Thousands of Arkansans joined the national movement fighting for tougher gun controls Saturday, marching to the state Capitol in Little Rock and holding rallies at other sites across the state.
Between 3,000 and 3,500 people, many of them students, participated in Little Rock's "March for Our Lives," according to a police officer at the scene.
The march, organized by anti-gun-violence and student activist groups, was one segment of a national political demonstration that dominated airwaves and social media Saturday.
High school students, in particular, have been a driving force in a national fight to restrict public access to military-style weapons in the wake of 17 people being killed in a shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month.
In Little Rock on Saturday, Madeleine Amox, a teenage student speaker from the Bryant School District, said she's often told she's too young to talk about politics.
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Photos by Polly Irungu
Photos by Polly Irungu
"It's not true, because I'm one of the people it affects [the] most. My classmates, my siblings, my family, their classmates, your family, your friends. We are affected the most," Amox said.
She kept speaking when a counterprotester in the crowd attempted to disrupt her.
Amox said her sister was born the same day as the Florida massacre. Amox was in third grade when 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at a school in Newtown, Conn. It was after that that Amox participated in her first active-shooter training drill, she said.
Protester Meghan Walton said her 3-year-old daughter has already experienced one of those lockdown drills -- at her preschool.
"It freaks me out and disgusts me that my baby has to practice how not to die in her own school," she said.
Walton, a substitute teacher in Russellville, was one of many Arkansas educators who marched Saturday. One teacher held up a sign that read, "The only Glock I want to be in my music class is a Glockenspiel."
He asked to remain anonymous because he teaches in a central Arkansas town where most people view gun rights differently than he does.
State Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield and state Rep. Charles Blake, all Little Rock Democrats, chatted with people in the Little Rock crowd. Parents pulled wagons and held the hands of toddlers who waddled uphill. Taped to a stroller, a sign read, "I nap but I stay woke."
Speaker Eve Jorgensen leads the Arkansas chapter for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization that pushes for what it calls "common-sense gun reforms."
She criticized a flash point in Arkansas politics: Act 562 of 2017. The law, spearheaded by Republican lawmakers, allows people with "enhanced" carry licenses to take concealed handguns onto public university campuses and into other public spaces.
Jorgensen said the law passed despite its unpopularity. If Arkansas politicians are unresponsive to demands made by anti-gun-violence protesters, "we will throw them out," she said.
Arkansas' U.S. Sen. John Boozman commented on the "March for Our Lives" events and the issues at hand, saying schools should be an environment where students can focus on learning and educators on teaching rather than worrying about their safety.
"Clearly, there are some things we can and should do to help secure schools from threats. Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson, along with state and local leaders, are exploring and implementing ways to best provide that security, and I support their efforts," Boozman said via email.
Another speaker at the Little Rock march, Wyley Greer of Greenbrier, talked about his experience during a nationwide student walkout March 14, when students across Arkansas and the nation left their classrooms to advocate for stricter access to firearms.
Restrictions commonly sought by activists include tougher background checks, raising the age limits to purchase guns and ensuring that people with criminal histories cannot buy firearms.
Greer said he was one of three students who walked out of Greenbrier High School. They were given the choice of two days of in-school suspension or two swats with a paddle as punishment for their action, Greer said.
He said he chose the paddle, which he said was not painful but an "insane" legal option for his punishment. He plans to walk out again on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting in Colorado.
The teenager said he and others will not be "silent spectators to our own future."
"Not voting isn't rebellion. It's surrender," Greer said, inciting cheers.
In Bentonville, where police said about 450 people attended Saturday's rally on the downtown square, counterprotesters showed up to oppose the types of gun restrictions sought by marchers.
Members of the Hiwaymen, which describes itself as a patriot group, and its Arkansas chapter, Freedom Crew, said they were there to stand up for the U.S. Constitution and their history and heritage.
They said marches like the ones happening in Arkansas are endangering their Second Amendment rights.
Any regulation on assault rifles is a dangerous slope, member James Del Brock said.
"They are using this to strip rights from we the people," Brock said. "I believe the American people have the right to defend ourselves. We have the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment] doesn't say what those arms are for. If we cannot own those, we will never be able to defend ourselves against any invader. We the people are the last defense in this country."
Stephannie Baker, a current Bentonville High School English teacher, spoke at the square about how much the Florida school shooting affected her.
She said that when she dreamt of becoming a teacher, she imagined reading great literature with students and discussing the deeper meaning of a work, "not answering questions about how to block the door so an intruder couldn't enter or how long it would take for someone to shoot the handle off," she said.
"These are real questions my students ask me," Baker said. "This isn't what I signed up for. I can't let fear take over. I have a job to do. I have to teach."
In closing the Little Rock rally, student speaker Chris Kingsby broadened the scope of Saturday's protest at the state Capitol. Not only is it about gun violence in schools, Kingsby said, it's also about how gun violence afflicts parts of Little Rock and affects young black men, in particular.
After the speeches wrapped up and the crowd thinned, a quieter exchange took place near Woodlane Street not far from the Capitol.
Counterprotester Greg Giuffria wore a National Rifle Association baseball cap and had the staff of an American flag propped against his leg.
He was approached by Dr. Vikki Stefans, a pediatric rehabilitative specialist affiliated with Arkansas Children's Hospital, who participated in the march.
For about 10 minutes, the pair politely sparred over their political differences.
Giuffria hypothesized that with a shotgun he could do the same amount of "damage" as occurred in a recent mass shooting that involved a semi-automatic weapon.
"You'd have to be real good, and I'd have to be slow [in fleeing]," Stefans said. Plus, with military-style weapons, "the wounds are worse," she said.
"There's no law that's going to ban evil," Giuffria said.
"You wouldn't repeal all laws that people break, would you?" Stefans asked.
They kept talking. Giuffria said he'd look over the literature that Stefans handed him. During their conversation, he cited a gun-violence statistic to support his argument. Stefans disagreed with it, but she left room to be proven wrong.
"I don't think so," she said. "But I'll look it up."
Information for this article was contributed by Ashton Eley of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Some of an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 protesters march on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock on Saturday.
Metro on 03/25/2018
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