One by one on Tuesday night, school children in Wake County placed a lit candle in front of the state Capitol building to honor the 17 people killed last week in a mass shooting at a Florida high school that has brought a new generation of voices to an old debate.
In the quiet of the reflective moment, students solemnly called out the name of each person whose violent death had moved them to call on politicians to take action to make their schools safe from violence.
As the candles flickered in front of the Capitol where Gov. Roy Cooper’s office is, the crowd cried out for change.
“Governor Cooper, North Carolina legislators,” the Rev. Nancy Petty of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church called out. “These students are here to demand that you take action... and we are here to support them. And we will not stop until change is made and they are safe.”
The event organized by Petty’s church did not draw the governor. No lawmakers spoke at the event.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, was at the rally and plans to return to the Pullen church on Thursday at 6 p.m. for another rally there.
The candlelight ceremony at the Capitol followed a rally in the church parking lot, where doves were released for each victim.
March marshals estimated 850 people walked the mile and a half from the church down Hillsborough Street to the Capitol grounds.
“Enough is enough,” the marchers chanted.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, the NRA has got to go,” they added.
They then switched to a call and response, “When children are under attack, what we do?”
“Stand up, fight back.”
“What this accomplishes,” Petty said during a break in the rally, “is it gets this next generation involved in this conversation. This is happening to them. Grade-schoolers can’t organize. High schoolers can.”
At the pre-march rally, several students spoke to the crowd about what they hoped would come from the latest school shooting.
“On Feb. 14, the world lost 17 innocent souls to what can only be described as a heinous act of destructive hate,” Chapel Hill High School student Zainab Antepli said as her voice rose with frustration. “School shootings have unfortunately become something of a norm for many students throughout this nation. Every time we open the news there’s another picture of a dead child, a crying mother and policemen swarming the campus.
“We say our condolences to families in a monotone voice because this is not the first time we have said these words,” Antepli continued. “These tragedies not only cause immeasurable amounts of pain but are a sharp violation of our most basic and fundamental right as human beings. Children are afraid to go to school, afraid to walk down their hallways, peering behind corners with that constant nag in the back of their minds, ‘Am I next.’ That sort of terror that seizes at your heart when you look at your parent’s face and wonder if that is the last time that you will see them.”
Antepli said anger now rises within her when she watches the news and sees such images of violence that she thinks can be curbed with new laws if lawmakers would look beyond the gun lobbies and the National Rifle Association that contributes mass amounts of money to political campaigns.
“Guns don’t stop guns,” Antepli said. “What stops guns are laws drafted and enforced. We are calling for common sense. Our lives are not just numbers printed on paper nor dollar amounts that fill pockets. We are calling for adults to start acting like it. We are not just children who don’t know what we are talking about.”
Mass shootings often bring quick calls for new gun control measures and just as swift response from gun-rights organizations trying to shift the focus to mental health issues often surrounding the violence. Nationally, the students from South Florida spoke up quickly and created a groundswell of similar rallies and marches across the country.
“I was in Florida when this happened on a trip to Disney with my school,” Sophie Flynn, a Martin Middle School eighth-grader from Raleigh, said at the rally. “I was shocked.”
The middle-schooler went back to her hotel room and did some research, she said, and became convinced that her voice might be the one that leads to action, the one that lawmakers hear.
“They haven’t heard students,” Sophie said outside the Capitol. “It’s not a change that can happen overnight, but it can happen.”
Some lawmakers in North Carolina already are taking steps.
Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who was a district court judge for 18 years before becoming a lawmaker, plans to introduce a proposal to add gun violence restraining orders to the tools that judges have for the temporary removal of guns from people who’ve exhibited “threatening, erratic or dangerous behavior.”
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, appointed 31 members to a select committee to review school safety.