More than 320 people congregated in the Longview Civic Circle on a drizzly, cool Saturday afternoon to march in protest of gun violence, joining a massive national upwelling of concern sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. that claimed 17 lives.
The protesters represented a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. Although most of those attending were middle-aged and older, there were also younger adults, kids and a few canine companions as well. They toted signs, many of them staked in the grass ringing the civic circle, deploring violence and pleading, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Another sign read, “No more silence! End gun violence!”
A group of about a half-dozen libertarians set up a table across the street in front of the Longview Public Library, but the event went off without confrontations and ended in a little more than an hour.
Although the march was billed as anti-violence and not anti-gun, there was some talk about banning “assault weapons.”
Some of the marchers said school shootings in recent months make them worried about the safety of their own children and grandchildren.
“I worry about my son every day,” said Rainier resident Kristine Langley, 51, works at the Broadway Learning Center. “I go through lockdown drills at my school. He does at his. Banning assault weapons is an important law to keep kids safe. It’s a hobby for many people, and somebody’s hobby should not be hurting my children.”
Langley brought her 2-year-old grandson and 10-year-old son, the latter of whom was holding a sign saying, “I’m not a target.”
In a speech before the noon march began, Kelso resident Tim Connors tearfully said he “didn’t want to have to bury my granddaughter.”
“I have a granddaughter who is in junior high school, and every day I wonder: Is she going to come home? Are her friends going to come home?” Connors, 53, told the crowd.
Kelso resident Nicole Vazquez, 46, said she lost her son, Edgar, in October after he died from an accidental shooting when his friend allegedly fired at him with what he thought was an empty shotgun (the case has yet to go to trial). Guns should be locked up when people aren’t using them, she said.
“I know people have guns to protect themselves. But if they’re not home, that gun’s not protecting them,” Vazquez said.
Many protesters argued that they weren’t anti-Second Amendment but advocated for stronger gun control laws.
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“I am a gun owner, but we need control on assault weapons,” said 65-year-old Longview resident Barbara Brown. “I believe in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the First Amendment. But we do not need military-style weapons in our society.”
A 50-year-old Ridgefield resident, Eric (he withheld his last name), attended the march with his hunting dogs. He said he wants semi-automatic guns banned despite his love of hunting.
“There’s absolutely no reason to have high-capacity, high-velocity semi-automatic weapons,” he said. “They’re not needed to hunt, for deer hunting or bird hunting or sporting.”
Several high school students attended the protest, including Kelso High School siblings Lizzy and Robin Hardwick. Lizzy, 17, said school shootings are a constant worry on students’ minds, referencing how a recent fire drill brought out fears.
“People in the back of the classroom were like, ‘What if it’s a shooting, if somebody just pulled (the fire alarm)? We’re going to go out here in the grass, and what if somebody starts shooting?’” she said.
There were also opportunities for protesters to register to vote and a “Solutions” board where anyone could add a sticky note with suggestions to end gun violence. Flyers encouraged participants to contact state, local and federal representatives.
Revs. Liz and Dexter Kearny of the Longview Presbyterian Church said they brought 10 to 15 of their congregants to the march.
“When our children are demanding that we stand up and do something, we felt called to respond because of our faith in Jesus Christ,” said Liz Kearney. “Our theology calls us to stand alongside vulnerable populations, and kids are one of the most vulnerable.”
Despite rumblings on social media earlier in the week, few counter-protesters showed up. The marchers received many honks from passing cars; most were friendly.
Across the Civic Circle, the Cowlitz County Libertarian Party set up a card table, with members handing out pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution. A representative of the group, Kelso resident Kel Koontz, said he was there to “support people and the free exercise of their rights.”
Koontz, 39, said although he supported people voicing their opinions, he was skeptical of “anti-gun laws.”
“I understand why people would want to have the government make it harder for some people to get guns,” he said. “To me, it’s a little bit tenuous, because there’s no guarantees that the exercise of any laws are going to be fair or just.”
However, Koontz made clear that he didn’t like “drawing hard lines in the sand” when it came to his views.
The Cowlitz County Republican Party issued a statement earlier in the week supporting local gun owners, but the organization did not plan a counter march.
“We stand by every American and believe that every person has a God given right to protect themselves and their family and In this State and across the Nation there has been an assault on Freedoms protected by our Constitution [sic],” the GOP statement read.
Event organizer Sarah East said she was “blown away” by the crowds, as she had expected only about 75 attendees.
“It’s been so peaceful and respectful, and I’m so grateful for the amount of people that care,” East said.
Kelso protester Angela Allen said the crowds could have been even larger.
“I know there’s a lot of friends that I have that aren’t physically able to come out and have their voices heard, but I know that they vote,” she said. “And I know they feel like I do.”