Most of the high school students who surged into downtown Baton Rouge Saturday to protest gun violence are still too young to vote. But they are old enough to march and push for a future they envision in which children can go to school every day without fearing for their lives.

The marchers were outraged but optimistic, energized at the thought that finally, almost 20 years after the mass shootings in Columbine and six years after Sandy Hook, the time for change has finally arrived.

Finally, they said, young people have mobilized to make their voices heard in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. And they say they plan to continue speaking out until elected officials take serious steps to protect the nation's children by strengthening American gun laws.

Around 500 people participated in the march in Louisiana's capital city, which was one of more than 800 March for Our Lives rallies held around the world on Saturday. Similar rallies in Louisiana were held in New Orleans and Lafayette.

The rallies were organized primarily by high school students in response to the Valentine's Day massacre that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

"It's inspiring to see this gaining so much momentum already," said Rayne Bradford, a senior at Dutchtown High School in Ascension Parish. "We're tired of school shootings and we don't want to be afraid of going to school. … That's why we're here."

Bradford's little sister Lily Bradford, 12, was holding a sign with the words "Am I next?" in big black letters surrounded by handprints in red paint.

One of the organizers of the local march and a junior at Lee High School in Baton Rouge, Charlie Stephens, described the underlying fear students are now bringing with them into their classrooms since the Parkland massacre reminded them that mass shootings can happen anywhere.

"We've been having school lockdown drills every couple days now for every little thing — all these false alarms … because everyone is on edge," Stephens said. "Absolutely, my high school experience has changed because of this."

The marchers gathered in downtown Baton Rouge and proceeded down North 4th Street, walking with clear purpose and chanting loudly along the way: "Enough is enough" followed by "save our children, not out guns" and "no more silence, end gun violence."

They formed a diverse crowd filled with people of all ages. But the youths took the lead as participants agreed this was their moment, and adults followed along behind.

Stopping in front of the state capitol, the group heard from several speakers — including high school and college students, local activists and elected officials — all demanding stricter gun laws from politicians both here in Louisiana and across the country.

In addition to condemning older generations for writing current laws, many marchers spoke about the importance of overcoming the politics associated with gun control. 

Grace Martin, a freshman at Springfield High School in Livingston Parish, called on her parents' generation to look past the political landscape and realize the importance of protecting their children.

"Our parents are supposed to take care of us, keep us safe. Our parents are failing us," she said with clear passion in her voice. "Dear parents: We are the ones acting like adults. While you all argue, we all die — because apparently, I'm a political issue. … A high school student's life is a political issue."

Near the front of the crowd closest to the capitol, Judi Villa of Baton Rouge stood firmly next to her husband holding up a sign she made in memory of her best friend's daughter — one of the 17 people killed in Parkland last month.

"Gina is gone and she’ll never come home from school," Villa said, adding that she had never before attended a political protest. "What can you do? I thought the only thing I could do is come here and share (Gina's) story, show people that this did touch our community too."

State Sen. Regina Barrow, a Democrat representing part of East Baton Rouge Parish, called for common sense gun control, which many marchers said is at the heart of their movement. That could include restrictions on the sale of assault rifles, raising the legal age to buy firearms, or banning items such as silencers and bump stocks.

Participants widely rejected the notion — touted recently by President Donald Trump and others — that arming teachers could help solve the problem, with students saying they would feel significantly less safe if teachers became responsible for defending their classrooms.

Several young marchers said they wanted to further the message presented by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who continue demanding gun reform on a national stage, inspiring other youths to jump on board their movement.

"We march toward a future where gun violence no longer defines our lives," said Isabel Naquin, a senior at Saint Amant High School in Ascension Parish. "To our leaders, I have one question for you: When will you hear our voices?"

Evan Butler, an LSU senior who helped organize the march, said she hopes politicians will listen because "they realize we're the ones who will be here when they're not."

"It is very easy to send thoughts and prayers to a tragedy that's not your own," she said addressing older generations during a speech outside the capitol. "Your children are not safe from the horrors of gun violence. Your children are scared. Your children are us, and we are saying, 'Wake up.' "

Butler and others said that despite the somewhat daunting task of fighting the American gun lobby and its many staunch supporters — who are especially influential in in Louisiana and other conservative leaning states — they're optimistic about their ability to spark change because children leading a political movement are hard to ignore.

Many adults who attended the rally spoke about how proud they are of the young people in their lives choosing to stand up in support of gun reform.

"It's a beautiful thing these children are stepping up to the plate," said Lori Richard of Baton Rouge who attended the march with her son Sam Richard, 15. "The youth movement is amazing and we're here to back them up. … Maybe now there is some hope."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.