WASHINGTON • Chanting "Never again", hundreds of thousands of young Americans and their supporters have answered a call to action from survivors of last month's Florida high school massacre and rallied across the United States to demand tighter gun laws.
In some of the biggest US youth demonstrations in decades, protesters called on lawmakers and President Donald Trump to confront the issue. Voter registration activists fanned out in the crowds, signing up thousands of the nation's newest voters.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis, starting Holy Week services leading to Easter, yesterday urged young people to keep shouting and not allow the older generations to silence their voices or anaesthetise their idealism, but stopped short of mentioning the demonstrations.
At the largest March For Our Lives protest in the US on Saturday, demonstrators jammed Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, where they listened to speeches from survivors of the Feb 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
There were sobs as teenage survivor Emma Gonzalez, 18, read the names of the 17 victims and then stood in silence. Tears ran down her cheeks as she stared out over the crowd for the rest of a speech that lasted six minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took for the gunman to slaughter them.
The massive March For Our Lives rallies aim to break legislative gridlock that has long stymied efforts to increase restrictions on firearms sales in a nation where mass shootings like the one in Parkland have become frighteningly common.
YOUTH POWER TO THE FORE
If you listen real close you can hear the people in power shaking. We're going to make this a voting issue. We will get rid of these public servants that only serve the gun lobby.
DAVID HOGG, a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a Feb 14 attack by a gunman left 17 people dead.
Today, we march. We fight. We roar. We prepare our signs. We raise them high. We know what we want, we know how to get it, and we are not waiting any more.
DELANEY TARR, also a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
HORRIBLE ACT BUT...
As a parent I feel horrible for the kids that were killed. But you don't say, 'Hey there are 200 deaths from drinking and driving and now we take all the cars away from people'.
MR SPENCER ENGLAND, a counter-protester from La Porte, Indiana.
"Politicians: Either represent the people or get out. Stand with us or beware, the voters are coming," Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, told the crowd.
Another survivor, 17-year-old David Hogg, said it was a new day. "We're going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run not as politicians, but as Americans. Because this - this - is not cutting it," he said, pointing at the white-domed Capitol behind the stage.
In New York, a sea of gun-control demonstrators stretched about 20 blocks. In Boston, throngs of people jammed Boston Common.
People also gathered outside city hall in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 58 people at a country music festival last year.
Youthful marchers also filled the streets in cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, San Diego and St Louis.
A protest took place in West Palm Beach, Florida, not far from where Mr Trump is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Gun control and gun rights demonstrators yelled at one another in a scene that briefly turned tense, but then diffused. In a statement on Saturday, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said: "Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the President's."
More than 800 demonstrations were scheduled in the US and overseas, according to coordinators, with events as far afield as London, Mauritius, Stockholm and Sydney.
Organisers of the anti-gun rallies want Congress - many of whose members are up for re-election in November - to ban the sale of assault weapons like the one used in the Florida rampage and to tighten background checks for gun buyers.
On the other side of the debate, gun rights advocates cite constitutional guarantees of the right to bear arms. "All they're doing is asking the government to take their liberty away from them without due process," Mr Brandon Howard, a 42-year-old Trump supporter, said of the protesters in the capital.
Among those marching next to New York's Central Park to call for tighter gun controls was pop star Paul McCartney, who said he had a personal stake in the debate.
"One of my best friends was shot not far from here," he told CNN, referring to Beatles bandmate John Lennon, who was gunned down near the park in 1980.
Former president Barack Obama said on Twitter that he and his wife Michelle were inspired by all the young people who made the marches happen.
"Keep at it. You're leading us forward. Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change," Mr Obama said.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST