A four-day, 50-mile march led by high school students in Wisconsin protesting gun violence concluded Wednesday afternoon in the hometown of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan with the protesters calling on the congressman to support tougher gun laws.
Students chanted and held signs as the 50 Miles More organizers and supporters walked from Wright School in Madison to Traxler Park in Janesville to host a rally for gun reform. About 40 students, chaperoned by adult volunteers, participated. They slept in schools along the route, often camping out in sleeping bags in gyms.
The 50 Miles More organization wants a ban on military-style assault weapons, a national four-day waiting period for gun purchases and a law to raise the minimum legal age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21, according to its website.
The group also is calling for something already being advanced by the Justice Department — a ban of "bump stocks," devices that essentially turn semiautomatic weapons into machine guns.
The students said they drew inspiration from the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 when African Americans were beaten and attacked as they walked 54 miles protesting for civil rights.
Tatiana Washington, a junior at Rufus King International High School in Milwaukee, read an open letter to Ryan, saying the Republican leader's "selfish, careless actions have not only hurt the district you're supposed to represent, but all of us."
She added, "Paul, you must change your actions or else when November comes, you will be voted out."
Tatiana also spoke at Milwaukee's March for Our Lives rally, one of hundreds of nonviolent demonstrations held around the country and world on Saturday in response to the mass shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The 50 Miles More march was intended to build on those protests, as well as nationwide student walkouts at schools on March 14.
"My feet are sore but my hope in the future is strong," said Lauren Davis, a junior at Shorewood High School in Shorewood.
Lauren and her peers at Shorewood and other Wisconsin high schools began organizing 50 Miles More days before participating in the March 14 walkouts.
State Rep. David Bowen, a Milwaukee Democrat, said he saw "students with sore bodies, pushing themselves" when he marched with the protesters. "Young people are not going down on this issue. They will ensure that they organize and they are determined," he said.
After every mile, participants stopped and said the names of teenagers killed by gun violence, including mass shootings at schools and gunfire in urban and rural communities, said Shorewood High freshman Alemitu Caldart, 15.
Each name was followed by a moment of silence, and then chanting. "If you don't listen, Paul, your reign will surely fall!" protesters said as they marched.
"We hope that more people will go to grow this movement," said Alemitu, who at Wednesday's rally recited a poem called "Enough" with Hiwot Shutz and her sister, Selame Caldart.
"We need more than thoughts and prayers when our people are dying," the students said in one verse.
Ryan was in the Czech Republic on Wednesday for an official visit to recognize the centennial anniversary of U.S.-Czech relations. He could not be reached for comment, but Jordan Dunn, Ryan's spokesman, said in an email to The Times: "The congressman respects those making their voices heard. As he has said, violence has no place in our schools. That is why just last week, the House enacted laws that take concrete action to keep children safe without infringing on constitutional rights."
Last week, President Trump signed a $1.3-billion spending bill that includes improvements on background checks for firearm purchases and creates the Stop School Violence Act, which provides grants for school security.
Ryan said on Feb. 27 at a news conference that stronger background checks for potential gun owners is his priority. "We should not be banning guns from law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns," Ryan said.
That comment did nothing to appease those who marched in Ryan's home district.
"We are not fighting to strip people of their 2nd Amendment [rights]. We are fighting for our right to live," said Maria Amendola, a senior at Ryan's alma mater, Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville.
"Our congressman isn't doing enough to protect those who he is serving for," Maria said at the rally, adding that she felt "let down from the empty promises."
Violet Killmurray, a senior at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, said, "I marched this week because I want to be a part of the change that we're going to make."
7:25 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting and comments from student marchers.