SALT LAKE CITY — Abena Bakenra has made it a habit to scan every classroom she's in for the best hiding place.
It's not something she's proud of, but it is what she's come up with to keep her sanity when mass shootings keep happening in American schools.
"Fear no longer has a place in our schools," the West High School senior told a crowd of thousands gathered at the Utah State Capitol Saturday for the student-led "March for Our Lives."
The movement, calling for stricter gun laws, rose out of support for victims and survivors at the unsuspecting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a lone gunman killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14. Students have spoken out against local and federal politicians saying, #Enough is enough.
A month after the shooting, students at schools across the country, including thousands in Utah, staged a walkout, formally organized by the Women's March Network.
"After the walkout, we march on," read one sign carried by a Utah participant.
Utah's capital city march and rally was just one of nearly 850 demonstrations held simultaneously all over the world. Salt Lake police estimate 8,000 people attended the event, which began at West High School and ended at the state Capitol.
About 1,000 attended a separate but similar event, the "March Before Our Lives" rally, crossing the same route to defend their Second Amendment rights, but also to show that they want change in the form of more secure schools.
"We want to show that gun owners are peace-loving people, too," said local YouTube activist, "NutnfancyProject" creator Richard Hewitt. "We're not extremists. We're Americans."
Hewitt, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, said part of the problem with erratic gunmen, especially in schools, is created by broken or dysfunctional families. He also supports arming teachers.
The students chanted "Books, not bullets," "This is what democracy looks like," "Thoughts and prayers are not enough" and "Never again" as they marched to the Capitol and filled the steps before the rally. Their bright blue "March for Our Lives" T-shirts resonated in the afternoon sun.
Gun rights activists, some of whom carried concealed or openly carried weapons, donned black and some were in camouflage. Many of them carried American flags or Gadsden flags created for the American Revolution, which read, "Don't tread on me." They held their own rally, organized by the Utah Gun Exchange, at the north side of the state Capitol, cheering emphatically for those who chose to speak at the open mic.
"We're all part of the militia," said Kevin Wilson, of Saratoga Springs. He said tragedies, like the most recent one in Parkland, often incite fear in people who then assume they have to do something and "make emotional decisions."
"We all know a gun is the answer to a bad guy with a gun," Wilson said.
"March for Our Lives" participants rallied for background checks on all gun purchases, a wait period between purchase and pickup of a gun, a ban on bump stocks and sales of military-grade assault weapons — not necessarily the handguns and rifles that are owned by the majority of gun owners in Utah and the United States.
"We don't wish to deprive you of your fetishism for your menacing weapons," said Ermiya Fanaeian, a student at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts.
In Park City, community members marched on Main Street. Three students from Parkland, Florida, who are in the area on spring break, attended the march and shared their stories.
"What we went through, no one should ever have gone through," said McKenna Pfahl. She said seeing people march in Utah is "so empowering. It’s amazing."
"They’re one of us, and that could've been them," she said. "I think it’s actually gonna make a difference in this."
The three students agree they have a responsibility to try to make a change. "We’ve lost our classmates," Pfahl said. "We're not going to stop."
More than 500 people of all ages marched to the St. George city offices. Alicia Walker Ferree attended the southern Utah march with her husband and said it felt like a march from the 60s and 70s.
"Everyone was enthusiastic and yelling. … It was extraordinary," she said. "I have eight grandchildren … five of them are now in public schools. And I just can’t imagine what it would be like to have a school shooting happen in one of their schools."
Though her feelings on gun control used to be different, she said all the school shootings within the past few years have caused her views to shift. "I do believe that there should be tighter regulations," she added.
People like Ferree, who are hungry for change, joined the national cause to "demand that their lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools today," according to the "March for Our Lives" website.
Other events were held in Logan and Cedar City. The main march and rally in Washington, D.C. brought out hundreds of thousands of people.
Suzanne Bounous, of Sandy, said the rally at the state Capitol is the first she's ever attended.
"I was scared when my own children were in school and I'll be nervous for my grandchildren that I'll hopefully have when they go to school," she said, adding that it was enough to bring her — an avid hunter and rifle owner — out on Saturday.
"I can't believe the (National Rifle Association) is controlling the safety in this country," Bounous said. She supports more rigorous licensing procedures and education offerings and said her voting will be influenced by those ideas.
In early March, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that increases the minimum age for buying rifles to 21 in that state, institutes waiting periods and background checks for all purchases, bans some potentially violent or mentally unstable people from possessing guns and creates a program to hire additional school police officers and arm some school employees.
The NRA is challenging the constitionality of Florida's new law, saying 18- to 21-year-olds are classified as adults and have rights.
Utah lawmakers were abuzz after the shooting in Florida and scrambled to get something on the table to lull local fears. Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, proposed a bill that would've made it possible for a family or cohabitants of a potentially violent person to get a protective order or get their weapons taken away. He called it an attempt to find "some kind of balance in our society" so that kids and teachers wouldn't have to worry.
The bill was heavily questioned by and opposed by both the NRA and the Utah Shooting Sports Council, and it did not make it out of a committee hearing.
The Utah Legislature did agree to study the issues brought up during the recent session, including increasing the age requirement to purchase assault rifles and confiscation of arms when certain red flags come up, among others. The Utah School Safety Coalition was created, intending to meet between sessions and come up with recommendations to make Utah schools safer.
Funding was made available to employ more counselors in elementary schools throughout the state. And several districts already employ their own security forces at schools.
Orem High School student Levi Rodas said taking guns away "will not stop that kind of violence." He doesn't support changing the Second Amendment just because people are afraid.
"It's amazing how much fear can control a person when they're uneducated," he said. His father, Harry Rodas, was carrying two handguns at the rally Saturday and said, "We have to let people know that our view is not a minority view."
He said banning guns would have the same effects that banning drugs has had.
"It is always the hope that none of us have to use (our weapon)," the elder Rodas said. "It's always a last-ditch effort. No one carries a gun lawfully with the intent of being a murderer."
Today's high schoolers were "just kids" when the mass shooting happened at Columbine High School in Colorado 20 years ago, said Orem High student Natalie Reese. She said they're ready to act — in response to that and all the other shootings that have happened in schools since then.
"If our politicians won't do anything to protect us, we'll do it ourselves," she said. Now, they are old enough to vote.
"Watch out," Natalie said. "We're coming for you. We are what we've been waiting for."
The teens encouraged their peers and the crowd to register to vote and vote to "create a better tomorrow."
"We have begun our fight, and it is our fight," said West High student Elizabeth Love. "There is no greater motivation than the outrage of seeing kids just like us shot and killed in their own classrooms."
"After that, we need you to protect us with your wallets … and, more than anything, we need you to believe in us," she said. "Another generation of students cannot go to school in fear."
Contributing: Ashley Imlay