People started arriving at Courthouse Square in downtown Sonora just after 4:30 p.m. Sunday, about a half dozen at first, but the number quickly doubled within a few minutes.
By about 5:30 p.m., more than 100 people were gathered in the park for a candlelight vigil focused on victims and survivors of gun violence.
“It’s really awful we live in a society where kids in a learning environment have to fear being subject to violence,” said Summerville High School senior Simon Mills, 18, who was one of the few people his age to attend.
Mills was speaking about the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old former student is accused of gunning down 17 people and injuring 14 others with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
Fourteen of those killed were students, while three were staff members.
Like most students in high school now, Mills was born after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two students shot and killed 12 of their peers, one teacher and injured 24 others before turning the guns on themselves.
Columbine was once among the top 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern United States history, but there have been more people killed in nine other mass shootings since that time.
Three of the five deadliest mass shootings have occured since 2016.
Despite growing up in a post-Columbine reality, Mills said he’s always felt safe at school until four Summerville High students were arrested in 2015 for allegedly plotting to shoot teachers and other students.
“I haven’t had to worry about them,” Mills said of school shootings. “But a couple of years ago, Summerville had a scare and then it became a real fear.”
Mills said he believes it’s good that other people his age are publicly voicing their concerns about gun violence in the U.S. and demanding action, including many who survived the recent school shooting in Florida.
A greater focus on mental health and less stigma around mental illness are things that Mills believes would help solve the problem. He’s also against the sale of accessories that help semi-automatic firearms shoot at a faster rate, such as bump stocks, though he said he’s not opposed to Second Amendment rights.
Many of the people who attended the vigil on Sunday appeared to be over the age of 50.
Mary Anne Schmidt, who organized Sunday’s gathering as a member of Organizing For Action Mother Lode, said her group tried to get the word out about the vigil to more high schoolers in the area, but she heard from one student that the subject matter is “pretty volatile” at the moment among their peers.
The group, which is the local chapter of an organization that grew out of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, was also behind a similar vigil at the park in December that a handful of people attended.
Schmidt said she believes the turnout on Sunday was significantly better because the previous one was on a weekday and more was done to promote the event.
Most of the people at the vigil lined up along Washington Street holding candles and signs with messages like “We deserve better,” “Only you can prevent gun violence,” and “Hugs not slugs.”
Others held signs with more overtly political statements, such as “NRA (National Rifle Association) kills kids,” “Protect our kids, not AR-15s,” and “Vote for gun control and mental health.”
Dean Zaharias, 66, of Sonora, was holding a sign that read “#NeverAgain,” which he explained was meant to be in solidarity with the young people who are speaking out about gun violence.
“There are a lot of gray hairs here, but a lot of kids are mobilizing,” he said. “If there’s going to be change, it’s going to come from them. We have to support them.”
Zaharias said he was standing near the north side of the park along Washington Street since the vigil started at 5 p.m. and believed the number of passing cars that showed support for their demonstration outnumbered those who displayed disapproval by about 10 to one.
One man in a pickup drove by and shouted obscenities, though most honked their horns, waved, or gave a thumbs up.
At least two military veterans attended the event and voiced their displeasure with current laws on guns.
Jay Bell, 88, of Columbia, said he served in the Air Force during the Korean War and believed that the minimum age for purchasing firearms should be raised to 21.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott just announced a plan to the minimum age in Florida from 18 to 21 following the Parkland shooting, in which the 19-year-old suspect legally purchased the weapon he used to carry out the attack.
Michael Mager, of Sonora, said he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1967 and served for about 18 months in Vietnam.
Mager, who was holding a sign that read, “Don’t shoot,” said he recalls while growing up in Columbia how the NRA would provide training for people in hunting and gun safety, though now he believes its main focus has become lobbying against gun regulations on behalf of companies that profit off the sale of firearms.
“Civilians do not need automatic weapons,” he said. “These are not hunting rifles, they’re dangerous toys.”
There were also several mothers at the event who expressed concerns they have about U.S. gun laws.
Corrina Lindblom, of Sonora, has a daughter attending seventh-grade at Sierra Waldorf School in Jamestown and said she wonders if a mass shooting could happen here whenever she hears about one that happened somewhere else.
Lindblom said she believes ways to help reduce the bloodshed include banning assault rifles like the one used in the Parkland shooting, providing more free mental health treatment that’s available to all, and more anti-bullying awareness in schools.
“It’s time to make a change and make schools safe again,” she said.
Kara Bechtle, of Soulsbyville, was standing along Washington Street with her 2-year-old daughter, Allison, who was holding a small sign that said “Time for change.”
Bechtle said she was in high school when Columbine happened and feels the violence has gotten worse. She would like to see the community have an open, civil discussion about the issue.
“Locally, I would just like to see better conversations happening between gun owners and people who are concerned about the current laws,” she said. “We don’t necessarily have to agree at the end of the day, but just listen and respect each other’s thoughts and fears.”
One retired teacher who survived a school shooting was also at the vigil and holding a sign along Washington Street.
Dave Fairfield, 78, of Sonora, said he was a teacher at Alameda High School in 1973 when a male student who was the student body president and captain of the football team locked himself in a classroom and began shooting out the window at students.
Fairfield said four students were hit with birdshot pellets and none were seriously injured, but the incident still affects him and other students.
“I still go back to reunions and former students who were there say this terrible shooting is what they remember most about their high school days,” he said. “It affects people for the rest of their lives.”
As the crowd in the park started to disperse about 6 p.m., the flames of 17 candles in the park’s center circle — each representing a person who was killed in the Parkland school shooting — began to flicker out as well.
The candles were arranged in a circle on the edges of a stone monument that’s etched with the phrase “Victory Over Violence” and bears a quote attributed to the late philosopher George Santayana that reads, “One of the greatest crimes of all — is to stand silent in the face of wrongdoing.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.