Nearly 200 Jefferson County-area residents gathered on Fort Atkinson’s Main Street bridge Saturday morning to join the nationwide protest against gun violence.
Spearheaded by Karen Reinhardt, the Fort Atkinson “March for Our Lives” joined “sister marches” in cities big and small being held in a show of unity and support of gun control and in deference to the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day shooting of 17 students and staff at Parkland, Fla.
“As a mother and pediatrician, children’s safety is very important to me in all areas, including gun safety at home and at schools,” said a “March for Our Lives” attendee from Fort Atkinson who requested anonymity. “I think it is very important we advocate for our children’s safety, just like you tell parents to make sure their children are in the right carseats or lock up their medications. All these things are ways we keep our children safe, and guns should be no exception to that.”
As for the Second Amendment, the woman said she does not believe a single amendment — in this case, the right to bear arms — should impinge on everyone’s right to feel safe.
“By advocating for gun safety, we are not saying people can’t have their guns. We just feel they should be better regulated,” the marcher said.
Summoned to action by student survivors of the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hundreds of thousands of teenagers and adults rallied in the nation’s capital and cities across America on Saturday to press for gun control in one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam era.
Chanting “Vote them out!” and bearing signs reading “We Are the Change,” ‘’No More Silence” and “Keep NRA Money Out of Politics,” hundreds of thousands of protesters packed Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House.
Marchers also took to the streets in such cities as Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif. There were several rallies around Wisconsin, including those in Janesville, La Crosse, Stevens Point, Elkhart Lake, Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay and Fort Atkinson.
“Our march Saturday was extremely successful,” Reinhardt said of the local march, which drew nearly 200 participants despite the 35-degree temperature and gusty winds. “We had people from all over, including Illinois and even Newton, Mass.,” she said.
Watching the coverage of other marches around the country, Reinhardt said that she was encouraged by what the young people are doing.
“I think they are the wave of our future,” she said.
Local participants appeared to agree.
“We need to put our children as a top priority,” said Jessica Yiannackopoulos of Lake Mills. “Just like cars are regulated and other common-sense things are regulated, we need to regulate guns which are used to kill things.”
The Fort Atkinson march was organized rapidly by Reinhardt with a Facebook event established to make people aware of it.
The protesters denounced the National Rifle Association and its allies, and called for such measures as a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault-type rifles like the one used by the Florida killer, tighter background checks and school security, and a raising of the age to buy guns.
The event was peaceful, and at no time did participants block traffic for any extended period of time, other than when a few people sought to cross the street simultaneously. Many vehicles honked their horns and waved as they passed, presumably in support of the marchers.
For many of the people lining the Main Street bridge, the main focus of the event was student safety.
Jami Miller of Fort Atkinson has children attending sixth grade through high school in the School District of Fort Atkinson.
“It is the reality of students in this country all over the place,” she said of the threat of violence. “It is horrible that we have to send our children to school fearing that some day somebody might come in with a gun. It is unbelievably emotional to think that something could happen to them at one of the safest places they are supposed to learn at.”
Recalling the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., nearly two decades ago, she questioned whether buzzers on locked doors during the school day are enough.
A Fort Atkinson High School student, Sarah Schepp, stood with Miller during the rally.
“I don’t like that we have to be leaders in this,” Schepp said of teens. “I feel the adults who can vote should take more of a stand. I’m happy to lend a voice because it is happening in my school.”
She said that Fort Atkinson High School has received no threats during her time there. However, there have been several bomb threats at Whitewater High School the past year.
“That’s scary, because it is just one town over,” Schepp said, noting that the possibility of an incident occurring does make her fearful.
“It could happen,” she said.
Another Fort Atkinson marcher, Ruth Hake, said the protest was very personal for her.
On March 14, Parkland students led a nationwide student walkout in which they silently left class for 17 minutes — one minute for each of the 14 students and three staff members slain in the massacre. On the day of that walkout, her three grandchildren in Pewaukee were kept home from school due to a threat.
“My daughter-in-law had to explain to my grandsons why they could not go to school. It is just not right,” she said.
Educators, including retired School District of Fort Atkinson District Administrator Jim Fitzpatrick, were among those on the windy bridge standing in support of gun control. He suggested that the safety of children is critically important.
“In our country, I don’t understand why we can’t come to some consensus about sensible gun laws that protect the Second Amendment, but make it illegal for (using) the bump stocks and assault weapons,” he said. “We just don’t need any more tragedies.”
Fitzpatrick said he is disappointed that there has not been a clearer voice among Wisconsin legislators who want to do something about mass shootings.
“I’m very disturbed that they are framing this like its a school issue, as if Las Vegas didn’t happen,” he said, referring to the Oct. 1, 2017, concert shootings that killed 58 people and injured another 851.
Last week, the state Legislature approved a $100 million security upgrade for schools in response to the Florida shooting.
Fitzpatrick suggested the bill was a red herring and was not getting at the real issue.
“I would like to see some legislators really step up and do the right thing,” he said.
Not all present in downtown Fort Atkinson Saturday morning were supportive of the premise of the “March for Our Lives.”
NRA member Chad Humbach of Fort Atkinson held a sign that read, “Abortions and bad people kill! Not guns!”
He was on the Main Street bridge before any of the other protesters arrived.
“We are freedom’s safest place,” he said. “These people out here have no idea what they are protesting.”
Humbach said taking the guns away is not the answer.
“They really want all guns gone,” he noted. “It is easier to get illegal guns than it is legal guns. Laws are not going to save a life because outlaws don’t obey the law.”
Jerome Holtz of Fort Atkinson was standing in support of respect for human life from conception to the grave, as well as the hunters who carry rifles.
“I think they’re organized, but I think they are here for the wrong reason,” he said of the marchers. “I think they are trying to protect the children in school, but changing or getting rid of the NRA or changing the Second Amendment isn’t the way to do it.
Holz said he believes a big part of the problem is broken families, adding that he feels divorce should be outlawed.
“I think we should support the Second Amendment,” he said. ‘”We already have laws against killing and you can’t have guns at school; now you want to make it no AR-15s at school. That’s another law they want to enact. I don’t see any way that helps solve the problem.”
Holz pointed out that some of the protesters were misinformed in terms of understanding what an AR-15 is.
“AR” comes from the name of the gun’s original manufacturer, ArmaLite Inc. The letters stand for ArmaLite Rifle — and not for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.”
In 1963, he noted, the U.S. military selected Colt to manufacture the automatic rifle that soon became standard issue for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. It was known as the M-16. Colt produced a semiautomatic version of the M-16 that it sold to law enforcement and the public, marketed as the AR-15. For a semi-automatic, the shooter must pull the trigger to fire each shot from a magazine that can hold up to 30 rounds.
Additional gun makers made similar weapons and gave it their own names, but the popularity turned AR-15 into the generic designation.
The AR-15-style guns are used for hunting, target practice and shooting competitions.
Such semiautomatic weapons were banned by law from 1994-2004. Since the ban was lifted, sales of such rifles have increased.
During the past decade, AR-15-style guns were utilized in the deadliest mass shootings, including the Las Vegas concert shootings; Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shootings that claimed 26 lives in November 2017; the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 dead in 2016; the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings that killed 14 people in 2015; and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that took 27 lives in 2012.
Organizers of the marches were hoping the protests will create a tipping point, starting with the midterm congressional elections this fall. To that end, chants of “Vote them out!” rang through the Washington D.C. crowd.
A new poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 69 percent of Americans think gun laws in the U.S. should be tightened. That is up from 61 percent in 2016 and 55 percent in 2013.
Overall, 90 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of gun owners now favor stricter gun laws.
At the same time, the poll found that nearly half of Americans do not expect elected officials to take action.
The NRA went silent on Twitter as the protests unfolded, in contrast to its reaction to the nationwide school walkouts against gun violence March 14, when it tweeted a photo of an assault rifle and the message “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
President Donald Trump was in Florida for the weekend and did not weigh in on Twitter either.
However, the Trump administration on Friday announced a new regulation that would outlaw “bump stocks,” the mechanical device used by the Las Vegas shooter to make his rifles fire like more lethal automatic weapons.
Bump stocks use a semiautomatic rifle’s recoil to allow the stock to slide back and forth with each shot, dramatically accelerating the rate of fire to as much as 800 bullets per minute.
“We applaud the many courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights today,” White House spokesman Zach Parkinson said, pointing to Trump’s efforts to ban bump stocks and his support for school-safety measures and extended background checks for gun purchases.