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Personal experiences drive the gun reform narrative at the Fort Myers March For Our Lives event on Saturday

Protestors took the streets for a 0.3 mile march where they held signs and marched at March For Our Lives in downtown Fort Myers on June 11.
Hayley Lemery
Protestors took the streets for a 0.3 mile march where they held signs and marched at March For Our Lives in downtown Fort Myers on June 11.

On June 11, over 400 people gathered in downtown Fort Myers as part of the nationwide March For Our Lives demonstration for gun reform, stemming from the recent gun violence across the United States, but especially at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

“It’s not lost on me that a few states over, some women, likely my age, with children, same age as mine, were getting their cheek swabbed for DNA tests to match their child's remains,” said Jessica Lindsey of Fort Myers during her speech.

Organizers held this event in front of the old Lee County courthouse where various speakers, some survivors of gun violence, shared their support for gun reform.

“We need to protect our children that are here with us today. We should not fear the very place we go to learn and thrive,” said Ashley Paris during her speech. “Schools should be safe havens, not hunting grounds.”

Paris is currently a forensic studies senior at Florida Gulf Coast University. But she was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when Nikolas Cruz opened fire at the high school in 2018. During the attack, she hid in a closet with roughly 50 other students in her theater class. She hopes events like these will make an impact

"If we're able to open up enough eyes, open up enough hearts, it might lead to some more impact in the future,” said Paris.

The Fort Myers event was one of 356 marches that occurred throughout the U.S. The main march occurred in Washington DC, where 40,000 people marched in the rain, according to a March For Our Lives tweet.

The crowd of over 400 people consisted of teachers, students, survivors, supporters, families, and veterans. Many carried signs.

JC Vega, a veteran from Naples, carried a handwritten sign with "Veteran for Gun Reform." “I served our country to protect us from fear, and this is what we need to continue to do, protect our children from fear, now in our classrooms,” he said.

“I’m out here for my daughter Emma. She’s 10 years old, so we’re just here to show our support and voice. And there’s power in numbers,” said Susie Derheimer of Port Charlotte.

Florida Gulf Coast University president Mike Martin was also in the crowd.

“I’m a father. I’m a grandfather. I’m a five-decade educator. I believe that what’s been happening in our schools has to be dealt with for all of those reasons and others. So, I just came to join in the sending of the message that it’s time for some significant reflection and change. It’s simple as that,” said Martin.

Speakers called for stricter gun laws and regulations, raising the age limit to purchase guns, and more thorough background checks.

A local educator expressed her concerns about how she’s able to protect her students in an active shooter situation when even now they become frightened of unexpected noises and fire drills.

“I love my job. I love being a teacher. I am a biological mom of two boys. They’re 20 and 21. But I have 170 kids every school year that become mine. And nobody tells you when you’re a teacher how you’re supposed to help them when they look scared because there was a sound in the courtyard that wasn’t expected, like another teacher blowing off bottle rockets,” said Corriene Vega, a science teacher at Golden Gate High School.

Dani Hagmann, an activist and mother of three daughters, shared how the fear of gun violence in schools is impacting her family. During an active shooter drill, her 13-year-old daughter was in the bathroom and couldn’t get back into her classroom. She didn’t know it was a drill.

“She left the bathroom and ran back to her classroom just to find herself locked out. She banged on the door crying and begging to be let in and her friends were inside, and she could hear them screaming to please let her in and they were trying to tell the teacher ‘It’s okay she just went to the bathroom please let her in’ and the teacher said ‘I’m not allowed, I can’t,’” said Hagmann.

Carling Witt was at the downtown Fort Myers Zombicon event for that 2015 shooting.

“We can dwell as much as we want on the fact that I was 16 and that it’s sad. But the fact is, is that I wasn’t seven. The fact is, is that I never have to go back to Zombicon because it doesn’t exist anymore. But these kids have to walk into school every day and relive the moment that they watched their friends die,” said Witt.

The March For Our Lives movement was created by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after that shooting took 17 of their peers' lives. Four years later, the group advocated to hold nationwide marches again after 21 lives were lost in Uvalde, Texas.

Dr. Cindy Banyai, a mother, teacher, and activist, spoke at the march and demanded legislative change to prevent gun violence.

“We’re going to thank them for their thoughts and prayers, and we’re going to give them policy and action. So, as we stand here today in solidarity with those who have lost and those who love, we will make the commitment to march, to organize, to vote, for people who will stand up for our kids,” said Dr. Cindy Banyai, a speaker at the event. (Banyai is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Florida District 19.)

After the speeches, the crowd took to the sidewalks for a .3 mile march around the city block. Organizers kept the hour and a half long event organized and peaceful.

“It’s really heartwarming to see people do care, this community cares and we’re willing to act,” said Madison Franz, the organizer for southwest Florida’s March For Our Lives.

“I was very impressed by the amount of people who came out willing to learn. I had a gun owner approach me as soon as we were setting up, he was actually helping me set up, and the first thing that he said was, I want to be here to let people know that I’m a gun owner and I support that reform. So that’s really showing that bridging there, which is really important to me,” said Franz.

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