Marches in Washington and Utah. Walkouts in California, Iowa, and Maryland. Emotional Twitter rebukes of political leadership that have gone viral. And thousands of chanting young people converging on the Florida statehouse in Tallahassee, demanding changes to the state’s gun laws.
Just as it seemed that public reaction to school shootings had become predictable, and lawmakers’ votes on gun control would stay within the status quo, students’ responses to the latest tragedy in Parkland, Fla., have been anything but.
The upwelling of youth activism across the country galvanized by the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stands in stark contrast to that seen after previous school shootings, advocates and academics say, and holds the potential to become a commanding new force as advocates push for new restrictions on guns and access to guns.
“I think gun violence has really affected me for a long time, starting with Sandy Hook,” said Amarins Laanstra-Corn, 17, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., who co-organized a student walkout that took her and other students to Capitol Hill and the White House on Wednesday. “It could be one of us and we can’t sit quietly. We can’t let this die out.”
Seasoned gun-control advocates are hopeful that students will be successful where adults have not.
“This is a powerful, no-B.S. constituency that is now very angry and very active and very much calling for change and calling for action,” said Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and went on to co-found Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that works to protect children from gun violence. “More than calling for it, they’re demanding it.”
Breaking Through Entrenched Positions?
Parkland students, along with many of the their peers from across the state, went to the Florida legislature on Tuesday and Wednesday to send a direct message after the murder of their classmates and teachers: We want more gun control, and if you don’t pass it, other school shootings will be your responsibility. While Florida was the epicenter, youth activists around the country were also taking a stand.
On Monday, students from multiple schools in Iowa City, Iowa, walked out of their classes to protest gun violence, the Associated Press reported. An estimated 200 students gathered at a location downtown, where the names of the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting were read aloud.
Students from Boca Raton High School in Boca Raton, Fla., walked out of class Tuesday and marched toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to express solidarity, the Miami Herald reported.
Walkouts in the name of demanding more restrictive gun laws were also planned in California and Utah over the course of the week, according to local media reports.
But student activists were quickly learning their work won’t always have an instant payoff or remain free from repercussions. Parkland students looked on in anger and frustration earlier this week as Florida lawmakers declined to debate a gun-control measure. And the Houston Chronicle reported that the superintendent for the Needville district in Texas said he would suspend students if they walked out of class to protest gun laws.
A Post-Columbine, Social Media Generation
Most of today’s high school students were born after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, and many were in late elementary school or middle school when 20 1st graders were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary. They’ve grown up in an era of practicing emergency lockdowns and active shooter drills.
“If you’re constantly being reminded that this is a threat that you have to experience, and simultaneously, you see politicians broadly dance around the topic,” said Tom Maher, a lecturer at Purdue University who studies youth social movements and organizations, “that may be particularly enraging and particularly frustrating.”
And they’ve grown up on social media.
“I think their anger and their outrage, combined with their prowess on social media, that enables them to amplify their own voices,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action. “I think this is the time that all of this came together.”
Student activism is not a new phenomenon, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at the University of Pennsylvania. College and high school students participated en masse in Vietnam war protests and demonstrations during the Civil Rights movement.
“One way of thinking about the Civil Rights movement is as a youth movement,” Zimmerman said. “Let’s remember that the sit-ins, the people being arrested, were not Martin Luther King Jr.’s age. They were college students and sometimes high school students.”
Using everything from Facebook and Twitter to old-school flyers and word of mouth, Laanstra-Corn said she and other organizers of the student walk-out from Montgomery Blair and other nearby high schools in Maryland turned an event she thought would involve just a few hundred students into thousands of students.
“I think social media was very instrumental in creating this protest. It allowed us to reach out to so many different people across so many different platforms. Once it’s on social media, it spreads,” she said.
A big part of what empowers youth activists nowadays is their consumption of visceral images and other content that is unfiltered because it comes from their peers via social media instead of the traditional news media, Maher said.
“Before the [traditional] media had a chance to figure out what was going on, people were Instagramming and Snapchatting things” after the Parkland shootings Maher said. “There’s an unfilteredness to it that reflects the way that they consume a lot of media.”
The tragedy in Parkland comes amid an already ripe time for high-profile political action, said Brad Forenza, an assistant professor of child advocacy and policy at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Students have seen protests over the past year, such as the Women’s March, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and demonstrations to support young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
“I think young people are paying more attention to politics right now in this moment, in a way that they likely didn’t this time in 2015,” said Forenza. “I think that activist climate facilitates this grassroots response to [the Florida school shooting].”
Seventeen-year-old Bihotza James-Lejarcegui agrees. She’s a senior at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa, and participated in a walkout on Tuesday.
“I think this year has been a really big year for being frustrated and actually taking action,” she said. “I think a lot of it is coming out of the #MeToo movement and I think people are on a roll.”
And she and her fellow students don’t plan to stop with the one walkout, said James-Lejarcegui. They intend to participate in upcoming marches and walkouts, to hold meetings with lawmakers, and help register Iowans to vote.
Activists are planning a “March for our Lives” event in Washington on March 24 to call on federal lawmakers to pass new gun-control measures. Laanstra-Corn said she plans to attend.
But groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that lobbies for more restrictions on guns, have already worked for some time to incorporate young people into their advocacy efforts, Maher said.
One of the biggest challenges ahead for this new generation of activists, Mather said, will be remaining nonpartisan and convincing policymakers and the public that their pleas for stricter gun laws transcend traditional Republican or Democratic politics, even though gun violence and its causes is one of the most divisive issues in the nation. Critics of gun control are also pushing back against the students, saying that their voices should not be the final say in policy debates, and that the students are open to manipulation by other political forces.
“It’s their way of trying to remove it from the partisan politics of what’s going on in Washington. One of the challenges that comes with that is, it’s easy to start there. It’s really hard to stay in this framework where you’re arguing for this policy outcome that traditionally has been associated with one party at the expense of another,” Maher said. “The challenge for the adults is that you don’t step all over what the kids are doing. Let the youth lead.”
Laanstra-Corn dismissed critics of students who are saying they were pawns of larger political forces seeking more gun control.
“This is detrimental to our safety. We have every right to share our voices on it,” she said. “Even if we are influenced by media and politicians, I generally feel that we have every right to voice our opinions because it is our safety that is in question.”
Advice, Support, and Caution
Barden, of Sandy Hook Promise, didn’t think it would come to this.
As he watched the story of the Parkland shootings unfold, Barden said he felt “this awful mixture of sorrow, sadness, horror, frustration, anger.” Soon after, he spoke with some Parkland students to offer support and his organization’s help. He said they were “absolutely fired up and absolutely ready to take this on.”
Barden—whose pleas for new restrictions on gun access became ubiquitous in the weeks and months after the Sandy Hook shooting—said he never wanted to contemplate that another school shooting, this time at a high school, would be the tipping point for youth to become involved in fighting for reducing gun violence.
Their impassioned arguments and moral authority, Barden said, will be hard for lawmakers to ignore.
Still, Barden offered a piece of advice that then-Vice President Joe Biden had given him and other parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting when they came to Congress soon after the massacre to lobby for legislation.
Go home, Biden had told them. Look after yourselves and your families first. Don’t burn out.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Grief and Rage Drive Students to Demand Changes to Gun Laws