What We Can Learn from the Stoneman Douglas Students
For the last decade or so, advocating for gun rights has been something of a mug’s game. The basic parameters of the discourse around guns have been framed so narrowly that gun advocates have found themselves in an extremely difficult position. The NRA and their supporters in Congress and state legislatures have succeeded in limiting the proposed gun reforms to a few things like banning some assault weapons and modestly strengthening background checks. These are all good ideas but can hardly count as holistic solutions to the problems associated with the easy access Americans have to powerful weaponry. This is why after every mass shooting the gun advocates confidently remind us that none of the proposed solutions would have stopped the shooting.
This strategic approach is laughably tautological-limit the debate to toothless solutions that don’t really work and then after yet another massacre, shake your head sadly and say no viable gun reform proposal would have stopped this tragedy. To make matters worse, the gun lobbies then propose genuinely dangerous and wacky ideas like arming teachers. These are, to be sure, clever rhetorical and strategic approaches, but they lead directly to the murder of American children, so there is a rather acute downside.
Gun advocates are successful in implicitly dismissing numerous other proposals that would substantially reduce gun violence. These include stronger restrictions on gun ownership, making background checks universal with no loopholes, using technology to track gun and bullet sales, requiring gun owners to have liability insurance, requiring prospective gun owners to positively affirm mental health, creating gun buyback programs and the like. All of these ideas have been bandied about for years, but none have encountered any success. The reasons for this is that while substantial proportions of the population, and in some cases majorities, approve these measures, the passion is on the side of the gun owners. Those are the single issue voters who follow gun policy the most closely.
This may be changing, not because of the earnest work of gun reform groups or the gradual acceptance of the reality that our current gun laws are facilitating mass murder, but by a group of young people who are well-spoken, passionate, have seen the horror of school shootings first hand and perhaps most importantly have the impatience of youth that has so frequently driven social change. The young people like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Delaney Tarr and others have spoken about the need to do something real to stop gun violence with a passion and energy that the movement has not previously experienced.
While seeing Kasky humiliate Marco Rubio by challenging him to stop taking NRA money or watching Emma Gonzalez similarly embarrass NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch is very encouraging for adults who support gun reform, there is much more to these young people’s message than that. In her most well-known speech, Gonzalez repeated the refrain “we call BS.” While most of that refrain was targeted at the gun lobby and their apologists, it was also aimed at pro-gun reform legislators who have not been aggressive, or successful, enough in their efforts to change American gun policy. Gonzalez, and her generation, are not just calling BS on the NRA, but on those who are cowed by arguments like the one that asserts that none of the proposed laws would have stopped the shooting.
The impatience and lack of familiarity with the agonizing history of modest legislative successes, and ample legislative failures, around gun policy that this generation brings to the gun discussion is precisely what is needed. A gun debate that gets tangled in the weeds of “this won’t work,” “that bill couldn’t get out of committee last time,” “this is the best we can do,” or even “we can’t run afoul of (radical misinterpretations) of the second amendment” is exactly what the NRA wants. Every time a pro-gun reform legislator or advocate gets involved in those discussions, Wayne LaPierre is happy and our schools are no safer.
The young people whose voices have changed the tone of the gun debate since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School are not going to be easily pulled into these shopworn tropes that are, in practice, little more than NRA talking points. They are going to demand solutions, force legislators who are sympathetic to their views to place greater emphasis on solving the problem of gun violence and, in some cases, place real pressure on legislators who seek to represent the NRA, rather than all their constituencies.
There is absolutely no guarantee that this will lead to meaningful changes to our gun laws. It is easy to see how this energy could dissipate. GOP lawmakers could remain sufficiently frightened of losing primaries that they do not buck the NRA or proposed laws could get stuck in Republican controlled committees or courts. However, November of 2018 will be a key moment for these new gun reform crusaders. Emma Gonzalez, Delaney Tarr, my older son and thousands of other young people born after Columbine and educated in an era where school shootings and live shooter drills were part of the fabric of their lives will able to vote for the first time in a national election. The symbolism there is hard to miss. Hopefully these young people will not let us down as we have done to them.
Photo: cc/Barry Stock