The shape of the Parkland, Florida, shooting’s aftermath is unlike that of any other American massacre. For the first time, the teenage survivors of a school shooting have assumed the mantle of leading the activist response to the tragedy. Their courage in the face of fear and loss has inspired several nationwide actions this week, including student-led walkouts at middle schools and high schools in Virginia, Maryland, Arizona, and Kentucky, among other states.
Yet, in some ways, the response to America’s most recent killing spree is exactly like all the others. Parents of victims beg conservative legislators to do their duty to protect children from military-grade weapons. Those legislators blame mental illness and the lack of metal detectors, armed guards, and personal firearms in schools. Marches and vigils are planned. Gun control legislation is proposed and swiftly shut down. Loved ones are left to grieve and try to make sense of the ghastly American lottery that decided it was their turn to sacrifice a child to the business of guns. The rest of the country moves on to the next massacre with a regularity that begets a shameful, inescapable numbness.
Gun-control advocates trying to interrupt this well-worn cycle have a difficult task ahead of them. Every shooting seems to spur activists to take a new angle on the seemingly intractable problem of a country saturated with killing machines. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords started Americans for Responsible Solutions, a conservative-sounding gun-control PAC, after a man shot her in the head and killed six people at an event in her Arizona district. The June 2016 massacre at the Orlando Pulse nightclub inspired the creation of Gays Against Guns, or GAG, which colors its activism with sexual irreverence, and the Pride Fund, a PAC that describes itself as “America’s only LGBTQ organization solely focused on gun policy reform.”* After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, mothers founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, informed by the successes of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In response to the Parkland shooting, advocates are trying a few tactics that are relatively new to the gun-control debate, if not to progressive activism writ large. Students in Connecticut are trying to plan a National School Walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Teachers have discussed doing their own. High school survivors from Parkland have announced a March for Our Lives to take place in Washington on March 24, with concurrent satellite marches in other locales around the country, along the lines of the Women’s March held the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It has the potential to be the largest national demonstration for gun control the U.S. has ever seen.
Those who’ve watched children slaughtered in their classrooms many times over with no discernible change in gun-control policy or decline in American gun ownership may have reason to doubt that any of these activist measures will accomplish what the others have not. None of the organizations founded after other massacres have shifted the U.S. gun-control conversation in meaningful ways, jolted the general public into a new sense of urgency, or changed the hearts and minds—and, more importantly, the votes—of legislators. Recent polling shows that 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchasers, including 97 percent of gun owners, and more than two-thirds support a nationwide ban on assault rifles. Clearly, public opinion is not enough to sway public officials bankrolled by the National Rifle Association, which opposes any expansion of federal gun regulations, including stronger background checks.
Any gun-control legislation passed by the current federal government will require Republicans to swallow decades’ worth of pride and essentially admit that they’ve been lying about guns all along. There are almost no facts on the GOP’s side when it comes to guns: All available data conflicts with the right-wing narrative that guns are effective tools of civilian self-defense. Republicans know this, and argue for more guns, including guns in schools, anyway. Gun-control advocates will have to give Republican legislators willing to buck the party line—if any exist—feasible cover from organizations like the NRA.
Even if Congress succeeds in passing new legislation, the courts have also historically favored pro-gun arguments. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled D.C.’s handgun ban unconstitutional. Lower courts later struck down the District’s ban on open and concealed carry and, just last fall, its requirement that firearm owners present a “good reason” for getting a concealed carry permit. The kinds of sweeping restrictions that would actually make a significant dent in gun deaths might fizzle at the Supreme Court even if they somehow made it out of the legislature.
In other words, the best outcomes gun-control activists can hope for in the foreseeable future are incremental. Florida legislators have agreed to consider instating a three-day waiting period for all rifle purchases and raising the legal age for assault-rifle possession to 21. Such a law might have prevented Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who allegedly murdered his Parkland classmates with an AR-15, from buying his gun, but only temporarily. The same legislative body refused to even discuss a possible ban on assault weapons, while teen survivors of Parkland looked on, even as they approved a resolution calling pornography a public health risk. These are not people prepared to be moved by a rousing address, postcards from progressives, or a march on the National Mall.
Like the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives hopes to make a statement with a massive turnout backed by a loose policy goal—“to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues.” The organizers of the Women’s March have made the bewildering decision to hold their own event, a school walkout, 10 days before the March for Our Lives, possibly diluting the impact of both. (They would have been wise to confer with the teens leading the post-Parkland charge about how the Women’s March organization could best support their common goals.) In some ways, the Women’s March is an example of what marches can and cannot accomplish: The organization’s own anti-gun march from NRA headquarters in Virginia to the Department of Justice, held last summer, had no apparent effect on policy or public discourse. The people marching, and the people paying attention, were all on the same side, and those who weren’t were unlikely to be swayed by protest signs. But the main Women’s March last January emboldened large numbers of brand-new activists to channel political power in their home communities toward progressive ends. The changes they’ve made have been small but significant—supporting local candidacies, organizing town halls with legislators, confronting racism within feminist movements. The march’s full impact will not be felt for years or decades to come.
Likewise, the brilliant Parkland activists may fall short of their immediate goals, but they are shaping a political future that will outlive the NRA’s best-funded apologists. A recent model of presidential voting found that events that occur when a person is 14 to 24 years of age have the biggest effect on her political views. What a person experiences at age 18 has three times the impact on her worldview as what she experiences at age 40. Today’s teenagers, born after the Columbine shooting in 1999, which set off an unending cycle of school shootings in America, have lived their whole lives under the specter of a school massacre. Now, they are witnessing their peers take on elected officials and the country’s most powerful interest group on national television, and watching as the adults in charge sputter falsehoods in response to life-or-death truths. Teens, who also walked out of their schools after Trump’s election and Jeff Sessions’ decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, are now protesting injustice as a matter of course.
The Parkland activists are inspiring, and inspired by, a new generation of leaders who feel confident in their power, and who know how to use social media for effective organizing. That’s partly a credit to Black Lives Matter actions, which prompted students to rise up in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and around the country, and the Women’s March itself, which encouraged young feminists to see themselves as part of a broader, intersectional movement. A teenager’s lack of experience in social-justice organizing is also her strength: She sees possibilities and promise where adults are too tired or cynical to go. An issue as divisive and urgent as guns, which seems to set people on one of two mutually exclusive planes of reality, demands that fresh perspective.
But what is idealism, gumption, and fire against a multibillion-dollar status quo? Parkland leader Emma González and some of her peers will be eligible to vote this fall, and most others will come of age by the 2020 elections. Perhaps by the time they’re ready to run for office, the Republican Party will be ready to relax its stranglehold on gun policy, especially if González’s voter registration push brings waves of new Democrats to the polls come November. As Trump’s election confirmed, people tend to vote with their affiliated party, and Republican voters are extraordinarily unlikely to want gun control enough to vote against their party’s candidate. Young voters, who trend progressive, have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. If they made guns their one big issue and actually showed up at their polling places to prove it, they might have a shot at kicking out enough of the GOP to make meaningful strides against gun violence and scare the party into rethinking its obstinance. In that sense, the gun lobby’s lies are just the first of two major opponents Parkland activists will face in their fight. The second is apathy. If the thousands of students marching in the streets this week are a representative cross-section of their generation, that may not be such an impossible obstacle to overcome.
Correction, Feb. 22, 2018: This post originally misstated when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened. It was in the summer of 2016, not 2017.