Hundreds of Duluth students and community members joined millions nationwide Saturday in marching to call for action to prevent gun violence.

The local observance of the national March for Our Lives movement, sparked by a deadly school shooting in Florida last month, started Saturday evening in the shadow of Historic Old Central High School. Students from each of Duluth's high schools and from local universities spoke to cheers from the crowd assembled ahead of the march.

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"We are not targets and we will not sit like pawns while those who have the power to protect us do not take action," University of Minnesota Duluth student Maren Friemann said.

"They say we are too young to know what we are talking about, when we are the ones who walk these halls, the ones who huddle in the corners of America's classrooms and wait out the lockdowns. But they are wrong - we know why we are here. We are here to let everyone know that our schools are not battlefields, our teachers are not soldiers and our children will not be casualties. ... We will not go away until change is made."

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson lauded the students who organized the local march.

"You are not our future leaders, you are not our emerging leaders - you are our leaders today, and you are showing us the way," Larson said. "It is so important that you tell us what we can do to support what you need because we believe in you, we trust you; you are our hope and you are our future."

James Abelsen, a senior at East High School, speaks before Saturday's march. Bob King / News Tribune
James Abelsen, a senior at East High School, speaks before Saturday's march. Bob King / News Tribune

The march went down First Avenue East to First Street and then on to the Civic Center. Along the way, the large crowd chanted.

“We call B.S.”

“No more silence. End gun violence.”

“Protect our kids. Not our guns.”

On the steps of City Hall were 17 pairs of shoes, marking each life lost on Feb. 14 in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. Rubee Bocht, 15, a freshman at Duluth East High School, came out to march because “the amount of shootings in this country are ridiculous.”

“I don’t want to wait until I’m personally impacted by gun violence to start a conversation,” she said. “I hope today opens up the eyes of all of our representatives in Congress and the White House and shows them that we are going to continue to fight until something is done.”

Mike Kenyanya, UMD student body president, speaks on the steps of City Hall. Bob King / News Tribune
Mike Kenyanya, UMD student body president, speaks on the steps of City Hall. Bob King / News Tribune

University of Minnesota Duluth student body president Mike Kenyanya spoke to the crowd at the Civic Center. He said he was embarrassed to admit it, but he almost didn’t attend the march when he was asked to speak.

“In student government we’re supposed to be a nonpartisan organization, and I was worried that this was going to look biased. Then I came to my senses,” he said. “Marching for our lives is not a partisan topic. It’s not progressive, it’s not conservative, it’s not liberal. It’s crazy that we are marching for our lives and the narrative has been teetered that way that I thought I couldn’t do this.”

During his speech, Kenyanya talked about a YouTube video called “Ed - A Petition for Stronger Gun Laws.” In the video a man walks into an office with a gun. He aims, shoots and misses. While he reloads his gun, everyone runs away, and by the time he’s done everyone has escaped. His gun is a musket.

“At the writing of the Second Amendment, a coward in Las Vegas couldn’t kill 58 people and leave another 800 injured,” Kenyanya said. “Guns have changed. It’s time for our gun laws to do the same.”

Melissa Frank fights back tears while telling the story of how her son Benedict was killed with a gun. Bob King / News Tribune
Melissa Frank fights back tears while telling the story of how her son Benedict was killed with a gun. Bob King / News Tribune

Melissa Frank, a UMD graduate student, told the crowd about how her son Ben was killed on Dec. 22 in St. Cloud by his roommate, who was a member of the military and a legal gun owner.

“We thought he was Ben’s friend. Instead, his suicide letter talked about how he didn’t want to be alive anymore because he felt like he couldn’t die in a war as a real man should,” she said through tears. “In the end, he chose to end Ben’s life before taking his own.”

Frank said she wasn’t sure if she could speak Saturday because she was still in the beginning stages of grieving her son, but she did it for him.

“I’m standing here as a reminder that the future can be lost in the blink of an eye. I’m standing here as a legal gun owner to tell you that we haven’t done enough to protect the valuable lives around us. The lives of our children, our friends and our neighbors,” Frank said. “We deserve the opportunity to ask gun owners to be conscientious and to learn about the responsibilities of owning a firearm. … We deserve to ask companies and organizations to put aside their love of profits and stop creating items for sale that make guns even more dangerous, like bump stocks and high-capacity magazines. We deserve to ask for a waiting period and a national background check that works. … Most of all, we need and deserve gun laws that save lives.”

March for Our Lives was created, inspired and led by students across the country who are asking state and federal lawmakers to take action and pass gun control laws so that what happened in Parkland, Fla., never happens again.

This year on Valentine’s Day, 17 students and teachers were killed when a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and multiple magazines that he purchased legally. Since then, students from Stoneman Douglas High School have been vocal about needing stricter gun laws, and students around the nation have rallied behind them.

Grand Rapids, Ely and Grand Marais also hosted March for Our Lives events Saturday. They came in the wake of student walkouts across the state and the nation on March 14, one month after the deadly Parkland shooting.

Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.