Why—and How—Parkland High School Students Can Succeed on Guns Where We Have Failed

I have hope because a group of high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have shown themselves to be fierce, fearless, focused, and smart, and they are galvanizing what has the possibility of evolving into the biggest student movement in decades.

[Photo: A student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School holds a sign near the school. The sign reads
These students are fierce, they are fearless, they are focused, they are smart, they are sophisticated, and they are turning their grief and righteous anger into action. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In 2012, 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school by a 20-year-old shooter who used a Bushmaster XM-15, a kind of semi-automatic rifle. As horrific as it was, Sandy Hook was not the tipping point for national action on reasonable gun regulations. Instead, the very next year, the U.S. Senate voted down a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to reinstate a ban on so-called assault weapons originally signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and then allowed by a Republican-controlled Congress to expire in 2004. Another bill, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) and would have required background checks on all commercial gun sales, also failed in 2013.

Since Sandy Hook, at least 438 people have been shot and 138 people killed in 239 school shootings, according to data compiled by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive and cited in the New York Times. None of these killings tipped the balance of power on guns, which is heavily weighted by the influence the National Rifle Association (NRA) has over the Republican Party and some Democrats. To the contrary, with gleeful support from the GOP-controlled Congress, President Trump took swift action in February 2017 to undo Obama administration restrictions on the sale of guns to people suffering from certain kinds of mental illnesses. And, as New York magazine’s Margaret Hartman notes, House Republicans under Trump have been very busy loosening all kinds of gun regulations.

All the deaths and the lifelong injuries, all the heartbreak and the grief and the mourning, all the vigils and the advocacy and the data, all the visits to Congress by parents with photos of their dead babies, all the pleas of a president (Obama) and the opinion polls notwithstanding, virtually nothing meaningful has been done since Sandy Hook (never mind Columbine) to address school shootings specifically or gun violence more broadly. Instead, with ghoulish regularity, we get blame shifting (“guns don’t kill people, people do”), counterfeit compassion (“thoughts and prayers”), and deflection (“too soon to talk about gun control”). (Pro tip: It’s never time, according to these politicians, to talk about gun control.) Instead, we get increasingly hysterical threats that “liberals” and “the government” want to take away “your guns.” Instead, we get prohibitions on research into gun violence, allowing radicals to keep us ignorant of the costs. Instead, we get the state of Florida rushing to pass laws to ensure people get guns even if they have incomplete background checks. Instead, we get dead children, dead teachers, dead concert-goers, dead people, fractured lives. All because the NRA essentially owns the Republican party.

It’s really easy to become fatalistic about the hope for change on gun violence, just as it was easy to be fatalistic on hope for change on sexual assault and harassment until the deluge that became the #MeToo movement. But when enough people become angry enough, and determined enough, and then use their power—particularly by focusing on elected officials and on laws and policies and regulations—and when that anger and determination are galvanized through a broad swath of the electorate, things can begin to change.

And now I am hopeful they will because after 17 high school students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, were slaughtered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week by a former student with a semi-automatic rifle, grief and anger are driving an incredibly brave and determined group of students to call bullshit on the entire system we’ve created to enable, promote, and condone unfettered access to guns and gun violence.

I have hope because these students are fierce, they are fearless, they are focused, they are smart, they are sophisticated, and they are turning their grief and righteous anger into action. They immediately recognized and swatted away the Russian bots and right-wing trolls that quickly stepped in to try to intimidate them into silence. They used social media to document the shooting and to amplify their voices, which was brilliant if only in hindsight because, as Virginia Heffernan noted in Wired, immediately afterward right-wing fascists tried to claim the shooting was a hoax as they did with Sandy Hook. And the students did this more quickly and with greater sophistication than if they’d had a high-dollar, six-month communication plan tucked in with their active shooter drills.

I have hope because they are not taking no for an answer, despite admonitions by people who really just want them to go away that they should “grieve first,” as though they don’t know what they need. They are determined, despite the condescension of people calling them “baby activists.” They are steadfast despite questions about their emotional maturity from people like the incredibly mature and distinguished Bill O’Reilly, a man fired for sexual assault and who regularly hinted someone should kill Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, who in fact later was killed with a gun in his church lobby. O’Reilly announced Tuesday he will be debating the emotional maturity of the Stoneman Douglas advocates, but apparently not the emotional maturity of a society that allows 18-year-olds to have a cache of automatic weapons.

I have hope because these students reside in Florida, a state that is critically important for both the 2020 presidential elections and the GOP’s control of the Senate. The Parkland students have recognized Republican Gov. Rick Scott for who he is, an A+-rated NRA darling who in 2014 the organization lauded for signing “more pro-gun bills into law—in one term—than any other Governor in Florida history.” Among other actions, Scott has prevented doctors from asking patients about their weapons, opposed stricter background checks, and made concealed carry permits cheaper to obtain, according to the Miami Herald‘s Steve Bousquet. The students also recognize Sen. Marco Rubio for who he is: another A+ lackey of the NRA, who according to an estimate by the New York Times, has taken more than $3.3 million from the NRA through direct donations or in other support to benefit his elections. If these students successfully threaten the political careers of unaccountable Florida lawmakers, I predict they will send massive reverberations throughout the GOP and the country and the NRA house of cards may finally begin to fall.

I have hope because students have great networks and they are using them. Galvanized by the Parkland students, high schools and students—and of course lots of adults—throughout the country are preparing to join the March for Our Lives on March 24. High school students and teachers also are planning a national school walkout on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shootings. (You can follow these hashtags: #NationalSchoolWalkout, #April20th, #April20thWalkout). This week students held a “lie-in” in Washington, D.C. to protest both school shootings and the lack of action taken by our “leaders.”

I have hope because these high school students are coming of age to register and to vote this year (and next year and the year after as rising freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors turn 18). Given how often we bemoan the “disinterest” of young voters, these high school students will, I believe, galvanize young voters throughout the country, on this and other issues. And I hope they do.

If I had the chance to talk to these student leaders, I would say the following:

Do not give up. Powerful people are and will continue to purposefully and persistently try to silence, ignore, and belittle you in order to wear you out. This happened today: As Parkland students made their way to Tallahassee, lawmakers refused to consider an assault weapons ban. The point was clear: It was meant to discourage. Do not give up, even as they try to make you feel small and irrelevant. Your power lies in the threat of voting them out. Your honesty and clarity of purpose frightens them.

Do not be distracted by claims you are “partisan.” Follow the money and the votes wherever they go, and if they largely lead you to the GOP, take them on first and foremost, but hold Democrats accountable as well.

Use your privilege but recognize it. Parkland is a privileged community that has suffered an unspeakable tragedy. But seven children and teens are killed with guns every day in this country; more than 3,100 in 2016. And overall, more than 13,000 people a year are killed by guns. Reasonable gun regulations are a critical part of the solutions for which we need to fight. But there are other factors, too: In some communities, poverty and discrimination contribute profoundly to gun violence, and groups on the ground, often including young people, are already working to combat it. Reach out and work with those communities and groups in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, where gun violence is rampant, children are dying, and political leaders have likewise failed their communities. This video, created by teachers, is for me a beautiful summary of what it takes to make children truly safe at school and otherwise.

Don’t compromise. That is not your job. Your power comes from your own ability to speak truth to power. Push the envelope against what you are told is “possible,” because what is possible is what you make possible through what you demand of our representatives, how you use your vote, how you use your voice, and how you lead others. You are the proverbial tip of the spear. Use that power.

Likewise, don’t get co-opted.

Find time to laugh, rest, and restore. It’s a long journey and you will need many people supporting you. We will all support you.

Run for office.

Never, ever stop calling BS on the obvious bullshit around you.

And finally… I am so deeply sorry. I can’t begin to imagine the grief you, your families, and your community are experiencing. I am truly so very deeply sorry. My love, my condolences, and my thoughts are with you and your community, while my anger is and will continue to be aimed at the craven politicians and people who have failed us all time and again. We must defeat them.