Jackie Hegarty was a second-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School when an intruder armed with an AR-15 entered the building and killed 20 students and six teachers on December 14, 2012.
Now 17, Hegarty spoke in remembrance of her classmates at the yearly National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., an event that was launched 10 years ago in response to the massacre at her school in Newtown, Connecticut.
“I heard and saw things no child, no person should ever have to see,” she told the crowd on Wednesday. “It was impossible to imagine that 26 innocent lives were killed in the same building I was in.
“That day, I survived because the shooter armed with an AR-15 chose the left instead of right in that hallway.”
Hegarty was among several gun reform advocates who spoke during the vigil, including President Joe Biden, the first president to attend the event. Hegarty introduced the president before he took the stage as “a president who does more than send thoughts and prayers,” and praised Biden’s continued push for stricter gun laws in America.
“Guns are now the No. 1 killer of children in America,” Hegarty said in her speech. “And we are asked to be brave while hiding under our desks in our classrooms while too many elected officials lack the courage to pass commonsense laws to save our lives.”
Survivors of gun violence spanning 22 states spoke at the vigil, including Keinon Carter, who was present when a gunman opened fire at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, killing 49 people and injuring more than 50.
Carter shared what it was like living as a survivor of a mass shooting, and stood alongside the direct action group Gays Against Guns, which held a demonstration at the vigil to “hold space in silence for those taken by gun violence, with compassion and love for all those surviving.”
“We’re at constant questions, like why is this happening to us?” Carter told the crowd. “Why do we constantly have to fight to live? Why do we always have to bury the ones we love due to someone’s ignorance?”
Kimberly Rubio also spoke in remembrance of her daughter, Alexandria “Lexie,” who was killed in the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May. Rubio said she “never turns down an opportunity” to share her daughter’s story, and has worked to turn her grief into action for her daughter and other victims of gun violence.
“I urge for Americans watching to join us as we urged the Senate to pass an assault weapons ban,” she said. “When is enough enough? If not my child, whose?”
The vigil is arranged each year by grassroots organization Newtown Action Alliance Foundation, which formed to honor those killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre. The group lobbies at Capitol Hill weekly on Mondays to urge the Senate to pass the assault rifle ban that was passed in the House of Representatives in July, according to the foundation’s website.
Biden has also promised to ban assault rifles during his time in office, and urged voters prior to the midterm elections to vote out politicians who oppose the legislation. The president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke at Wednesday night’s vigil, encouraging guests to continue pressing for gun reform in the United States.
Newsweek has reached out to the National Rifle Association for comment.