Next Goal for Student Gun-Control Activists: Win at the Polls
The March for Our Lives may have riveted the nation over the weekend, but the next few months will determine if the nationwide demonstrations translate into action on gun control for the movement’s student leaders.
Students who spearheaded Saturday’s massive march in Washington and hundreds of other events around the country are looking to put their shoulders into the push for stricter gun laws, such as a ban on selling semi-automatic rifles similar to the AR-15 used in several school shootings. That political activism is taking a variety of forms—but likely won’t get the same spotlight Saturday’s events attracted, and could face increasing opposition as the months wear on.
And their work will enter the blocking-and-tackling phase of any successful political groundswell: turning people out to vote and electing lawmakers who will pursue the definitive policy changes they want.
A day after the march, one of the student leaders of the movement, David Hogg, shared how activists and constituents can discuss gun-control measures face-to-face with lawmakers:
Even before the weekend’s protests, catalyzed by the Feb. 14 killing of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., gun-control advocates could already claim a small, but politically significant win in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, approved a measure earlier this month raising the minimum age for purchasing any firearm, among other changes to state law. But that hasn’t satisfied leaders of and participants in March For Our Lives.
Jamiah Harris, 16, a junior at Scotland County Early College in Scotland County, N.C., was one of the hundreds of students who came to Washington for the march through a joint effort by the NAACP Youth & College Division and MTV.
“We face a lot of gun violence in Scotland County,” he said at the event in Washington. “When we do go back we are going to organize. … This march, as many people have said, is not going to change anything. It’s only the start of the chain reaction.”
He said he is starting a local student-led newspaper that will tackle issues of gun violence and safety “to stop this from happening in our community.”
“This is just the beginning,” he said.
Kid Gloves Are Off
However, the student activists—including the Parkland shooting survivors—are far past being treated delicately and with deference by their critics in the political arena.
The National Rifle Association, for example, the organization that’s received the most aggressive criticism from many March for Our Lives leaders, posted a video Saturday featuring rapper Killer Mike and titled “The March for Less Freedom.” (The rapper later said it was “wrong” for the NRA to use the video in opposition to the march.)
In a less-strident statement as the march concluded, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, acknowledged the student-led activism but also said many disagreed with what he termed a call for a “gun ban.”
“While protests are a legitimate way of making a point, in our system of government, making a change requires finding common ground with those who hold opposing views,” Rubio said in a statement.
And on Sunday, former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum argued that instead of pushing for “phony gun laws,” students could learn CPR for when violence strikes schools. Santorum’s remarks were widely criticized, including by one of the leading student activists, Emma González.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did not publicly support or criticize the activists’ aims on the day of the march. The White House issued a statement supporting their exercise of their First Amendment rights, while the day before, DeVos highlighted the first meeting of the federal school safety commission, which she will lead this week.
Attacking the students, even though they’ve become nationally recognized political actors, is "very misguided," said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. Such attacks are "going to serve to further energize the students and student leaders," McGuinn said. "I think it’s only going to further the sympathy for these students and their agenda."
Still, McGuinn said, student activists have to overcome the checkered track record of gun-control activists overall in recent years.
“It’s already one that resonates,” McGuinn said of the activists’ message. “The question is, will it be enough to overcome the inside-D.C. politics and the strength of the NRA?”
What Counts as a Win
Congress could point to passage of the STOP School Violence Act, signed into law by Trump as part of the federal spending bill last week, as a sign that Capitol Hill is taking the issue seriously. (The funding bill also included measures intended to beef up existing background checks for gun purchases.)
And while congressional Democrats may push for new gun restrictions, Capitol Hill Republicans who control Congress won’t be keen to alienate conservative voters who might stay home on Election Day if their GOP representatives signal support for new gun-control measures.
One potential boost for the March for Our Lives movement: upcoming midterm elections where voters might show serious dissatisfaction with Trump and Congress and provide a chance for activists to piggyback on broader political momentum. (A Monday analysis by the Cook Political Report showed 29 Republican House seats rated in the toss-up category “or worse,” meaning that the odds favored Democrats. To win control of the House, Democrats need to take 24 seats from Republicans without losing any seats. The Senate map for the Democrats to win control could be much tougher.)
In addition to congressional elections, there are 36 states holding gubernatorial elections this year. And according to a count by Ballotpedia, which provides information and resources on elections, 6,066 seats in state legislatures are also up for grabs. Republicans control 25 state legislatures, Democrats control 7, and 17 states have split control.
A Gallup poll conducted in early March found that 56 percent of those surveyed favored using school security systems and mental-health measures as the best ways to prevent school shootings, compared to 41 percent who favored new laws on the sale of guns and ammunition as the best method for preventing them.
The website for March for Our Lives includes a section where visitors can register to vote, and sign up to lead voter registration efforts. And March for Our Lives events around the country featured several opportunities for people to do the same.
“If you want gun violence solutions, you have to show up at the polls to get them because Congress is not going to hand [them] to us,” Tiffany Dena Loftin, the national director for the NAACP Youth and College division, said said on Friday the day before the Washington event. “We have to show up at the polls this fall.”
Reactions Beyond Florida
Florida isn’t the only state that has taken action, or is talking about doing so, in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
On Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed into law a $100 million school safety plan. The newly adopted legislation requires the “integration of trauma-informed care training for school staff,” beefed-up school safety plans, more coordination with law enforcement, and mandatory reporting of threats of school violence for certain school staff. The measure doesn’t change the state’s gun laws.
“This bill provides important grant funding that will allow districts to invest in safety measures that will help protect against all threats,” Walker said in a statement.
And earlier this month, Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey released a school safety plan that would restrict access to firearms for those deemed “a danger to themselves or others,” and a new Center for School Safety that would operate a tip line to report threats of school violence, among other proposals. Ducey said the plan would include $2 million in funding for mental-health services, to go with $6 million in estimated federal aid. (Ducey doesn’t identify the source of federal money.)
It remains to be seen if Florida remains the only state run by GOP lawmakers that enacts additional firearms restrictions.
Not all the students’ efforts will focus explicitly on policy and the ballot box.
Sariah Romeluz, a 9th grader at the DREAM charter school in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City who attended the Washington march, said she wanted to use the organizing skills on display Saturday to help address violence in her own neighborhood.
“Gang violence is something that’s really prevalent in East Harlem,” she said, relating how her uncle was shot when she was 10. “I’ve been afraid to go outside in my own community.”
"I don't want my students to go to school in fear." "If we all band together, we can make change." Those were just some of the sentiments captured by Education Week's video team at the March for Our Lives in Washington. Watch their video interviews: