'This is not normal': March For Our Lives brings thousands to Raleigh

As supporters of stricter gun control laws descended on Washington, D.C., for the national March For Our Lives rally, thousands of local activists also took to the streets in downtown Raleigh on Saturday.

The wave of protests across the nation has been inspired largely by recent school shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people. Teenagers have been involved in organizing many of the protests, including the one in Raleigh.

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"We are the future, and we can be the change we want to see in the world," 15-year-old Lauren Smith told the crowd gathered near the North Carolina legislative building, after a march through downtown.

"To all our legislators, remember we will be voting soon," Smith said. "And that will be evident in the next election."

Lauren Smith, a 15-year-old sophomore at Holly Springs High School, addresses the crowd gathered at the March For Our Lives rally she organized because her mom wouldn't let her go to the national march in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Mar. 24, 2018, raising awareness about gun violence and gun control after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

One of those legislators took the stage later, telling the crowd that "your loudest voice is your vote."

Rep. Cynthia Ball, a Democrat who represents parts of northern Wake County in the N.C. General Assembly, said she hopes her fellow politicians see the large crowds at the rallies and are convinced to pass laws strengthening gun control rules.

"Your energy gives me hope we've finally reached a tipping point," Ball said.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper outlined a number of gun control reforms he wants North Carolina to make. Many of them are changes that Democratic legislators already suggested in recent years, to no avail in the Republican-led legislature.

Cooper proposed raising the age to buy assault weapons like AR-15s from 18 to 21, banning bump stocks and creating a new type of court order that can force people to give up their guns if they're deemed a threat to themselves or others. That would be a broader version of a law already in place in North Carolina, which allows courts to order domestic abusers to surrender their guns in certain circumstances.

'This is not normal'

One of the thousands of marchers in Raleigh Saturday was Will Arrington, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said that while he's a consistent Democratic voter, he never goes to rallies or marches.

But he volunteers at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill, working with kids who are immigrants or refugees. And he's angry that many of their families came here to escape violence, but the children can't be sure they won't get shot at school in America either.

Then he heard the suggestions to scare off potential school shooters by arming teachers.

"This was it for me," Arrington said. "I was like, 'Kids are getting killed in schools and the solution is to put more guns in schools? No.'"

Gail Carson, of the Raging Grannies, joins the crowd in a prayer led by Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, during the March For Our Lives rally on the Halifax Mall in Raleigh, NC, on Saturday, Mar. 24, 2018, raising awareness about gun violence and gun control after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Recent polling shows most people, including nearly all teachers, agree with Arrington.

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But there are some who think teachers should be armed.

One of them is state Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Cabarrus County. He told fellow legislators last month, “We have to get over this useless hysteria about guns and allow school personnel to have a chance to defend their lives and those of their students."

Pittman isn't the only state lawmaker dismissive of the recent wave of gun control rallies.

Republican Rep. Beverley Boswell of Dare County recently wrote an open letter to the principal of a school halfway across the state, in Roxboro, after the school held an assembly on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting.

Boswell asked, "So the students that were eating tide pods last week run your school this week?"

On Saturday, Smith said she and her fellow teens would rather not be organizing rallies like this. But they want something to change.

"Since I was 5, I've been practicing code red drills" to prepare for a mass shooting at school, she said. "This is not normal. ... This entire thing is not normal. We should not be here marching for our lives."

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A GoFundMe page for the Raleigh march had raised nearly $19,000 as of Friday evening.

The organizers said they'd use some money to rent equipment and print materials for the rally, and everything left over will be donated to a charity fund set up for the victims of the Parkland shooting.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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