The national gun debate has a new, youthful face. This time children are the grown-ups driving the discussion, and they have something to say. We should all listen.
Even as they mourned the deaths of 17 of their schoolmates and faculty, the survivors of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., channeled their grief and rage into activism as leaders of the newly christened NeverAgain movement.
This you know already, because the newest, youngest activists are succeeding where others have failed after previous mass shootings — keeping the Florida massacre in the headlines. It is a sobering commentary on how numb we have become to the frequency of mass shootings in America that wall-to-wall news coverage of them is short-lived. Until the next one comes along.
But not this time.
Calling for stricter gun laws and a ban on assault weapons, the Florida survivors are inspiring young people across the country to call out the adults for not doing more to prevent mass school shootings. They’re all over television and social media, and organizing marches and school walkouts nationwide, including here in Austin. National days of protest are planned for March and April.
These young people deserve our attention, and we applaud them for their courage. The gun violence debate is fraught with personal attacks and diatribes, stereotypes, conspiracy theories and misinformation.
A national poll taken after the Florida shootings found that our country’s polarization on guns is as severe as ever. Fifty percent of Americans support a nationwide ban on assault weapons, and 46 percent oppose one, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday.
Who knows whether we will one day look on the students’ activism as a tipping point for seismic change? For now, there’s no denying their movement is extraordinary and is reverberating across the country.
“They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS,” said Emma Gonzalez, a senior at the Florida school who has become one of the determined faces of the student uprising.
Their resolve and passion are admirable, but these young leaders face monumental challenges. Barely days ago some of them were running down their school’s halls fleeing a killer who stalked them, wielding an AR-15 that fired dozens of rounds in a matter of minutes. Now they have come under attack again, mocked on social media by people who clearly have no sense of decency or humanity.
Conspiracy theorists said the students were paid actors, claims that were easily debunked though they spread far and wide. A Florida legislator’s aide was quickly fired for perpetuating that falsehood, a sign that this movement was gaining legitimacy.
There were more potent signs of growing momentum. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump met with grieving family members and survivors of mass shootings, including the one in Parkland. And at a town hall that night, shooting survivors confronted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and state lawmakers and demanded a ban on assault-style weapons.
Earlier in the week, the president ordered the Justice Department to ban so-called rapid-fire bump stocks, which increase weapons’ firepower. Bump stocks were used in last year’s massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas.
Trump also offered support for a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas for legislation to improve national gun background checks.
“We must move past clichés and tired debates and focus on evidence-based solutions and security measures that actually work,” Trump said.
We hope the president is sincere, but we should note that his principal achievement on guns has been to undo an Obama-era regulation designed to keep firearms away from some people with mental illness. And the tone-deaf remedy he offered after his White House meeting with survivors was to arm specially trained teachers — in other words, to fight guns with more guns.
While the National Rifle Association supports additional regulations on bump stocks, it opposes an outright ban on assault-style weapons, which are typically the firearms of choice in mass shootings, putting them in the center target of the gun debate.
Advocates of a ban say the guns, when paired with high-capacity magazines, are essentially weapons of war intended to inflict widespread lethal damage in moments. Opponents say banning guns based on the actions of a perpetrator who is mentally ill will not prevent attacks and punishes law-abiding gun users.
It’s the shooter, not the gun, goes the common refrain. We agree with the president: We must move past those tired clichés and debates. The gun debate is strewn with them, and they perpetuate a status quo of inaction that gave us Columbine, Newtown, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now Parkland.
“How many children have to get shot?” the anguished father of one of the Florida victims asked Trump.
Yes, Americans have a constitutional right to carry arms. But Americans are fed up too. They want change. Another survey released after the Florida massacre found that Americans back stricter gun laws by a margin of 66 to 31 percent — the highest level of support ever measured by the Quinnipiac University poll.
Still, there is the history of inaction and Congress’ inability or unwillingness to address gun violence.
One of the NeverAgain activists, Jedediah Grady, a high school student from Silver Spring, Md., seemed to perfectly grasp the enormity of the challenge student activists face.
“I understand marching isn’t automatically going to change legislation … but it’s not just about change. Next year I’ll be able to vote.”
By all means, young man. And make it count. In the meantime, keep speaking out. America is listening.