More than 1,500 proponents of increased gun regulation took their demands to the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday.
The advocacy day is an annual event organized by advocacy groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, but Wednesday’s turnout dwarfed that of past years.
Andrea Teichner, who leads the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action, told the crowd less than a dozen people used to show up.
“Two sessions ago, we had roughly 60-70 people, and I stood at the back of that crowd getting my picture taken, and I cried because I couldn’t believe how we’d grown in just two years,” Teichner said.
Many of the adults in the crowd had to miss work to make it on a Wednesday morning, but Atlanta Public School students are on break this week.
“We have a lot of lockdown drills. We’ve been having a lot lately,” said 11-year-old Livia Bolster. “We have bomb drills in case of that, too.”
Students have taken on a leading role in this round of outrage following last week’s school shooting in Florida. That’s true in Georgia as well.
“I’m part of a generation that grew up around school shootings,” University of Georgia student Mallory Harris told the crowd at Liberty Plaza over a bullhorn.
She told demonstrators there should be better data collection on firearms, and she talked about close links between guns and suicide, and domestic violence.
Another speaker, Julvonnia McDowell, told the crowd about losing her 14-year-old son two years ago when a 13-year-old shot him with an unsecured gun.
“As I look at the crowd, I see so many survivors,” said McDowell, who talked about the anguish of empathizing with family members grieving the Florida shooting.
“We all deserve to live in a country where children and their parents do not have to fear going to school or being in their communities,” McDowell said.
In the crowd were many gun owners, whom rally organizers vocally embraced as allies.
“Guns are a huge part of my heritage. I’ve got guns that are hundreds of years old,” said Bona Allen, who added his family made leather goods for Western shows in the 1800s. He believes access to guns should be limited and background checks improved.
“I was an NRA member for years,” Allen said. “I let my membership expire because I disagreed with the legislation they were pushing.”
He’d said was a lifelong Republican until the last election.
Jeanne Menna of Kennesaw voted for President Donald Trump and still supports him, despite what she said was her growing discomfort with the National Rifle Association.
“I believe those who are elected are going to have to hear from people like me, from conservative moms who vote a straight party ticket. We are ready for a change,” said Menna, who grew up hunting and believes guns are useful for self-defense.
Menna says she’s not comfortable with every gun-control platform. She’s not sure how she feels about demonizing campus carry, for instance, a law with little support in the crowd Wednesday.
A day earlier, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia echoed Trump’s focus on mental health problems as a contributor to violence.
“Enforce the laws that you’ve got. That’s No. 1. That’s not just with guns. That’s with mental health, too. No. 2: Find out why we have so many people falling through the cracks in terms of the mental health system. That is something we’ve got to do,” Isakson said.
No. 3 was look to other countries for possible solutions. He mentioned Israel had been a model for U.S. airport security. The country has strict gun regulations. Isakson added he believes guards in schools should be armed.
After the rally, the demonstrators took their cause inside the state Capitol to lawmakers.
Organizers reminded the crowd that neither political signage nor weapons were allowed in the Capitol. Earlier this month, a man was arrested after allegedly showing a handgun to a FBI special agent.
Inside the Gold Dome, Stephannie Knapp tried asking Republican state Sen. John Albers about a pending bill to ban bump stocks in Georgia. That’s a device that simulates fully automatic firing on semiautomatic guns. They gained national attention after a mass shooter used them in Las Vegas last fall.”
The Georgia bill predated Trump’s order this week to the Department of Justice to look into banning bump stocks nationally.
Albers told Knapp he hadn’t seen the bill yet, so she asked what he thought about them personally.
“I’ve got to go in a second. I don’t even know what a bump stock is,” Albers, the chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, told her.
“I feel that his answers were somewhat evasive,” said Knapp. However, she said that short interaction had been more than she was expecting.
She says she’s hopeful questions like hers will show lawmakers that people are paying attention.