Will 'March for Our Lives' Win the Stricter Gun Laws Students Demand?
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, students walk daily past a quote painted high on an exterior wall: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
After 17 classmates and staff members died in Feb. 14 mass shooting at the Parkland, Fla., school, some Stoneman Douglas students took that quote to heart. Less than than 24 hours after they were huddled in darkened classroom closets waiting for police to escort them to safety, they planted the seeds of a national movement that takes center stage Saturday at the March for Our Lives, when half a million people are expected to gather in Washington, D.C., to call for more restrictive gun laws.
Student organizers around the country have planned more than 800 coordinating events to coincide with the Washington march, including at least one in every state and on six continents. They estimate the events collectively could draw a million people.
But it remains to be seen if all the enthusiasm, and the coinciding media coverage, will lead to real policy change, especially on the federal level. There’s still a powerful gun lobby, and the youth activists have ambitious policy demands that lawmakers have failed to pass many times before.
“I would say that the immediate mobilization of young people affected by a high school shooting is unusual,” said Kristin Goss, a political science professor at Duke University who has studied the history of the gun control movement. “This did not happen, certainly at the same level, after any kind of high school shooting I can think of.”
Six weeks after the shooting, the students have already met one of their biggest goals: keeping it in the headlines.
“I’ve seen this happen countless times,” Stoneman Douglas student Cameron Kasky told an audience at Harvard University this week. “And what happens is we get two weeks into the news, we get a bundle of thoughts and prayers, everyone sends flowers, and then it’s over. And then people forget. I said what’s different this time? What can we do differently this time?”
Media coverage of the passionate—sometimes angry—calls from student organizers has grown more prevalent than coverage of the shooting itself. And, buoying their hopes for change, an estimated 1 million students poured out of their classrooms in coordinated walkouts on the one-month anniversary of their school’s attack.
Such high levels of interest, and the reach of social media, have made it easier for advocates for more-restrictive gun laws to organize and draw attention to their cause, Goss said.
But groups like the National Rifle Association, and gun owners who oppose new restrictions, have a long, and successful history of organizing, and well-established relationships with state and federal lawmakers, she said.
And, while various polls have showed climbing national support for gun control since the Parkland shooting, it’s not unusual for those numbers to spike after a major shooting event, Goss said.
Conventional wisdom holds that supporters of gun control list it among a wide range of policy priorities they consider when deciding whether to support a political candidate and that gun-rights advocates are more likely to be single-issue voters, opposing anyone who favors new restrictions.
The Parkland students, and the groups who’ve partnered with them to organize the marches, acknowledge this.
That’s why they’ve invited groups to hold voter-registration drives alongside the marches, an effort to mobilize engaged teens for as early as the 2018 midterms.
“We’ve been silent for too long as a nation,” Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg said at Harvard. “We’ve allowed these things to continue for too long, and ... what’s important is that we make sure that we speak up to these congressman, to local and state legislators and let them know that this is what their constituents want. If you choose not to vote on the side of students’ lives ... that’s OK because we’ll vote you out. It’s as simple as that.”
There are some indicators that teenagers may have slightly different views on gun issues than older generations.
A nationally representative Survey Monkey poll conducted in early March found that “to prevent future deaths from mass shootings,” adults would prioritize federal action on mental health over gun control, at 57 percent compared to 41 percent, respectively. But that same poll shows teens are more evenly split: 49 percent favor prioritizing gun control and 48 percent favor mental health efforts.
And, while 58 percent of teens surveyed said the student marches “will lead to meaningful changes in our society,” fewer adults—47 percent—agreed with that statement.
Fear of Shootings
Teens may feel more urgency to organize around gun violence issues because of their experiences growing up.
While school shootings are still statistically rare and the number of violent deaths in schools hasn’t increased significantly in the past decade, students spend an outsized amount of time preparing for an unlikely attack.
The most recent federal data show that 95 percent of public schools conducted active-shooter drills in 2015-16, a figure that has climbed consistently since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which happened before the Parkland students were born.
And that awareness of gun violence coincides with higher levels of fear among young people.
In the Survey Monkey poll, 42 percent of adult respondents said they are not at all worried about being the victim of a mass shooting, compared to just 19 percent of teens.
In an effort to influence older adults, some student organizers have created contracts for teens to sign with their parents, committing to making gun issues a priority in voting.
It remains to be seen—or to be academically studied—how teen attitudes about gun violence will shape parents’ decisions, Goss said.
But school shootings can make the issue seem more immediate and personal for some parents, she said. She recalled being a teenager at a high school near Columbine when that shooting happened. Afterward, her pro-gun father voted to strengthen background checks in Colorado.
“I think that in those Columbine kids, he could see his own kids,” Goss said.
The March for Our Lives organizers have sought to expand the focus on gun violence beyond shootings that take place in schools. They’ve met with youth organizers from Chicago who have long been concerned about shootings in their neighborhoods that receive much less attention from the media.
While students around the country have set specific, local goals and focuses for their marches, the march’s national organizers have set ambitious goals that have eluded past anti-gun violence organizers.
Their demands include:
• a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, like the AR-15 rifle used in the Stoneman Douglas shooting;
• a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines; and
• closing loopholes that allow guns to be sold without background checks online and at gun shows.
‘You Need to Act’
There was a similar swell of support for such measures after the 2012 shootings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Congress ended up taking no action.
Stoneman Douglas student Emma González said meeting with other students who’ve been concerned about gun violence for years inspired the Parkland organizers to pursue big changes.
“You can’t settle into that stew of thinking ‘I could never change anything,’” she said at Harvard. “You need to act.”
Their actions come at a time when social media is enabling gun-control advocates to organize at higher levels.
Americans who vote against new gun restrictions have natural gathering places, like shooting ranges, gun shows, and NRA conventions, Goss said. But advocates for such restrictions have long lacked such a place to assemble and find commonalities. Since Sandy Hook, organizers have found that space on social media, she said.
The Parkland students have strategically used the internet to amplify their message, tweeting sarcastic teen-like jabs and jokes at their critics and sharing stories of their classmates’ experiences during the shootings.
Past youth organizers have won smaller victories after they experienced acts of violence.
A group of Virginia Tech students and their families successfully pushed Virginia politicians to address holes in the state’s background check system after a gunman killed 32 people on their campus in 2007.
While the focus is often on federal lawmakers and the president after mass shootings, most changes to gun laws happen at the state level, Goss said.
In that arena, Parkland students and their families have already affected change.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a compromise school safety bill earlier this month that includes provisions that were favored and panned by people on both sides of the gun debate. That includes a program that would allow school staff to volunteer to be armed, an increase in school police, and some of the biggest changes to the state’s gun laws in years.
One provision, already the subject of a lawsuit by the NRA, raised the age for all firearms purchases to 21. After the Parkland shooting, students had questioned how the 19-year-old accused gunman could buy an AR-15 when he was too young to buy a beer.
Another provision in the bill created a “red flag law” that allows courts to restrict access to and sales of firearms to individuals who’ve been deemed a threat to themselves or others.
Florida law enforcement has already started using that law.
The state legislature voted down one of the students’ goals—a ban on assault-style weapons—as Stoneman Douglas students looked on in tears in a vistors gallery above. But many have credited pressure from the youth movement for the smaller gun-policy changes included in the school safety bill.
“When I think about the policy goals, Florida has already done sort of the unthinkable,” Goss said.