SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Annika Brown, a junior at Schuylerville High School, was in the process of planning a student rally and march against gun violence when she heard about the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas on May 18.
"As sad as it is," she said, "I was not surprised, because that is the world we're living in."
Brown, described by friends and family as a usually "shy person," had been spurred into political action after 17 people were murdered during the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. She and other members of the "Students Demand Action" chapter at her high school organized a "walk-in" on the grounds of her school on March 14 to commemorate the lives of the students lost to school shootings.
She said she and her fellow students were punished with a 10th-period detention for their efforts. She said she decided to reach out to activist Saratoga Springs student Padraig Bond to form a multi-school "Students Demand Action Rally Against Gun Violence" to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day on Friday.
On Saturday, the students held their rally at Congress Park, which included speeches by students and political leaders and then a march to City Hall. During the march some participants carried posters with the photos of the 17 people killed in Parkland, Florida, the 10 people killed at the Santa Fe, Texas, shooting and eight other poster portraits of students either killed by gunfire at less publicized school shootings in recent years or who had committed suicide using guns.
"Padraig spoke on the Santa Fe shooting today," Brown said. "That wasn't the original plan, because it hadn't happened yet, but it's just really sad that we have to continually have more shootings and more and more events."
Bond and other students led a student walkout at Saratoga Springs High School on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School school mass shooting in which 13 people were murdered. Bond said his school wasn't able to prevent students from walking out, as was the case at some school districts like Schuylerville Central.
"Our movement gained enough support here that the school couldn't really make the decision whether or not we walked out, because we did it anyway, and they had to deal with the ramifications of it," Bond said. "I think they understood, especially here in Saratoga, which is a very progressive area, that this rally, this walkout, needed to happen."
The multi-school rally on Saturday featured students wearing orange as part of the #wearorange campaign to raise gun violence awareness. Bond explained the color choice: "We wear orange because orange is a color that hunters use to warn other hunters not to shoot them, and we, as people who do not want to be shot, utilize this color as a symbol," he said.
Violet Smith, a junior at Schuylerville High School, gave a speech at the rally, explaining the purpose behind the students activism.
"This is not a political party debate. This isn't Republicans versus Democrats, both have taken money from the NRA. This is about who we are going to vote into office in November and in 2020," she said.
Many of the students at the rally Saturday will be too young to vote, but there was a League of Women Voters table set up to register new voters at the event. Bond said they got two new voters registered.
Oxsana Naumkin, a Saratoga County resident who's 12-year-old son, Nicholas Naumkin, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend in 2010, attended the rally. She said a gun storage safety law named Nicholas' Law has passed the New York State Assembly but has been stalled in the state Senate. Some municipalities, such as Saratoga Springs, Albany, New York City, Westchester County, Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester, have enacted the law, which requires guns to be safely stored when not in their owner's immediate possession or control.
"Every time something like this happens, it's like a bullet through my own heart. I feel for those families, I am devastated by the loss of those children. I know exactly what those families are going through," Naumkin said of the victims of school shootings.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, attended the rally. Tonko said he has hope that the students in high school today will prove to be "the most forceful political generation in our history." He said there has no been no action on gun legislation in Congress after the recent school shootings despite growing support for it throughout the country.
"We heard, even from the White House, that we were going to do something, but then they backed off, for whatever reason, one can surmise the [National Rifle Association] pressure," Tonko said. "I believe that this newest political generation has eclipsed previous generations, and that they will take on a score of issues, very much driven by intellect and passion."
Saratoga Supervisor Tara Gaston, also a Democrat, attended the rally. She said she does not support taking guns away from people, but she believes that guns should be registered and that liability insurance should be required of its owner.
"I grew up in Alabama. I was handling a weapon before I was in school. I'm comfortable with them, and I understand that there are responsible and safe gun owners, but not every individual who thinks they are responsible and safe are doing everything that they can," she said.
Bond said he and his group, Students Against Violence in Schools, will be holding another rally on June 14 in Congress Park.