The marchers who braved the cold weather and biting wind early Saturday afternoon for the March for Gun Safety were almost all members of Students Against School Shootings (SASS), the group that organized it. It was a noticeable change from last year’s march.
In March 2017, despite sub-freezing temperatures and several inches of freshly fallen snow, approximately 400 people turned out for the march from College Green Park to the Pentacrest for a rally. This year, the rally at the end of the march was held on the Ped Mall and, at its largest, the crowd was only a 10th of last year’s size.
“It was disappointing, but it was also expected,” said Mira Bohannan Kumar, a junior at City High and policy director for SASS, after the rally. “We knew the turnout wasn’t going to be as good as last year.”
Last year’s march happened the month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which prompted a wave of gun reform demonstrations led by high school students from Parkland and other schools around the country, including Iowa City students.
SASS was founded by students at City High and West High in response to the Parkland shooting. Bohannan Kumar, who introduced the speakers at Saturday’s rally and was also the final speaker, was one of its founding members. She wrote about SASS’s first year for Little Village in February.
In that piece, Bohannan Kumar recounted how attendance at SASS public events had begun to decline as time passed, and the fight for gun control was no longer in the front of peoples’ minds. Still, she wrote, “though we may have ups and downs, none of us, SASS members and students and Americans, can afford to forget: This fight isn’t over.”
But the number of people in attendance wasn’t one of the issues on which speakers focused during Saturday’s rally.
The rally started with SASS member Charlotte Ramirez reading a poem she wrote about the victims of gun violence, which begins “How many is too many?” In her poem, Ramirez referenced the 14,415 people killed by guns in 2018. “What about those stolen from us? Some too young to say a word.”
Holly Sanger of the Iowa City chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which provided support for SASS’s march, addressed another disturbing number in her remarks, “Every day almost a hundred Americans are killed as a result of gun violence, and hundreds more are shot or injured,” Sanger said.
Sanger also spoke about the positive changes that have happened since last year’s march, which she told the attendees were thanks to “a momentum shift that is represented by you and what you stand for.”
“In the 2018 election, a Gun Sense majority was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and this happened because of your efforts, here in Iowa and across the country,” Sanger said. “In fact, over 100 Gun Sense candidates were elected in the last election.”
Gun Sense is a project in which Moms Demand Action asked candidates to pledge to support common-sense gun control.
“But there is still much to do,” Sanger said.
That was a point Bohannan Kumar emphasized when she spoke. She contrasted New Zealand’s rapid action on gun control following the mass shooting in Christchurch with the lack of political action since the Parkland shooting, “especially in Iowa.”
The U.S.’s inaction on guns is unparalleled in comparable nations. And not coincidentally, so is our gun violence. Due to influence by extreme groups like the NRA, we have no common-sense gun safety in this country, and we are constantly afraid of the impact that gun violence could have in each of our lives. We have four percent of the world’s population, and 44 percent of the world’s guns. We are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other countries.
Our gun culture in this country is damaging and dangerous. We do not trust one another. We need to stop putting words in each other’s mouths, stop putting guns in each other’s hands and work to prevent the thousands of needless deaths that result from inaction on gun safety every year.
Speaking to Little Village after the event ended, Bohannan Kumar said, “I think tides are shifting — people genuinely believe in our cause, but a lot aren’t passionate enough to come out to events like this, and aren’t passionate enough to call their elected officials, but extremists on the other side — the NRA — are. They’re willing to go out every day and call their elected officials.”
“That’s why we see so little action on gun safety, because the majority that supports it is a silent majority,” she said. “It’s important to do events like this to keep up awareness, to remind people this is still an issue. That’s why I came out today, that’s why more people should come out.”
“But it’s even more important they contact their elected officials, than come to events like this. Because that’s where real change will happen.”