Barbara Spencer wept as she walked in front of the Dahlonega crowd, holding in her left hand a picture of Scott Beigel, a teacher killed in the Parkland school shooting, and wiping away her tears with her right.
She wept for her daughter, who 14 years ago killed herself in a Georgia Tech dorm room using a handgun she bought at a pawn shop earlier in the day. Barbara and Thomas Spencer knew their daughter had been struggling with depression but not the depths to which she’d sunk in her suffering.
And after living with the memory for 13 years, the couple jumped into the gun control debate last year. Saturday, March 24, they joined a crowd of several hundred in Dahlonega’s March For Our Lives demonstration on the front steps of the Dahlonega Gold Museum.
The event organized by Indivisible Lumpkin and Marisa Pyle started much like the Gainesville High School walkout on March 14: A somber, tearful retelling of the names of those 17 people killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that launched the March For Our Lives movement and ignited student participation in the gun debate.
Similar rallies were held Saturday in Atlanta and around the nation.
One by one, participants walked a sign showing the pictures, names and ages of those killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, from 37-year-old football coach Aaron Feis to 14-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, a student and soccer player.
Each of the 17 people in Dahlonega laid a pair of shoes on the steps of the museum, the brick soapbox from which speakers and politicians would make their cases to the crowd as the demonstration became more passionate — the case for gun control, the case for anger at the National Rifle Association, the case for voting for gun-control candidates in upcoming elections.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not a name like these names that we just read,” said Pyle, retelling her school days practicing active-shooter drills. “I’m not frozen in time. I got to leave my high school classroom at the end of the day, and that makes me lucky. Nowhere in the world should a teenager wonder if they are going to come home from high school.”
The NRA and the politicians it supports were castigated and booed during the event and described as villains holding back gun control laws that speakers said would help prevent school shootings and gun violence in general.
Speakers included Democratic candidates Stacey Abrams (governor), Sid Chapman (state school superintendent), Josh McCall (Georgia 9th District House), writer and activist John Pavlovitz and several students in North Georgia schools.
Chants of “Not one more,” “Never again” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the NRA has got to go” rippled through the crowd as speakers celebrated the youth getting active in the gun debate and politicians celebrated their D and F ratings from the NRA.
Those speakers also called for new gun control laws, from universal background checks to bans on high-capacity magazines and “assault weapons,” and the repeal of the campus carry law in Georgia.
There was little opposition from anyone around downtown Dahlonega, and no organized opposition beyond the occasional, disapproving roar of truck exhaust intended to drown out whoever happened to be speaking at the time.
Only one point of internal division surfaced in the crowd: Prayer. Dotted among the signs skewering “assault weapons,” President Donald Trump and the NRA were signs proclaiming variations of “Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough.”
The Rev. John Hamilton, an Episcopal priest in Dahlonega recently relocated from New York state, agreed that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, but objected when the crowd turned against prayer itself with a chant, “No more thoughts, no more prayers, we want change.”
“Never stop praying!” Hamilton shouted several times, raising his fist in the air, as the bemused crowd processed his chanting, unsure of whether to join in.
After the rally, Hamilton said he thinks Americans of faith need to do more to stop gun violence and restrict gun ownership in certain cases, actions that extend beyond thoughts and prayers alone. However, he said he’s wary of pushing prayer away from causes like March For Our Lives.
He also said he believes the media has painted with too broad a brush when discussing evangelicals and other Christians, which has entrenched the “idea that the right has a monopoly on faith.”
Prayers, particularly the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” have been criticized by some who support gun control because of public statements by politicians and others after a school or mass shooting that often start out by offering condolences, especially prayers, for shooting victims.
Even so, Saturday’s event was held in North Georgia and — outside of when Hamilton felt the need to change the direction of the crowd — faith and the evocation of God were present through several of the speeches in front of the crowd.
But at the heart of the event, the pillar around which all the speeches wound, was the celebration of youth and of young people becoming active in the gun debate.
“I’m here to tell you, young people, that I believe in superheroes and you are why,” Pavlovitz said. “Thank you for saving the world.”