, she said, "I want my teachers to help me with my math and grade my homework, not take a bullet for me."

"We already ask our teachers to act as counselors, social workers and mentors, and we famously underpay them for this," she said. "It is fundamentally unfair to add bodyguard to this list."

Some speakers addressed broader issues of gun violence. Samuel Alicia, a senior at Tilton School, reminded the crowd of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager shot to death in Florida by a man who was later acquitted of murder.

“I know that this country was constructed and built by strong leaders,” Alicia said. “I call upon any and all civilized persons to take action to display the leaders we have always been and will continue to be.

“For this movement starts and ends with us.”

Noting that the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado happened 19 years ago, Caitlin Edwards declared, "It's well past time to do something to prevent more deaths."

"The entirety of our lives have been filled with destruction and violence, and it cannot continue," she said. "I cannot continue to live in a world we've allowed ourselves to settle for."

One of the march's organizers, Jonathan Weinberg, a Concord High senior, offered a list of concrete steps the students can take going forward: write letters to the editor, meet with elected officials and vote. "This is not the end," he said.

"This is just the beginning."