Today there's a national school walkout. Maybe this time will be different.
One month ago, on Valentine’s Day, one of the worst school shootings of the modern era occurred at Stoneman Douglas High School. At the end of the school day, Nikolas Cruz, who was previously expelled from the school, shot and killed 14 students and three faculty members and wounded many others. The public reaction to the shooting initially resembled the typical way our nation has responded to other mass and school shootings: Politicians offered their thoughts and prayers, grief-stricken families expressed their outrage, and students who survived the shooting were shocked and traumatized.
That is where the similarities between what happened at Stoneman Douglas and other shootings seems to stop, though. The teen victims of the shooting quickly coalesced into a movement: They used the hashtag #NeverAgain to share their experiences on Twitter and made their message clear to mainstream media, too. David Hogg, a 17-year-old senior who has emerged as a leader of this movement, expressed his frustration on CNN the day of the shooting. “We’re children,” he said. “You guys are the adults.” Fellow student Emma Gonzalez gave an impassioned speech three days after the shooting in which she called out politicians for their inaction and gave voice to the anger and pain that this tragedy has made young people feel. “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,” Gonzalez said. “They say tougher guns 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.”
Like so many other young people across the country, students like Emma and David — along with other leaders like Jaclyn Corin, Cameron Kasy, and Delaney Tarr — have grown up in an era in which although school shootings have become disturbingly frequent, little political action has ever been taken in response to them. Take the details of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Cruz committed the crime with an AR-15 assault rifle. Under Florida state law, it was legal for him to own an AR-15 assault rifle even though it would have been illegal for him to own a handgun, as he is under 21.There was no legal pathway for family members who might have seen him as a threat to ask a judge to strip him of his gun rights. What’s more, this student was previously expelled from his school because his peers and teachers were worried about his preoccupation with violence. In fact, five months before the shooting, Cruz had left a YouTube comment plainly stating, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” Yet nothing was done about these clear warning signs.
This lack of gun-control legislation or other policies and/or procedures in place to identify shooters can in large part be attributed to the complete lack of bipartisan support for such measures. While Democrats generally agree that it’s crucial to implement a series of reforms — from universal background checks to banning certain types of guns (particularly a group of assault rifles) — Republicans argue that these tragedies are the product of a broken mental health system. They have also argued that one cannot combat these tragedies by banning weapons, because doing so violates U.S. citizens’ Second Amendment rights. This position has been supported by the NRA, the gun lobbying organization that has not only about 14 million members, but an incredible amount of political power. The NRA funds large numbers Republican campaigns with the general expectation that those politicians will oppose all forms of gun control, and the politicians who benefit from that money tend to follow through.
Unlike previous victims of school shootings, the Stoneman Douglas students are boldly and relentlessly speaking out about what they see as their politicians’ inaction in response to an incredible injustice and taking action to address it. On February 20, students went to their state capitol, Tallahassee, to advocate for state gun law changes. They met with legislators in groups of ten — although one legislator was an hour late for his meeting and other groups’ meetings were canceled. Despite those setbacks, however, Democratic Representative Kionne McGhee motioned for Florida’s state legislature to consider legislation that would ban many assault rifles. As students looked on, the state legislature voted the motion down 71 to 36. The state legislature went on to discuss the public risk posed by pornography for several hours following their decision, which left many student activists in tears.
Yet these students still refuse to be deterred. Whether by directly responding to both conspiracy theorists and statements made by Republican politicians that aim to discredit them, or by questioning some of those same politicians in person at a CNN town hall on the subject, these students are refusing to let others dilute or control their movement. Their determination is in turn inspiring students in schools across the nation, who are participating in walkouts in the name of the cause, even in the face of threats of suspension and other forms of punishment. On March 14, students all over the nation plan to walk out of their schools for 17 minutes to honor the 17 people killed in the Stoneman Douglas massacre and speak out about gun control. The Stoneman Douglas students have also organized a national march that will take place in Washington D.C. and in cities and towns across the country on March 24 called the March for Our Lives. Participants in the national march are asking for a comprehensive gun control bill to be put forth in front of Congress, and those at satellite marches will call for local reforms in the other locations.
Ultimately, it’s clear that students across the nation are refusing the “thoughts and prayers” of their politicians if they don’t come with a vote that puts those thoughts and prayers to action. The movement coming out of Stoneman Douglas is one of the strongest examples of a growing movement of youth activism that refuses to abide by old political rules or ask for adults’ permission to fight for their futures. As Emma Gonzales said, “We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that were too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”
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