When he was 5, Franko Jira's family fled from their home in Ethiopia, a country "where there's gun violence everywhere," he said. Jira's family eventually came to the United States thinking they'd left that violence behind them.
"Thirteen years later, it's still ever-present," he said.
Jira was among the thousands of people in San Luis Obispo who on Saturday joined millions across the country and around the world in the "March For Our Lives" to protest gun violence and call for stricter gun control in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.
The heavy turnout comes as frustration among gun-control advocates grows over Congressional inaction in the face of an epidemic of shootings in the United States: By Saturday, there were a total of 12,504 gun-related incidents nationwide, according to the Gun Violence Archive. More than 3,100 people have died, 144 of whom were children. Nearly 50 people have died in mass shootings, such as the one that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which sparked Saturday's march and protest, in addition to the national school walkout by students March 14.
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A student-led effort
One of the hallmarks of the March For Our Lives movement is its leadership from students themselves, and San Luis Obispo County youths were no different.
Jira, now a senior at Atascadero High School, was one of several students speaking at the rally preceding the march. He said he turned up Saturday as part of "a new demographic of people that are rising up to make a change in this country."
"It's about the protection of American lives," he said. "This is not a political issue, it's an American issue."
Rozella Apel, a senior at Nipomo High School, shared her own story of how gun violence impacted her life.
"When I was 14 years old, my cousin and uncle were both shot and killed," she said.
Killed, she said, by a semiautomatic weapon legally purchased by someone who had no business owning a weapon. Apel said American culture is "complicit with violence" and called on people to put an end to that violence for good.
That may seem daunting, she said, but she reminded those gathered that slavery was once legal, women were once prohibited from voting, it used to be a crime to identify as LGBTQ, and the public once condoned the forcible internment of Native and Japanese Americans.
San Luis Obispo High School senior Elena Cota said that "in a truly civilized country," America would have dealt with its gun-violence problem after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. She said that Congressional inaction shows that "in their eyes, some of us are expendable."
"Wake up," said Keanu LyDay, senior at Central Coast New Technology High School. "Children are being slaughtered in schoolhouses."
"It is so obvious that weapons of war have no place in a civilized society," said Paso Robles High School senior Mason Seden-Hansen. "We need to wash away the gun lobby. Not just today, not just tomorrow, but every day."
SLO High School senior Oliver Hicks, who also served as event emcee, said he and his fellow students had a three-fold goal for Saturday's event: To stand in solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, to advocate for a better future and to be "ambassadors for a generation of new leaders."
Hicks said he often hears adults tell him, "I can't wait until your generation takes over."
To which, Hicks had a simple response: "Why wait?"
Saturday's event was largely peaceful, but not everybody showed up at the rally and march looking to show solidarity. Some, like Cuesta College student Vincent Tibbles, said they were there to listen.
"I'm very conservative, but I went because I wanted to at least hear what people had to say," he said.
Having done so, Tibbles said there were some ideas he agreed with (better background checks) but others he opposed, such as outlawing weapons such as the AR-15, a firearm frequently used in mass shootings.
"Assault weapons are already banned. You can't have a fully automatic weapon, at least in California," he said.
Still, others chose to register their displeasure with protesters in a more threatening manner. Protest organizer Dawn Crimmins, who was serving as a "peace ambassador" at the rally, said she was holding a sign on a street corner near Mitchell Park, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when a passenger in a passing truck made a threatening gesture, her fingers pointing like a gun.
Crimmins said she later reported the incident to the police.
"It's sick. I thought, what if someone does come down here and shoot up the peace rally," she said.
Outrage into action
Students looking to turn their anger into action Saturday were given the chance by members of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County. League members were on hand to assist with anyone interested in registering to vote — or even pre-registering.
Julie Rodewald, who was overseeing the voter registration effort, said by pre-registering to vote, teens as young as 16 can be automatically registered once they come of age.
"We thought this was a great opportunity to come and get more people to register and pre-register," she said.