MONTPELIER – Thousands of Vermonters turned out in an emotional show of force to protest gun violence in schools at a March For Our Lives rally at the State House Saturday. The solidarity rally coincided with a national march in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of others in cities across the country in response to the shooting deaths of 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 14. Much of the State House lawn was filled with a crowd estimated by organizers and law enforcement to be between 2,500 and 3,500, but there were no reported incidents nor problems. It was primarily a day for students to shine in the spotlight in a student-led push back against gun violence in the wake of the Florida incident and a foiled plot to stage a similar shooting at Fair Haven Union High School in Vermont last month. Notable leaders who attended but did not speak included Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Speeches and performances by more than a dozen speakers and groups included emotional testimony and appeals to Vermont and congressional leaders to pass new gun safety laws. The event ended with repeated chants for Gov. Phil Scott to "Sign those bills!" Gun rights activists were clearly in the minority at the event. But one activist, Kenneth Blodgett, of Lowell, who wanted to make a statement stood near the podium waving a Cold Pepper Minute Men militia flag that bore the words "Don't Tread on Me." "I'm here to exercise my First Amendment right, like everyone else," Blodgett said. "I believe that every one of our constitutional amendments are equally important." Blodgett was less accommodating of people who challenged him, with two other flag bearers holding peace flags to block the view of his flag. "Liberals are freaks," Blodgett said. One observer, Amy Darley, of Worcester, noted of the two sides, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, "That shows civility, if nothing else, in Vermont." The rally was opened by Johnson State College freshman Madison Knoop who was the event organizer and master of ceremonies. Knoop acknowledged the many facets and victims of gun violence and the need for change. "We are here for common-sense gun laws that keep people safe. We are here to support our youth who are fighting. We are here because gun violence is a public health issue. We are here because our Congress will not act. We are here are because gun lobbyists have too much power in our country. Today we fight for the voices of those who have lost them," Knoop said. Zoey Hecht, 14, an eighth-grade student at Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, spoke about what it was like to be a student in "post-Parkland, post-Sandy Hook, post-Columbine America." "I'd like to point out that I turned 14 just a few days ago, which means that I haven't ever grown up in a world without Columbine," Hecht said. Hecht also stressed the need for people to challenge lawmakers to enact gun safety laws, and credited Vermont House lawmakers with passing new legislation Friday to expand background checks for private gun sales and ban high-capacity magazines and bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to function like automatic weapons. The governor has said he would sign new gun safety laws. Clai Lasher Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, spoke as a victim of gun violence who was shot by her stepfather when she was aged 13, and noted an average of 96 people are killed every day in America. She also highlighted the disproportionate numbers of women, people of color and children who die from gun violence. "What kind of state are we if we don't do everything by passing every law we can to protect one child?" she asked and called for voters to elect candidates that support gun safety laws. Other student speakers included Rivan Calderin of the Social Justice Union at Burlington High School who spoke of his great-aunt, Alisa Shanks, a teacher who was killed in a school shooting at Essex High School in 2006. "My family still weeps over her grave the same way that the families of the Parkland victims do," he said. "I don't want to think about it, yet I must, we must. We can't look the other way any longer because gun violence is everywhere we look." Montpelier High School student Alexandra Smart spoke of her fear during a lockdown Jan. 16, when former student Nathan Giffin was shot and killed by nine police officers on the school athletic field after he allegedly robbed at gunpoint the VSECU credit union across the street. "It was so scary for me," Smart said. "At 11 (a.m.), they shot him. We heard the echoes of every one of those gunshots. This man had been our kindergarten teacher's son. In nine shots, my school had become yet another statistic. We were the lucky ones, who walked away alive. Thirty-eight days ago, in Parkland, they gave their lives just for going to school. Who will be next?" In other testimony, St. Joseph's Academy student Hannah Padya spoke for the LGBTQ community about the fear that followed the mass shooting at The Pulse, a gay nightclub in Florida in 2016 that claimed 50 lives. It was followed by a rendition of "Shine," a song written by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students after their school shooting, sung by the Renegade a capella choir from Brattleboro High School. Kelemua Summa-Hardy, an eighth-grade student at Hunt Middle School in Burlington, read out the names of the Parkland shooting, adding, "We shouldn't have to worry about being shot down in our classrooms." Burlington High School student Allie Brown said she was angered by "a lack of action from our leaders," adding, "In this country, the right to bear an AR-15 overshadows the right for you, for me and for all of us to live." Youth for Change activist James Shanti-Strother spoke of many issues in America, but singled out the issue of basic safety for all Americans, and students. "Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in any other developed country in the world, and out of these people black Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by a firearm than white Americans," he said. "We make up 5 percent of the world's population and 31 percent of the world's mass shootings. We, the youth, are here to tell the government we do not feel safe at school. School is no longer one of the safe havens for us." Martha Allen, president of the Vermont NEA, said she represented 14,000 public school educators. "I represent those who could be asked to carry a gun to school along with their lunch box and lesson plans," she said. "I'm here today to tell you that this notion is absurd. The answer to making our schools safe from guns is not to arm our teachers. No guns for teachers, no way." Morrisville student Olivia Horton appealed to everyone to lobby legislators to support gun safety laws. "Once you learn who to contact, jam the phone lines and make it a priority to tell Governor Scott that you support all gun safety bills that arrive on his desk," she said. "Be sure to thank your legislators for passing bills that prioritize your safety and well-being." Speaking after the rally, Congressman Welch credited students for taking the initiative to fight for gun law reform. "Kids are leading, and it's time for their parents to follow. This was tremendous, all self-organized, powerful, inspiring," Welch said. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said: "What I saw was an enormous turnout on an issue that has never gotten this kind of attention in the state of Vermont before. This is a movement that is building." Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson added: "It was an inspiring event today and will hopefully lead to change that will help keep students safe." Event organizer Knoop said of the event: "I think this went really, well and I'm really grateful to everyone who came out today. I think it's incredible that we have this youth out here who support this cause." stephen.mills@timesargus.com           

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