Nina Bush knows what gun violence feels like.
Eight years ago, a man armed with a Glock handgun gunned down her dad, a mail carrier, on his route in North Miami. The man wanted Bruce Parton’s mail key, so he killed him for it.
“Ever since then, ending gun violence has been really important to me,” said Bush, 44. “Each time it happens, I write to the congressmen and I don’t see any change.”
On Saturday, for the first time since her father’s death, Bush felt hopeful that the country was on the verge of significant gun reform. Hoisting a sign — more of a promise — that read “Not one more” during a massive march to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the software engineer and mother of two daughters was smiling.
“I feel hope again,” she said, looking out onto the sprawling Stoneman Douglas campus and its outer fencing displaying dozens of protest signs and words of encouragement from the previous four hours of rallying.
One month and 10 days since a former student killed 17 people and wounded 15 others at the Parkland high school, Bush joined several thousand student activists and community members at a nearby park early Saturday morning to take part in one of more than 800 spin-offs of the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence. The network of protests was organized by student leaders from Stoneman Douglas and the group Everytown for Gun Safety, among others.
During a large rally at Pine Trails Park, about a mile from the high school, the fathers of two students killed on Valentine’s Day addressed a crowd estimated by one Broward County Sheriff’s deputy to be well over 15,000 strong.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the bloodshed, thanked the community for its outpouring of concern and love for his family, but he urged patience from those frustrated by the tedious process of lobbying lawmakers into submission.
“Some here today may be disappointed that change is not coming fast enough,” he said. “However, we will not take down the wall of stagnation by running into it head first. Removing one brick at a time may be the path that is needed.”
Several other speakers echoed Montalto, calling the worldwide rally a mere warm-up for the marathon to come. Their goals range from banning assault weapons to installing bulletproof doors and windows at schools, but the underlying demand of limiting gun violence in some way has not wavered.
“Some of the politicians I spoke with earlier this month felt as if no matter which way they voted, it would be the wrong choice,” Montalto said. “My answer to them: The choice is easy. Vote to make our schools safer.”
Samantha Mayor, a student at Stoneman Douglas who told the crowd she was shot in the knee during the shooting, limped onto the stage to roaring applause. She recounted the afternoon of Feb. 14, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked onto campus and terrorized the school, shooting victims in hallways and inside their classrooms.
She decried that her school was so ill-prepared for a mass shooting. Glass windows shouldn’t shatter when bullets strike them, she said. School campuses shouldn’t be so easily penetrated.
“A vicious murderer should have never been able to get his hands on such a deadly weapon,” she added.
Max Schachter, the father of 14-year-old Alex, who died in the shooting, recalled what life was like prior to Feb. 14, when his main concerns were his son’s happiness and limiting the amount of time he played the video game “Fortnite.”
Schachter advocated for creating a national standard for school safety, similar to fire safety procedures, telling the crowd he had recently visited Capitol Hill to lobby politicians toward his cause.
“It does not have to be like this,” Schachter said. “We can make this a better world, a better place for everyone.”
At about 12:30 p.m., after speakers read aloud the names of the 17 and promised to march in their honor, energized protesters streamed out of the park and onto the intersection of Pine Island Road and Trails End Road, held back by organizers waiting for everyone to empty the park before launching the effort. When the time came, the roadways filled with marchers carrying signs, the air filled with a cacophony of dueling protest songs and complaints from small children that they couldn’t see what was happening five feet in front of them.
“It’s very heartwarming to see that apathy is turning into activism,” said 64-year-old Andrea Friedman, a relative of victim Nicholas Dworet, who would have turned 18 on Saturday. “This is an incredible movement.”
After their mile was up, and the flowery memorial in front of Stoneman Douglas came into view, protesters lowered their voices and stopped their singing. It marked the only lull in a day otherwise marked by full-throated calls for action so energy draining that there were volunteers handing out water bottles at almost every corner.
Christina Bracken, the founder of a voter registration group aimed at teenagers not yet old enough to vote, worked to pre-register attendees at a booth she set up at the entrance of Pine Trails Park.
Bracken, who runs the organization 16+ Vote, said that by the end of the day, 159 teens had stopped by to pre-register, making them automatically eligible to vote when they turn 18.
“It’s a pretty big moment in history,” she said, smiling at young activists hauling handmade signs. “But with anything, this is just a marathon or a relay.”