February 20, 2018
There were signs, chants and vociferous speakers on a mission outside the U.S. Custom House in Old City, which made Tuesday's protest outside the Old City mainstay which houses U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's local office much like any other Tuesday.
Where this gathering of about 100 people stood apart was the optimism about looming change that those gathered felt on this unseasonably warm afternoon.
They were infuriated and saddened by last week's massacre that saw 17 people die when a gunman targeted Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Still, activists and supporters said they think the reaction – specifically, the Florida youths' fiery responses to politicians' "thoughts and prayers" approach – could represent a tipping point in America's seemingly never-ending gun-control battle.
The event was held to ask Toomey "to uphold his campaign promises to support and promote common sense gun legislation in the U.S. Senate," which was a recurring theme throughout the half-hour program.
Featured speakers were John Fetterman, a western Pennsylvania mayor who ran in the 2016 Democratic primary for Toomey's seat and is currently running for lieutenant governor, along with Bryan Miller of Heeding God's Call to End Gun Violence, Movita Johnson of the Charles Foundation and state Rep. Brian Sims of Philadelphia.
Before the rally started, Miller spoke about his many years involved in the fight to stop gun violence, but said this past week just felt different.
"I thought previously that (the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre) in Newtown (Ct.) would be the one that saw more momentum pushing forward, but this is very different and very encouraging," said Miller, whose younger brother Michael was killed in a Washington, D.C. mass shooting in 1994. "I'm not ashamed to say I love the fact that the kids are doing this without us."
By that, Miller meant the heart-wrenching testimony of students at the school which became America's latest mass-shooting site last week. He said older activists may know how to use social media to their advantage, but the younger generation is living it.
"That's what is moving all this forward," he said. "'Trumpites' will do their best to distract, but I'm inclined to think kids know BS when they see it. This could, if they're successful, go well beyond gun violence. This could be transformative, and I've been waiting years to use that word.
"The guy who works in that office here has been a bum on guns. He's been a bum."
Attendees like Ron Raz and speakers alike tried to tie Toomey, Trump, the National Rifle Association together as enemies in the fight to protect children in their schools, arguing their "more guns" approach is the absolute worst approach.
For his part, Fetterman noted that stronger gun-control measures could find a friendly audience in other parts of the commonwealth.
"Making cars safer doesn't restrict access to cars. Making guns safer doesn't restrict access to guns," said Fetterman, who has the dates of each homicide in his town of Braddock tattooed on his arm. "A common-sense approach is something that all Pennsylvanians could support."
For her part, CeaseFirePA Executive Director Shira Goodwin said that she's "tired and angry" of mass-shooting tragedies but, like Miller, she found a source of hope this past week.
"They're going to lead us in a new direction," she said of the Florida teens. "There is no middle ground any more. Demand the change right now."
Her speech prompted a chant – "the problem is the guns!" – from people keen to see a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, a mission that will be the focus of a March 21 march on Philadelphia.
Told that protesters were chanting "shame" in reference to what Toomey should feel about the Florida shooting, the senator's spokesman, Steve Kelley, noted that Toomey "hasn't received any donations from the NRA since 2010, which is before he joined the Senate."
"Senator Toomey's bipartisan work in support of stronger background checks represent the closest Congress has come to improving gun safety laws in decades," Kelly continued. "This is why serious gun safety groups, like those led by Gabby Giffords, Michael Bloomberg, and Sandy Hook families, have worked with Senator Toomey and appreciate his efforts.
"Claims that Senator Toomey has not worked to make progress on common sense gun safety efforts are not true and have been debunked by independent fact checkers."