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.