Braving persistent snow, thousands of Cincinnatians joined marches across the country today advocating for stricter gun laws.
Those marches were organized by young activists and survivors of the Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Fla.
The main March for Our Lives event, organized by Parkland survivors, took place in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of others sprung up in Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles and cities across the country. The local march was organized by the Young Feminists Coalition, a group of high school and college age activists, and United We Stand, a local progressive activism group.
The event started at Cincinnati City Hall with a number of student speakers, politicians and activists who called for stricter gun laws to prevent mass shootings. Afterward, an estimated 5,000 people took to the streets of downtown Cincinnati, making a loop up Eighth Street to Vine Street before marching down Fifth Street back to Plum Street.
Debate has swirled once again around gun control following a steady drumbeat of tragedies across the country, including Parkland and one in Marshall County, Ky. that resulted in two deaths last month. So far this year, there have been 17 school shootings nationally.
Gun control advocates, including march speakers, say tougher gun laws are needed to make it more difficult to commit those shootings.
"We no longer accept insubstantial justification for these crimes," University of Cincinnati junior Ellana Villalon told the crowd. "Religion or mental illness as a reason will no longer vindicate you from changing laws on guns. Is it true that we need better mental health programs in this country? Absolutely. But it is also true that the U.S. government also uses mental illness as a scapegoat justification for crimes committed primarily by white men."
Villalon and other speakers noted that gun violence often impacts low-income and minority communities disproportionately and asked attendees to remember that work to end it must include and credit activists in groups like Black Lives Matter.
Other speakers had intensely personal connections to recent tragedies.
Cincinnati's Ethel Guttenberg remembers the unspeakable pain she felt the Parkland shooting happened. Her 14-year-old granddaughter, Jamie, was shot and killed during that incident.
"Jamie was a really good kid," Guttenberg says. "She loved to dance. She loved to smile and make people laugh. She was just a normal teenager."
Guttenberg says that she wants lawmakers to ban the high-powered weapons like the AR15 that ended Jamie's life with a single shot to the back.
Local elected officials including Mayor John Cranley and Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, who is challenging staunch conservative Rep. Steve Chabot for his 1st District congressional seat, spoke at the event, promising renewed efforts toward that end.
Pureval said that if elected, he would work to enact stricter regulations on bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and high-powered assault rifles.
Much of the ire at the local event was aimed at politicians who have failed to vote for stricter gun laws, including U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.
Portman, a Republican, a vocal proponent of Second Amendment rights, has consistently voted against gun control legislation. That’s earned him an endorsement — and $3.06 million in direct and indirect campaign support since 1990 — from the National Rifle Association.
But gun control has faced stiff opposition in Ohio and other conservative-leaning states, with opponents saying it will infringe on gun owners' rights and won't prevent mass shootings.
Today's march didn't draw much counter-protest — one man on a bicycle tried to engage marchers about the second amendment and the dangers of the government confiscating any guns — but the issue has been a battleground politically.
Republican politicians and Second Amendment groups, including those in Ohio, say tighter gun laws won’t keep those bent on killing from getting firearms, and that the focus should be on mental health, not law-abiding gun owners.
Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, has called proposed legislation that would put a statewide ban on assault weapons in Ohio “an insane idea.”
That legislation, proposed by State Sens. Michael Skindell and Charleta Tavares, both Democrats, would ban automatic and semi-automatic weapons with magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.
“It just doesn’t work and our kids deserve a solution that does work," Irvine said, suggesting those worried about school shootings should focus on mental illness.
But activists say focusing on mental illness alone puts unfair stigma on the mentally ill and doesn’t account for the carnage in Florida and elsewhere.
One of the national event’s organizers is 18-year-old Emma Gonzales, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where former student Nikolas Cruz gunned down her classmates.
Cruz was expelled from Douglas after multiple disciplinary incidents. He was able to obtain the rifle he used in the shootings, and other firearms, even though he had a history of disciplinary issues. In recent years, authorities had been alerted about alarming social media posts he made about shootings and violence. Teachers and counselors have described Cruz as an unpredictable individual who was suffering from depression and other mental illness.
A few days after surviving the shooting, Gonzales began speaking out, demanding new laws to curb gun violence. By the following Sunday, organizers including Gonzales and other survivors, as well as families of the deceased from the Parkland tragedy, had announced the March for Our Lives in Washington.
Speakers at Cincinnati's event today said they hope the effort led by young activists locally and nationally is shifting the conversation around gun control.
"We've seen all these shootings over the years — Sandy Hook, Columbine," Guttenberg says. "And everyone offered prayers — that's lovely — but they did nothing. But now, I see a change, and it's the change I think we needed to see. And it's been spearheaded by teenagers. Wow. I think at first, a lot of people said, 'what can they do?' And they've showed us."