'Never again!': US students stage walkout against gun violence


Washington (AFP)

Students across the United States walked out of classes on Wednesday in a nationwide call for action against gun violence following the shooting rampage last month at a Florida high school.

Hundreds of students from Washington area schools gathered outside the White House chanting "Never again!" and "Enough is enough!" and holding signs reading "Protect People Not Guns."

At 10:00 am (1400 GMT), students in numerous US cities held a moment of silence to honor the 14 students and three adult staff killed on Valentine's Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

At a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, students marched to the football field and assembled in a heart formation to pay tribute to the victims.

The "National School Walkout" was intended to last for 17 minutes, one for each victim.

But it quickly became apparent that many students around the country decided not to go to classes at all and to demonstrate instead.

Brenna Levitan, a 17-year-old who goes to high school in Silver Spring, Maryland, attended the White House protest with her mother.

"We want to show Congress and politicians we are not standing by, we are not silent anymore," Levitan said. "Parkland is going to be the last school shooting."

"We need to get rid of the guns," said Levitan's mother, Danielle.

"Adding more guns, like arming teachers, doesn't make me feel safer for my kids," Danielle Levitan said of President Donald Trump's proposal to train and arm teachers.

- 30,000 gun-related deaths annually -

The nationwide protest is being held one month to the day after Nikolas Cruz, a troubled 19-year-old former student at Stoneman Douglas, unleashed a hail of gunfire on his one-time classmates.

The United States has more than 30,000 gun-related deaths annually and following the shooting Stoneman Douglas students have launched one of the most concerted movements for gun control seen in years.

Organizers of Wednesday's walkout come from the same group behind the Women's March, which saw millions of demonstrators take to the streets across the country in January 2017 to protest Trump's inauguration.

According to organizers, students from more than 3,000 schools nationwide have signed up to take part in the protest.

Trump had momentarily signaled support for curbing access to guns, notably by raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, but now stands accused of bowing to the powerful US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said the chamber would pass school safety legislation on Wednesday.

"We believe that the best focus can be on stopping people who should not get guns from getting any kind of gun, period," Ryan said.

Gun control advocates are urging further measures, however, including expanding background checks for gun purchases and curbing sales of assault-style rifles.

Cruz, the Parkland shooter, used a semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle, a type now being targeted by activists, who are also against high-capacity magazines.

"Students and staff have the right to teach and learn in an environment free from the worry of being gunned down in their classrooms or on their way home from school," protest organizers wrote on their website.

"Congress must take meaningful action to keep us safe and pass federal gun reform legislation," they said.

The #Enough movement has also voiced opposition to arming school staff members as a means of defense against future shootings.

Florida prosecutors have announced plans to seek the death penalty against Cruz, who is due to appear in court on Wednesday to be formally charged.

His lawyers have indicated he would accept to plead guilty in exchange for guarantees that he would not face capital punishment.