WASHINGTON -- Thousands of people, many holding signs with the names of gun violence victims and messages such as "Ban Assault Weapons Now," joined a rally for gun control in the U.S. capital on Saturday, just days before the Senate begins debating new gun control measures proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Leading the crowd were marchers with "We Are Sandy Hook" signs, paying tribute to victims of the December elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and other city officials marched alongside them. The crowd stretched for at least two blocks along Constitution Avenue.
Participants held signs reading "Gun Control Now" and "What Would Jesus Pack?" among other messages. Other signs were simple and white, with the names of victims of gun violence.
About 100 residents from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 students and six educators, travelled to Washington together, organizers said.
Participant Kara Baekey from nearby Norwalk, Connecticut., said that when she heard about the Newtown shooting, she immediately thought of her two young children. Baekey decided she must take action, and that's why she travelled to Washington for the march.
"I wanted to make sure this never happens at my kids' school or any other school," Baekey said. "It just can't happen again."
Once the crowd arrived at the monument, speakers expressed support for Obama's proposals for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and for universal background checks on gun sales.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the crowd it's not about taking away gun rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, but about gun safety and saving lives. He said he and President Barack Obama would do everything they could to enact gun control policies.
"This is about trying to create a climate in which our children can grow up free of fear," Duncan said. "This march is a starting point; it is not an ending point ... We must act, we must act, we must act."
But in the Senate, some of Obama's fellow Democrats may frustrate his efforts to enact the most sweeping gun control measures in decades. These Democrats from largely rural states with strong gun cultures view Obama's proposals warily and have not committed to supporting them.
"There's a core group of Democratic senators, most but not all from the West, who represent states with a higher-than-average rate of gun ownership but an equally strong desire to feel their kids are safe," said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "They're having hard but good conversations with people back home to identify the middle-ground solutions that respect the Second Amendment but make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on guns."
All eyes are on these dozen or so Democrats, some of whom face re-election in 2014. That includes Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
The Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Wednesday.
At Saturday's rally, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.'s non-voting representative in Congress, said the gun lobby can be stopped, and the crowd chanted back, "Yes, we can."
"We are all culpable if we do nothing now," Norton said
Molly Smith, the artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage, and her partner organized the march. Organizers said that buses of participants travelled from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Others flew in from Seattle, San Francisco and Alaska, they said.
While she's never organized a political march before, Smith said she was compelled to press for a change in gun laws.
"With the drum roll, the consistency of the mass murders and the shock of it, it is always something that is moving and devastating to me. And then, it's as if I move on," Smith said. "And in this moment, I can't move on. I can't move on.
"I think it's because it was children, babies," she said. "I was horrified by it."
-- The Associated Press