Calls for tighter gun control laws in Minnesota echoed loudly on Wednesday in St. Paul as thousands of students took to the streets, demanding one thing: "Protect Children, Not Guns."

About 1,200 students from Freedom Schools — a summer school program — and a few elected officials marched several blocks to the State Capitol lawn to draw attention to youth killed by gun violence every year in the United States.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, the chief sponsor of a recently stalled gun control legislation bill, said at the march that expanding criminal background checks and confiscating guns from those deemed a public safety threat would save many lives.

"Here at the Capitol, we spend a lot of energy on a lot of things," Pinto said. "We're not good at protecting children, we're good at protecting guns."

Pinto, whose efforts to end gun violence have helped him attract new supporters, urged the youth to keep pressing lawmakers.

"You see that building behind you?" he asked them, referring to the Capitol. "That belongs to you. That's your house and you belong here."

National Day of Social Action

Wednesday's march was one of many demonstrations happening in 87 cities and 28 states across the country for National Day of Social Action, a campaign to advocate for the passage of stricter gun laws that advocates say would put an end to deadly mass shootings at schools — a phenomenon that has led to numerous school walkouts and a rise of student activism.

Unlike previous gun-control demonstrations, the students protesting on Wednesday were in a festive, not somber, mood.

Wearing orange T-shirts, they chanted and danced. They carried signs with messages such as: "We will not be next, end gun violence," and "When I grow up, I want to be still alive."

The march was led by the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota Freedom Schools, a six-week summer and after-school literacy program aimed at helping disadvantaged children in high-poverty areas boost their reading skills while connecting them with resources.

This summer, 1,600 students will complete the free program in 13 Freedom Schools across Minnesota.

Emmanuel Donaby, who has been working with the state's Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools for more than 20 years, said many lawmakers pass bills without studying how they would affect youth. He said staff at Freedom Schools prepare students to become active and civically engaged.

"Too many of our children are being killed by guns," said Donaby. "We need to keep them safe. They're our future."

Rica Rivera, a site coordinator at American Indian Freedom School in Minneapolis, brought 40 students to the march to raise awareness about the effects of gun-related incidents in her community. She mentioned the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre by federal troops that left about 300 American Indians dead and also spoke of more recent cases of Indian women who had been murdered.

"We do suffer from gun violence the most," said Rivera. "But we're left out of the conversation, and we're left out of the media."

Sekinat Fakunle and Destiny Cannon, both 11, said they are fed up with school shooting drills. The two girls, who are in summer school, said they had a drill Wednesday morning at their school. The girls hid under a coat rack and kept their hands behind their neck, they said.

"It's scary," said Cannon, a student at Webster Elementary School. "That's why we're here. We're protesting for people to put their guns down."