WASHINGTON – After traveling 2,000 miles from Aztec, N.M., to Washington, D.C., and wading through thousands of people to reach the perimeter of the national March For Our Lives rally on Saturday, Laurel Paschall leaned against her mother’s shoulder, looked out on the massive crowd and quietly wept.
Three-and-a-half months earlier, on the morning of Dec. 7, the Aztec High School junior was attending class in her small northwestern New Mexico town when a former student entered the school and opened fire, killing students Casey Marquez and Francisco Fernandez. The gunman then killed himself.
On Saturday, Paschall and three other Aztec High School students joined others from Manzano, La Cueva and Santa Fe high schools in New Mexico – as well as tens of thousands of students from around the nation – for an energetic and emotional march on the nation’s capital.
“It’s empowering to come see other survivors here and marching for everything they believe in, and fighting for gun reform,” Paschall told the Journal at the march.
Elisabeth Valencia, another Aztec High School student who made the journey to Washington, said she also felt strength in the massive numbers of people who showed up for the march – strength that sometimes feels elusive back at school, where her classmates were murdered late last year. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students were killed by a former student last month, were among the speakers on stage.
“This proves we’re not alone in our experience,” Valencia said. “Sadly, we have a whole community of people here that have been through similar things as us.”
In the months since the tragedy in Aztec, some things have changed, said Aztec High School freshmen Bastian Paschall and Irin Hofmann, who also attended Saturday’s march in Washington. For example, students are now required to wear identification badges and security guards patrol the school. But all four of the Aztec students said they still feel vulnerable.
“Sure, we have to wear our IDs now and there are two security guys, but someone could easily still come on campus and shoot a bunch of kids,” Bastian Paschall said.
“It’s hard to focus on learning now,” Laurel Paschall, who is Bastian’s cousin, added. “It’s hard to not be scared.”
In conservative Aztec, where guns are a deeply ingrained part of the rural culture, not everyone in the community cheered the students’ decision to come to Washington for the march for gun reform. Some of the kids saw derogatory messages on Facebook from fellow students and even parents who criticized their decision to participate in the event. Some teachers also disapproved of their decision to come, the students said.
“Our town is so pro-gun,” Valencia explained. “A lot of people either don’t want to talk about it or don’t really care. But this is important.”
The Washington trip marked all four students’ first time in the nation’s capital, and they made the most of their brief visit. The kids and their chaperones scored a private tour of the White House, a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and a sit-down meeting with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. in his Capitol Hill office on Friday.
Asked what message they would like to send to Congress, which has the power to change national gun policy, the group stressed that they aren’t anti-gun but would support new policies such as making it harder for mentally ill people to obtain the deadly weapons.
“My family is a pro-gun family – we have plenty of them,” Bastian Paschall said, adding that the December shooting caused him to re-evaluate his previously conservative viewpoint on guns. “The incident has made me realize that, sure, people can have fun with them and do useful things (like hunt), but aside from a couple of those things, they are used for attacking other people and that’s not good, especially against innocents.”
Laurel Paschall said she hopes the divided Congress can agree on some type of reform for the sake of America’s children.
“Something obviously needs to change,” she said. “We need to feel safe in school and we need to be safe in school. They have the power and they should put our lives first.”
As he gazed out at thousands of fellow marchers crowding the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and 7th Street NW, Hofmann smiled and shook his head in awe. He said he felt encouraged his voice actually can make a difference in the gun debate.
“I didn’t expect this much (turnout) at all,” Hofmann said, with wide eyes. “This is the most people I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s crazy seeing all of these people – and how many people do care.”