I was all set to write a column about the paralysis of progressives around guns: how even the ghastliest school shootings rouse few of us to more than hand-wringing and despair. After each massacre, I was planning to say, we go through the motions, writing letters to the editor, making donations to gun-control groups and politicians who promise to fight to stem the tide, but, except for the most dedicated activists, our involvement is pretty small-bore and low-key. The Million Mom March was the last major national mobilization, and that was back in 2000. A majority of Americans support gun control, but the passion—and the money, and Congress—is with the National Rifle Association.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, aren’t having any of that. Survivors of a horrific rampage by Nikolas Cruz, a former fellow student who murdered 17 and wounded more than a dozen, they’re speaking out—screaming out—in a way we haven’t seen before, confronting the politicians who have failed them.
They’re all over TV. Twitter is exploding with their rage: “You are the President of the United States, and you have the audacity to put this on Russia as an excuse. I guess I should expect that from you,” one student tweeted at Donald Trump. Senior Emma Gonzalez may have made history with her blistering speech at a rally three days after the massacre: “Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this—we call BS. They say tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS.”
Plans are afoot for marches: The Douglas students are organizing a “March for Our Lives” in Washington on March 24, and others may be in the works as well. Students at a high school in Boca Raton have already staged a walkout, and maybe you saw the coverage of the students who staged a die-in outside the White House. Meanwhile, wags are writing checks for “thoughts and prayers” to NRA-funded pols. Silly, but better than rolling your eyeballs and sighing.
Maybe the kids will save us in the end—and not a moment too soon. Because too many of us well-meaning liberal/progressive adults have been cowed by the gun lobby. We’ve resigned ourselves to quasi-defeat and accepted the NRA’s framing, the mythological sanctity of “gun rights.” So we speak of “responsible” gun owners. Proud rural folk taught to shoot by Granddad. “Commonsense” gun laws. Respect for the Second Amendment. We say, “We don’t want to take away anyone’s guns.” For progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, deferring to the NRA was, at one time, not just a perceived political necessity but also a way of signaling respect for the values of (white) rural voters. Even saintly Paul Wellstone, longtime gun-control advocate, introduced a 1997 bill watering down a ban on guns for those convicted of domestic violence.
Meanwhile, for the pro-gun crowd, it doesn’t seem to matter how many people die (over 35,000) or are injured (over 81,000) per year; or that you are vastly more likely to kill yourself or others if you have a gun in the house; or that, on average, one to two women are shot and killed each day by a past or present partner. Each atrocity is just another reason for more guns. Rush Limbaugh called just the other day for guns to be allowed in classrooms, while Education Secretary Betsy “Grizzly Bear” DeVos argued that arming teachers is an “option.” Because kids are never shot by accident when a gun falls out of a purse or pocket, and not one of the 3.6 million teachers in the land would ever use a gun to threaten a student.
The commentariat hasn’t always been much help, either. In the mainstream media, playing the pundit who takes weird and contorted “contrarian” positions is good for your career. A few years ago, libertarian writer Megan McArdle wrote a piece in The Daily Beast claiming that nothing much could be done about guns, so kids should be taught to rush the shooter: “If we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.” Let the kids handle it! McArdle, by the way, just got a column in The Washington Post.
In The New York Times, meanwhile, David Brooks worried, post-Parkland, that gun-control advocates don’t show enough “respect” to red-staters, while Ross Douthat tied himself in knots explaining why guns should be permitted but abortion banned. Douthat also defended the paranoid right-wing fantasy that guns let us resist the state “when it imposes illegitimately” (good luck with that!) and proposed to reduce gun violence by delaying the age at which citizens can buy AR-15s to 30 (for semiautomatic pistols, he suggests waiting until 25). It’s as though 64-year-old Stephen Paddock never killed 58 people in Las Vegas (and injured another 851) less than five months ago. It’s as though the vast majority of killings with guns, including mass murders, were not committed by grown-up men. Well, at least they’re not having abortions.
Enough with the craziness, and enough with the clever pundits and the quiet politicians and the defeatist citizenry, too. There’s no reason why anyone—of any age—needs to own an AR-15. In fact, maybe I shouldn’t say this, because we progressives seem to be all about winning the MAGA-hat-wearing white working class, but I don’t believe you have a right to own a gun, period. So show up for the gun-control marches and bring your friends. Follow the money—the NRA money—and work like heck to elect anti-gun candidates. The Douglas students have changed the conversation. It will take a whole lot of us to keep it going.