This time is different.
After the horrendous shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students are taking over the debate on gun control that politicians in both parties have so horribly botched for decades.
The protests are not confined to the courageous survivors of the Parkland atrocity, as walk-outs, rallies, “die-ins,” and other forms of mass demonstration have broken out at middle and high schools and in communities across the country. Teachers are joining in the widespread dissent, not as instigators but as collaborators in raising a unified message that “enough is enough.”
Parkland student leaders have called for a March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, on March 24 to end gun violence and mass shootings schools. On March 14, Women’s March organizers are urging students, teachers, and their allies to walk out of schools to protest gun violence. On April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, a coalition of teachers and public school advocates, including two national teachers’ unions and the Network for Public Education, is calling for nationwide sit-ins, teach-ins, walkouts, marches, and other actions to show their determination to keep students safe from guns.
This push for meaningful gun control seems more promising than efforts in the past for numerous reasons, including the leadership of the students and teachers and the moral clarity they speak from. Students and teachers are intent on making politicians who ignore their demands pay at the ballot box in November. And although the policy agenda has not fully formed, those engaged in the movement are clear about the results they want – laws enacted to end mass shootings.
Republican lawmakers are falling back on old rhetoric and policies to uphold their entrenched positions on guns. But Democrats should be forewarned the half measures and false solutions they’ve supported in the past aren’t going to pass muster with this new movement.
Why this is different
Of course, the outrage over children being gunned down in schools, parks, and city streets did not start with Parkland. For years, students and families in Black communities have brought attention to gun violence plaguing their public spaces and called for new laws to stem the flow of firearms.
But as Phillip Bump explains, this new mass movement for sensible gun control come from a whole generation who has seen the horrors of school shootings become “an endemic problem” – from Columbine to Sandy Hook and the more than 400 shootings since Sandy Hook.
Also, the expertise today’s students have with social media and online organizing comes at a time when political orthodoxies are more vulnerable to disruption and dissemination of messages is less reliant on broadcast media.
Most important, the students have yanked the dialogue defining the debate about guns out of the passive voice of “thoughts and prayers” and “nothing will change.” Instead, they are directing their anger at the opponents of sensible gun control: political leaders and the National Rifle Association.
Finally, these protests seem well-timed with public opinion. According to a recent survey, a strong majority of Americans say Congress is not doing enough to stop mass shootings. Over half, 58 percent, think stronger gun restrictions would have stopped shootings like the one that occurred in Florida from occurring.
Let students and teachers lead
Students and teachers have both the moral and practical authority to lead the drive for gun control.
First, they’re the ones being shot at.
Students lose their friends in horrendous ways and have their feelings of security shattered. They understand all too well that guns and shootings have helped make America the most dangerous wealthy nation for children in the world, while it doesn’t have to be that way.
Teachers are the ones who have to tell their spouses and families they may have to take a bullet for their students.
Both understand their lives have become more perilous and uncertain because congress has done nothing since the Sandy Hook shooting, and they feel the only people who don’t care are the people making the laws.
From a practical standpoint, students and teachers more clearly see the consequences to schools when lawmakers fail to act on gun control or choose ineffective remedies because of their unwillingness to take on the tough work of legislating real solutions.
Both students and teachers know school security measures are a band aid on the cancer of gun violence in America. The school cops they see every day in their schools do not reassure them they are safe.
Teachers feel the pain of making children as young as four years old go through active shooter drills that traumatize students, add stress to the school environment, and take away from instructional time.
Also, from a movement standpoint, having students and teachers at the head of gun control advocacy is a huge advantage.
As Andre Perry points out, “No one can ignore millions of students out in the streets as they might ignore op-eds and interviews with grieving families. There are an estimated 3.6 million teachers and more than 50 million public school students in the country.”
“Neither the NRA nor their legislative puppets will be able stand up to” 3 million teachers who are the “nurturers and guardians of our youth” calling for sensible gun laws, says university professor and education research expert David Berliner in an interview for Slate.
Real consequences to those in power
“Lawmakers say they are feeling more pressure than ever to act on gun control,” reports The Hill, largely because of the “emotional pleas from students” and the “new type of organic outcry” represented by the students’ movement.
So far, Republicans are staying firmly entrenched in the positions dictated to them by the NRA. In the Florida legislature, they voted on a strict party line against reviving a bill to ban assault rifles while aghast Parkland students looked on from the gallery.
Florida GOP senators also may increase spending on mental health programs for schools, expand law-enforcement power to “involuntarily hold someone considered a danger,” and “deputize a teacher or someone else at school so they are authorized to have a gun.” In other words, anything but meaningful gun control.
Democrats can’t fall back on old ideas either.
After Sandy Hook, Democratic lawmakers generally supported measures to address school shooting by boosting the classroom security industry.
Many states enacted legislation that made it easier for school personnel, guards, and volunteers to carry guns on campus. The Obama administration helped move this effort along by providing incentives for schools to take these actions. These measures helped turn school buildings into harsher, more punitive environments for the students while doing nothing to decrease the incidents of gun violence.
The result was more high-security school environments that intensified stress levels in schools, increased school suspensions, and pushed more students into the school-to-prison pipeline.
While politicians struggle with how to respond to the new phenomenon of mass student actions against gun violence, the walk outs and other demonstrations will likely grow into a mass movement.
Falling back on worn out ideology, bumper-sticker arguments, or self-serving strategizing likely won’t work. This is different.