Dalton Thompson feared for his life in first grade when his school went into lockdown because of an unauthorized person on the premises with a gun, he told about 200 people Saturday on the Arkansas Capitol steps.
He experienced at least two lockdowns per year all the way through high school, he said.
"How many days did we waste away cowering in fear in a dark classroom, just in the corner, wondering 'Are we about to die? Are we about to be slaughtered? Are we about to have our names on signs?'" said Thompson, a University of Central Arkansas graduate, a rising first-year law student and Arkansas' national representative for the Young Democrats of America.
The rally was one of many nationwide Saturday, part of a new upsurge of gun control activism in light of a spate of deadly mass shootings within the past month, the deadliest being in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed.
Dee Sanders read the names of the 21 Uvalde victims out loud for rallygoers to repeat back. Sanders was a Moms Demand Action Arkansas chapter leader until she stepped down to run for the state House of Representatives this year as a Democrat in Conway.
The number of people present Saturday was encouraging, she said.
"I'm tickled at the response because it was organized fairly quickly for a march," Sanders told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The protesters marched to the Capitol building from the intersection of Capitol Avenue and South Izard Street, carrying signs in favor of gun control policies and chanting slogans such as "Kids not guns" and "No more silence, end gun violence."
Messages on the protesters' signs included "Enough is enough," "Legislation, not thoughts and prayers" and "Arm teachers with pencils, not guns."
A policy package of several gun regulations passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. The package includes raising the legal age to purchase certain firearms from 18 to 21 and creating new federal offenses for gun trafficking and the sale of large-capacity magazines.
Arkansas' four elected House members -- Republican Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman -- all voted against the legislation, which is not expected to pass the U.S. Senate.
Kate Fletcher, a Little Rock resident and Moms Demand Action state spokeswoman, denounced the Congressmen's decisions and said they should be voted out of office.
"After this week, after these votes by these so-called Christian men, I can no longer tell my [6-year-old] daughter that monsters don't exist, because they do," Fletcher said.
Several Democratic elected officials were present at the rally, including State Sen. Clarke Tucker and State Reps. Fred Love and Andrew Collins, all of Little Rock; for state Senate candidate David Barber of Conway; gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones; and lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Kelly Krout.
The U.S. has had more than 250 mass shootings so far in 2022, and one American every 12 minutes died from gun violence in 2020. Tucker noted that this would mean three people died between the start of the march and his 10-minute speech, which he began with 21 seconds of silence in memory of those killed in Uvalde.
He said making schools safer has been the primary talking point among Republicans in the Legislature in light of the Uvalde killings.
"I'm for that, I want schools to be safe, but what about grocery stores like in Buffalo, [ N.Y.], what about hospitals like in Oklahoma, what about funerals like in Iowa [and] what about where we are right here, right now?" Tucker said, citing other recent mass shootings. "Are we going to turn every public space in America into a prison or a war zone?"
In addition to the gun control measures that passed the U.S. House, Saturday's rallygoers expressed support for universal background checks, a mandatory waiting period before buying a gun and red flag laws that would keep guns out of the hands of those who may be a danger to themself or others.
Tucker said another measure he supports is a "safe storage law," which would keep guns out of reach of children or anyone trying to steal a gun from a family member.
He said the fact that all these measures are not yet federal law is "an indictment of the political system."
"In the wake of Uvalde, if you fail to act now, at least be straight with me," Tucker said. "Just tell me that these slaughtered children are the cost of your definition of a free society. Be straight about it, but here's my question back for you: when is that cost too high? If we fail to act and the next school shooting is in Arkansas, is the cost too high at that point?"
Thompson expressed similar frustration with elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, and he urged protesters to work tirelessly to elect candidates who support gun reform.
"We have to get people to vote because that's how we break this gun-horny supermajority, that's how we elect Democrats, that's how we change the system -- and then, once we do that, we hold the Democrats accountable," Thompson said.
Jessica Taverna, an art teacher at Little Rock Central High School, read a quote from feminist writer bell hooks: "There can be, and usually is, some degree of pain involved in giving up old ways of thinking and knowing and learning new approaches. I respect that pain."
Taverna said being both a teacher and a parent makes school lockdowns twice as stressful and painful, and she described employees of schools in America as "sitting targets with less and less hope."
Zulkifl Qazi, a rising junior at Central High and a member of its Students Demand Action chapter, recalled an incident in October 2021 after shots were fired in the surrounding neighborhood and bullets broke two classroom windows. The resulting lockdown ended with students being dismissed from school early.
"I was on the third floor, and right below the window, all the parents were piling [up], wanting to open the doors and see their children," Qazi said.
Rose Wise, a mother and grandmother who lives in Hot Springs Village, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she is grateful not to have children in school at this time in history. She said elected officials "have blood on their hands" for not enacting gun regulations in light of so many shootings.
"Thoughts and prayers are not going to help anybody," Wise said. "They've got to be backed up by action. In fact, a thought and a prayer without action is hypocritical."
CORRECTIONS: The rally for gun control held Saturday in Little Rock was organized by Zoya Ahmer and Jackie Wohlschlaeger. An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited another person as an organizer. David Barber is a Democratic candidate for state Senate from Conway. Barber was misidentified in a previous version of this story.