Students Have Transformed the American Gun Debate

(Sipa via AP Images)

Emma González speaks at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on March 24.

Every social movement in history has been greeted by "concern trolls," long before that term was invented. You're doing it wrong, activists are inevitably told. You're asking for too much too quickly, or your message should be more specific. You don't understand the issue deeply enough, or you're getting lost in the weeds. You've got the wrong spokespeople. You're being rude. Your tactics are alienating those you're trying to persuade. This is never going to work.

It's possible for the criticism to be perfectly valid; some movements are indeed more skilled than others, and you can certainly do it wrong. But every movement hears these criticisms, including the new gun reform movement that is doing such extraordinary things right now, most visibly the spectacular March For Our Lives that took place on Saturday, led by a group of teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, joined by young people from all over the country.

What have they accomplished? In terms of legislation, not all that much—yet. But they have completely transformed the debate on guns in America. Most importantly, they have shattered a belief that sat heavy across that debate for the last couple of decades—that we couldn't really do anything about the toll of 30,000 or so Americans who are killed by guns every year. The National Rifle Association's grip on the Republican Party and the entire political system is too strong. Even Democrats are too scared of taking them on. No legislation on guns ever sees the light of day in Congress. If we couldn't pass even something like universal background checks, which has the support of over 90 percent of Americans, after 20 elementary school kids were slaughtered in Newtown, it'll never happen, at least not in the near future. Don't even bother.

Even those who wish fervently for saner policies on guns believed those things. I'll admit that much of the time I believed them too, despite the fact that I've written dozens of articles criticizing the NRA, American gun culture, and our insane gun laws.    

But the Parkland kids—perhaps precisely because they're kids—heard all those arguments and said, "Screw that." Or, in Emma González's memorable words, "We call B.S." They were simply unwilling to accept what adults were telling them, so they set about to change it.

And it's working. The argument that change is impossible is getting quieter and quieter. It's not Democrats who are afraid anymore, it's Republicans. It helps that this is happening at a moment when liberals are already riled up by the Trump presidency and turning to activism, organizing, and running for office, but no one could have foreseen this after so many mass shootings produced only a momentary spate of attention to the issue.

There's another basic presumption underlying the gun debate up until now that is changing. It said that while gun advocates may be smaller in number than those who favor more restrictions, the pro-gun side cares more about the issue. They then act, and vote, accordingly. Every member of Congress knows that if they cross the NRA, they'll be deluged with calls, emails, and constituents telling them they'll never vote for them again. For voters who want more restrictions, on the other hand, it's just one issue among many, not the thing they value above all else and not a deal-breaker for their vote.

But we may well look back on this time and say that this was when that ceased to be true. According to Gallup polls, two-thirds of Americans now say that gun laws should be made more strict, the highest number in nearly a quarter-century. Other polls are producing similar results. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that more people have a negative view of the NRA than a positive view, for the first time in nearly two decades. And you only have to look at the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people who went out to protest on Saturday in hundreds of big cities and small towns all over the country to know that there are lots of Americans who feel very strongly that we need gun reform, and are willing to act on that belief. Those crowds in city after city and town after town didn't look passive—and they talked a lot about registering voters and getting rid of those who stand in the way of new gun laws.

Why were these kids able to set off such a change in such a short amount of time? There are multiple reasons. As Dave Cullen noted in Vanity Fair, "Nearly all of the #NeverAgain organizers are active in the drama club, the school newspaper, or its TV station, WMSD-TV, where David Hogg serves as news director and Emma González is active in TV production"—which means they were already comfortable getting up in front of people to speak. A number of them were in an A.P. government class where they had just been learning about how interest groups like the NRA wield power. And unlike the students at earlier shootings like Columbine, they're digital natives who, like every other member of their generation, spend much of their lives on social media. Put it together and you have a group of young people who understood how to work both traditional media and social media, using one to amplify the effects of the other.

Being from a relatively affluent community no doubt helps, too—it probably gave them the confidence to think they could start speaking out and people would pay attention, which not all high school kids would believe. So they were ready, willing, and able to grasp the moment.

This is a reminder that the success or failure of social movements isn't inevitable. They depend on timing, conditions, and the willingness of individual people to step forward—then work hard and plan smart. It's important to note that none of that should denigrate the work that has been done in recent years by gun-safety groups like Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign, Giffords, or the Violence Policy Center. But they've been fighting a battle that at times has seemed impossible.

There will be a temptation in the coming days to say, "Well, those marches were great, but they haven't accomplished much." It's true that we're still a country with 300 million guns that kill around 90 people a day, and it's true that there will be fierce resistance to every change in gun laws. But movements take time. There was a decade between the Montgomery bus boycott and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The shooting in Parkland happened a month and a half ago.

The Parkland students don't seem to have any delusions about what lies before them. This movement, Emma González told reporters on Saturday, "is probably gonna be years, and at this point, I don't know that I mind. Nothing that's worth it is easy." There's no telling what the results will be in the end. But so far? They are most assuredly not doing it wrong.

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