With unmistakable urgency and anger in her voice, 12-year-old Claudia Thomas issued a cry for help Saturday morning in front of about 200 people at the City Hall plaza in downtown Columbus.
“I am terrified,” Thomas said. “But there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t vote. … (But) you go out and vote. Vote for the people who care more about my life than their (gun sales) money.”
Thomas, who will be a seventh-grader at Northside Middle School in the fall, was among the speakers at the March For Our Lives rally — one of more than 450 such gatherings nationwide aimed at stopping mass shootings and better regulating guns via background checks and more.
The Columbus Area Moms Demand Action and the Bartholomew County Democratic Women organized the event.
Thomas said she did active shooter drills at age 6 in school long before ever learning multiplication drills. She said she is aware enough of other school shootings to know that, after New Zealand experienced a mass shooting in 2019, its government immediately imposed tight restrictions on semi-automatic weapons. She added that, by her math, the United States is on its 254th mass shooting in the past six months alone.
Just since mid-May in the United States, there have been mass shootings in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; Tulsa Oklahoma; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: and Chattanooga, Tennessee, plus others. The shootings have unfolded at a school, a grocery store, and a city street, among other locations.
The highest death toll was when 19 children and two teachers were gunned down at a Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in a situation in which police have been criticized for their emergency response.
At Saturday’s event, organizers were careful to say that they were not there to criticize any police, and thanked the Columbus Police Department for helping with their event-closing march over a few blocks of the downtown. Others such as Democratic state District 59 representative candidate Ross Thomas were careful to say that they also were not there to stop all gun sales, either.
But, in general, a number of speakers said that, with tighter gun restrictions, better mental health care, and different political leadership, America and its schools and more could become safer for all.
Amid all the talk stood emotional symbols such as the small, elementary-school-sized empty chairs on the edge of the plaza. Each held a picture and name of one of the Uvalde victims. Other empty chairs symbolized victims in Buffalo and Tulsa.
Thomas said he thought it was especially illogical that the United States restricts beer sales more than gun sales.
Sandy Watts, who taught school for more than 35 years, told the crowd that the continued school shootings “break my heart.” She read an emotional essay that has circulated online since the Uvalde shooting. They are words written in the form of a parent grieving the violent death of her elementary school daughter amid a mass shooting.
“Which of her friends did she see die before her?” Watts read.
Many of those attending carried signs with emphatic messages. An elementary school student wore a sign on her back. It read, “Make It Stop.” A woman near the front of the crowd held a sign reading “My Dress Code is Stricter Than Our Gun Laws.”
Cinde Wirth, the Democratic 6th District House of Representatives Congressional candidate, is a former teacher. She spoke with considerable frustration about Congressional inaction through the years amid mass shooting after mass shooting.
“It has to stop,” Wirth said. I’ve had enough. We’ve all had enough.”
Others expressed similar frustration. Decatur County resident Dawn Sherfield, among the event organizers, lost an uncle to gun violence.
Opponents of assault rifles and similar weapons nationwide have said that the civilian public should not have access to such purchases while gun advocates say mental illness is responsible for mass shootings.
Local student Thomas said she read of one of the Texas schoolchildren who took drastic measures to save her own life.
“There shouldn’t be a little girl who had to cover herself in her friend’s blood,” Thomas said, “just to stay alive. But until we have leaders who care more about children than gun lobby blood money, that is reality.”