Orlando March for Our Lives, March 24, 2018. Photo by Daniel Ceruti.

UCF students organize March For Our Lives Orlando, thousands attend to protest gun laws

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Thousands gathered Saturday to march through the streets of downtown Orlando to rally for stricter gun reform laws.

Never Again UCF, a student-run organization that supports victims of gun violence and calls for gun law reform, organized the March For Our Lives Orlando.

March For Our Lives is a movement created by several students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, after 17 people were killed in a school shooting last month. 

More than 25,000 people came together to rally and march for “common sense” gun laws, such as more thorough background checks for gun purchases, said Emma Trittin, one of Never Again UCF’s social media directors.

The march comes two weeks after Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The act prohibits a person under the age of 21 from purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer and establishes “guardian” programs that allow trained school employees to have guns while on campus, among other things. 

But many people marching on Saturday, such as the organizers of Never Again UCF, believe stricter laws still need to be passed. 

Trevor Wild, a UCF sophomore studying public policy, and four other students started Never Again UCF a few days after the Parkland shooting.

Wild, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumnus, and the small group of students met on the first floor of the John C. Hitt Library on UCF’s main campus to lay the framework for the movement. The organization is not affiliated with the university. 

Since their initial meeting nearly a month ago, the group has grown to 60 people.

“[The shooting] hit very close to home for a lot of students here,” Wild said. “We wanted whatever would happen to be safe and well organized so we could make the biggest impact that we could. We didn’t expect to be organizing an over 17,000-person march.”

UCF SGA Sen. Karen Caudillo championed for “reasonable” gun control laws before the march began.

“This is not normal,” Caudillo, a UCF junior, said. “We can’t allow ourselves to normalize school shootings and gun violence.”

Anna Eskamani, an Orlando resident running for the Florida House of Representatives, spoke passionately to the crowd while calling for action from those in political office.

“We honor those who are no longer here through action,” Eskamani said. “We stand united in finding power through our pain.”

Two Pulse nightclub shooting survivors, Keenan Carter and Neema Bahrami, recalled their experiences with gun violence while the crowd applauded. Both men were at Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando on June 12, 2016, when a gunman killed 49 people. 

Though the majority of the crowd was rallying for gun law reform, a small group of counter-protesters stood alongside the marchers.

Alan Gee, a DeLand resident, is the leader of the Orlando chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that supports gun ownership. Gee said the group came out to exercise their First Amendment right and support the Second Amendment.

He said he felt disgusted when he heard about the Parkland shooting.  

“We don’t want people to die,” Gee said. “We don’t want these mass shootings.”

Never Again UCF Social Media Directors Alexandra Justice and Trittin have been a part of the movement since its inception and helped Wild organize the march.

Justice, a UCF sophomore studying nursing, said something had to be done to spark change. She said the group has been recruiting high school students from the Central Florida area to join their cause.

“People are calling us the generation of mass shootings,” Justice said. 

Trittin, a UCF freshman bio-med major, said including the greater-Orlando community was a must for creating a successful march, especially considering the city’s history with mass shootings.

“We want to incorporate Pulse into this because Orlando knows gun violence all too well,” Trittin said. “I feel like our community can really identify with this situation.”

Protesters took to the streets chanting “Enough is enough” and “No more NRA” after the rally as they marched toward Orlando City Hall in a demonstration of solidarity with those marching around the nation. 

Maria Gallego, a UCF freshman studying pre-nursing, attended the march wearing a burgundy “MSD Strong” shirt. Gallego said she knows this movement can make a difference.

“We need change and we need it now,” Gallego said. “Coming together as a community will start a chain reaction for the change to occur.”

While watching the crowd of people from all walks of life march together, Wild said he felt blown away.

But he said he’s not done. 

“When this march is over, this movement is not over,” Wild said. “We’ve created a team of 60 people on campus at UCF, and we’ve reached out to the community. What we have right now is a really strong group of students and motivated people in the Central Florida area.”

Wild said he will continue to build Never Again UCF’s network and is planning a town hall meeting to continue holding public officials accountable.