History shows students’ activism on gun violence can really matter

Just when responses to mass shootings seemed to follow a recurring pattern that went nowhere, last week survivors and victims’ families proclaimed, “Never again.”

Any of us could probably recite the repetitive steps following the increasingly predictable horror of a mass shooting, starting with offerings of “thoughts and prayers” and ending with no legislative action on policies like universal background checks and bans on gun purchases by stalkers and other criminals that are backed by huge percentages of Americans.

For students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who experienced the shock and pain of an attack on their school, the time had come to stop that tiresome sequence.

In tweets to pundits and the president, in television interviews and in op-eds, and in speeches so eloquent it seemed remarkable they came from some so young, these teens made it clear that they were fed up with business as usual and ready to turn their anger to action.

High school senior Emma Gonzalez spoke with humility and strength, saying, “I am not a psychologist, but we need to pay attention to the fact that this was not just a mental health issue. He would not have harmed that many students with a knife.” Gonzalez called for political action, proclaiming, “If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local congresspeople. Give them a piece of your mind.”

Fifteen-year-old freshman Christine Yared hid in a closet during the shooting. Reading messages on their phones, those crammed in with her “found out the shooter was in the freshman building, 50 feet away from our classroom. I was busy shaking in the corner of my little bunker, trying to calm my panic, while rumors about the shooter and the victims arrived by text and Snapchat.” Her friend Gina, whom she laughed with earlier that day in their art class, was killed.

Yared could have turned inward but instead called for political change, writing, “We need to vote for those who are for stricter laws and kick out those who won’t take action.”

Students take part in a “lie-in” on the road outside of the White House on Monday. Olivier Douliery | Abaca Press | TNS

If this nascent movement sparks political activity by those not involved before and emphasizes policies people agree on, it can be effective. Changing gun policy has been hard, not only because of the National Rifle Association’s political donations but because some voters strongly oppose regulations on guns. In Maine a referendum was rejected when seen as interfering with hunting and traditional practices.

While gun control opponents have and must be heard, the NRA’s views about the Constitution are extreme. Justice Scalia pointed out in District of Columbia v. Heller, “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” In the opinion overturning a handgun ban, Scalia wrote, “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Guns relate to other matters affecting our security.

Gun politics may be linked to Russia’s underming of American elections. In January, the McClatchy News Service reported, “The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency.”

Whatever is found by the FBI, upcoming elections are vulnerable, yet Trump has refused to implement sanctions Congress passed overwhelmingly and has not protected our voting systems. Without secure elections, activists’ efforts may not matter.

Violence too often happens in our homes. Stalkers and abusers terrorize spouses and partners and when they kill them, it’s usually with guns. In Maine and elsewhere, women murdered are most likely to have been killed by a man who abused them.

Abusers have too easy access to guns and often victims’ claims are not taken seriously. Top White House staffer Rob Porter, whose abuse was known for months, was among over 130 people receiving highly classified information despite not having permanent security clearances. After the press found out, the White House first praised him and has given contradictory accounts of what was known when and by whom.

Still, much progress has been made on domestic abuse, sparked by the feminist movement’s activism, and the civil rights movements made elections fairer and more inclusive. History shows that if they’re in it for the long haul, students’ focus on gun violence can really matter.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.