Students and members of the community gathered in front of Henderson Lawn on March 24 to participate in the nationwide March for Our Lives movement to protest gun violence. The “Stand With Students: Blacksburg” rally attracted hundreds of students, families and other community members despite the looming snowstorm.
Several organizations came together to host the rally, including Indivisible New River Valley (NRV Indivisible) and Coalition for Justice. In addition, members of the New River Valley Greens, Moms Demand Action and One Voice Blacksburg gave speeches during the rally.
“Drawing attention to it like this is important,” said Alexa Casey, who is the coach for NRV Indivisible. “Gun reform means that you pay attention to loopholes that are made, you limit the types of guns that you have out on the streets, you consider people’s mental health aspects, you have more time to apply for a gun and so there’s a number of things like that that we have to pay attention to. We don’t want to take anyone’s gun rights away; we just want gun reform that makes sense.”
Additionally, protesters wanted to bring to light the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that has recurring mass shootings. Resolutions being proposed in an effort to solve this problem include banning automatic assault weapons, having a universal background check system and raising the age for legal gun ownership to 21.
Protesters also wanted people to realize that restructuring gun legislation could end other sorts of gun violence, such as ones related to domestic violence and suicides.
“The reality is that 96 Americans die every single day due to gun violence. So it’s not just about mass shootings, we have to talk about handgun violence. There’s a broader issue here beyond just school shootings, one that in particular affects marginalized communities, women through domestic violence and people with depression –– in fact, most gun violences are actually caused by suicides,” said Ryan Wesdock, who is the chair of the Greens at Virginia Tech and member of the NRV Greens.
Many protesters expressed distaste to the idea of arming teachers and professors with guns for safety purposes.
Before the speeches began, the organizers named and commemorated the 17 victims who died in the Parkland shooting on Feb. 14. Then, speeches were given by Jennifer Gallagher, a member of Moms Demand Action, Professor Dale Wimberley, a member of Coalition for Justice and Brianna Sclafani, a peace studies student.
Sclafani was a freshman in high school six years ago when the Sandy Hook shooting happened in her hometown, which resulted in the loss of one of her friends’ brother. Her speech called for more marches until change was made.
“Since Sandy Hook alone, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. We are here because we want change, because we see injustice and we seek action. Parkland, Virginia Tech stands with you, Sandy Hook stands with you, we all stand with you,” Sclafani said.
Justin Santopietro and Anthony Flaccavento, who are candidates for representatives in Congress for the 9th Congressional District, were both present at the march as was Delegate Christ Hurst.
“This is my hometown. I was a freshman in high school on April 16, 2007. After that tragedy, we saw our legislator in the state of Virginia, Morgan Griffith, do absolutely nothing to recognize the tragedy that happened. We have to vote; there is no replacement to that,” Santopietro said.
Flaccavento drove in from his hometown, Abingdon, and participated in the rally there before participating in the one here.
“On this issue (gun violence) our national policy is as clear as it is immoral to do nothing. Congress has decided that routine gun violence is acceptable, that it’s impossible to protect Second Amendment rights and still take meaningful action. This is indefensible,” Flaccavento said.
Flaccavento mentioned that the only good thing was that the younger generation realizes the problem with the nation’s gun legislation and he and other speakers recognized that “younger people have had enough.”
Delegate Chris Hurst said it’s not a coincidence that he’s seen more leadership and courage in teens than in congressmen and delegates in Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Referring to the children and teens, Hurst said, “These are the people that we are fighting for every single day. This is our future. Now, understand why we are here and what we have to do.”
Like many others, Hurst told the audience that if they wanted to see change, vote. Casey and Wesdock also expressed the importance of youth being involved, and offered other ways of taking action if not by voting, such as joining community organizations and looking on social media for events similar to the march.
“I think college, high school and middle school students standing up is the thing that’s making the difference. That’s why it matters now more than it has in the past. They’re the ones who are making a difference between this succeeding and failing,” Wesdock said.
Hurst’s girlfriend, Alison Parker, was shot and killed on live TV in 2015. Despite experiencing this tragedy, he remains positive about bringing changes to the community.
“When I lost the love of my life, they asked me, ‘Do you think something will finally change now, given what happened?’ and I said ‘no,’” Hurst said. “But something is different this time around. Can you feel it?”