"As I look to the gray sky this morning, I couldn't help but think of the 17 students and teachers whose lives were stolen by gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida," said Claire Wilcox, O'Fallon Township High School senior and march organizer. "I wonder what they would give to feel the cold rain on their faces once more."
Wilcox and other organizers encouraged attendees to turn to their elected officials to impose stricter gun laws to protect school students.
"For too long there have been forces within our society working to turn this into a purely black and white debate. This is not about guns versus no guns. This is not about second amendment rights versus the repeal of those rights. Let's leave that black and white debate and the lack of meaningful progress that it represents, and move towards something more productive," Wilcox said.
The rain and cold temperatures didn't deter the roughly 400 people, mostly O'Fallon residents and others who traveled from other Southern Illinois communities.
Protesters were asked to congregate at 8 a.m. in the parking lot across the street from O'Fallon City Hall, 255 S. Lincoln Ave. The march began at 8:30 a.m.
The march headed east on Third Street to Smiley Street, turned south and passed OTHS, then over to Sixth Street and South Augusta Street. From there, marchers continued north on Augusta Street, circling back to East Third Street. They were led and followed by O'Fallon Police vehicles.
Some said they wanted to join the March For Our Lives group in O'Fallon because they wanted to stay on the metro-east side of the Mississippi River. Thousands marched at 10 a.m. in St. Louis, near Union Station.
"We wanted our Illinois lawmakers to know this is how we feel, take notice that there's support for sensible gun laws," Laurie Henderson, of Trenton, said. She was joined by her 16-year-old son, Owen Henderson, a junior at Wesclin High School.
The demonstrations came just six weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people — 14 of whom were teens — died.
Marchers of all ages carried signs and shouted chants, such as "Books, not bullets"; "No more silence, end the violence" and "What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? Now."
Primary speaker Mary Kay Mace, the mother of a student who died in a school shooting in 2008 at Northern Illinois University, and student organizers addressed attendees following the march in the parking lot off Lincoln Avenue.
"When I heard about the (Parkland) shooting, I was on my way home from Northern Illinois University, where my husband and I had just attended a memorial service marking the 10-year anniversary of the mass shooting there in which our only child, our daughter Ryanne, was murdered along with four of her classmates," Mace said.
"There have been so many school shootings that I couldn't possibly mention them all ... We seem to be on a ghastly unstoppable conveyor belt of tragedy followed thoughts and prayers, followed by inaction, followed by the next tragedy and restarting the whole process," Mace said.
Mace said her daughter's death catapulted her into the gun violence-prevention movement.
"Ryanne was only 19 when she was killed. Her short life had been bookended by gun violence," said Mace, who went on to talk of a school shooting that took place a week after she was born in 1988 in Winnetka, Illinois.
"I became dismayed with just how broken our system is, and being dismayed gave way to fury when I learned how darn near impossible it is to get our elected representatives to actually do something to make us all safer. Keeping us safe is what we hired them to do," Mace said.
O'Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook said he was "pleased with how peaceful and well-organized" the march turned out.
While the organizers' event permit was approved by the City Council earlier this month with four officers being assigned, Van Hook said he opted to increase police presence as a precautionary measure and to address City Council members' and resident concerns.
"I appreciate the fact that they stuck to the plans outlined in the special event permit," Van Hook said.