'Our blood. Your hands': Students demand gun reform at rally near NRA meeting

Lalita Kunamneni's belief in gun reform inspired her to march in downtown Fort Worth two months ago. That same calling sent her to downtown Dallas Saturday when she rallied again among dozens of young people from North Texas and moms against gun violence.

"If we don't come out, then nothing will change," said the 16-year-old junior from Flower Mound Marcus High School in the Lewisville school district. She carried a sign that echoed the message that many had to the NRA: "We demand universal background checks."

Weeks after organizing March For Our Lives in Dallas, student activists led the Rally4Reform at Dallas City Hall Plaza Saturday morning. The event was held in downtown Dallas — near the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center where the National Rifle Association was holding its annual convention.

Students wore orange to show support for gun reform. Many carried signs that said, "Students Demand Action." The rally also drew many mothers who wore red T-shirts that are the trademark the anti-gun violence organization, Moms Demand Action. Some young activist wore buttons or carried signs that stated: "Never again."

Some of the messaging against guns was less subtle, like a sign that read, "Gun reform. Our blood. Your hands."

Speakers explained how gun violence touched their lives and inspired them to become activists. Among the speakers was Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, died Feb. 14 during the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Throughout the event, he painted a mural that depicted gun violence, while also criticizing the NRA and President Donald Trump.

Oliver hammered the mural to depict the sound of bullets and said, "Let's feel like it feels to be in a school hall."

Oliver said he was disappointed that Trump decided to stop at the NRA convention, but has never reached out to his family. He invited the president to visit his family in Parkland and see his son's empty room.

"Then you will feel what we are going through," Oliver said.

The continuing debate about guns

The rally is the latest event to put student activism at the forefront of gun reform. It was organized by StudentsMarch.org in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America and other student groups. Other events Saturday also focused on helping students tap into their activism and community organizing talents.

Events also included a first-ever Student Organizing Summit (S.O.S.) that linked students to experts and leaders in community organizing. Students also participated in a Grassroots Day of Action at the Oak Lawn Methodist Church in Dallas. That event brought activists and survivors of gun violence together join forces against gun violence.

Shortly before noon, a group of gun rights activists showed up with a counter-rally/protest.

"Their only solution appears to take guns away from people who never committed a crime," said Larry Gibson, 51, an Arlington resident who is serving as an NRA instructor at the convention.

The anxiety of being shot at school

Saturday's rally wasn't as big as the crowds the marched on March 24 in Dallas and Fort Worth.

High school students from across North Texas took part in the rally, including young people from Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties. which included gun prevention experts and survivors of gun violence who urged young people to focus on gun reform. It drew young people from Austin and New York City.

Julia Heilrayne and Olivia Hoffman said they came to Dallas from Austin because they wanted to send a message to the NRA and support Dallas student activists. They said students live with the anxiety of being shot in school.

Kunamneni said students experienced that fear shortly after the Parkland shooting, when a student brought a gun to her campus. She said her school is similar to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed.

"If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere," Kunamneni said.

Katie Silverman, 18, a senior from Southlake Carroll High School was among the students participating the rally and related events.

Silverman participated in March For Our Lives Washington, D.C. on her 18th birthday to stand in solidarity with victims of the Feb. 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. Silverman is a former Parkland resident who lost two friends in the shooting. Silverman, a senior at Southlake Carroll Senior High School, attended middle school with Meadow Pollack and Joaquin Oliver, both of whom were shot and killed by the gunman.

Silverman said since campus walkouts and the marches, many students are forming groups and helping register young people to vote.

In recent days, as young people juggled prom, finals, AP exams and college entrance exams, the participation in activism dwindled among some teens, she said. But for the high school senior, this is just the beginning of her activism against gun violence.

"I am definitely spreading my activism at UT Dallas," said Silverman, who graduates in upcoming days.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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