February 21, 2018; New York Times
If there’s one thing that should come out of this past week, it’s that the generation currently in high school is willing and able to exercise their civic muscle with eloquence and focus. But the responses they’re getting may inadvertently answer some of their questions about why adults left them to take their chances in the line of fire created by an out-of-control gun culture.
A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of last week’s shooting, went to Tallahassee, the state capital, yesterday to urge lawmakers to impose new restrictions on guns. They had spent the night nearby in a civic center on cots, just a week after the shooting, wondering how their voices would be heard. And what they heard was shameless.
Florida’s Senator Aaron Bean, a Republican, was stopped by reporters as he rushed into the building. When asked for comment, he said, “I’m really, really sad. It’s a very sad situation. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about that. It’s already tough enough being a teenager, without worrying about things like that.”
But was he willing to vote for gun restrictions? “It’s just too early to say.”
Instead of committing to support the restrictions on semi-automatic weapons that the young people sought, Senator Debbie Mayfield, another Republican, told the young people who had just lived through the trauma, “We can’t stop crazies.” Afterward, sixteen-year-old Amanda De La Cruz lamented, “I want the ban on semiautomatic weapons. I don’t care about the crazies.”
Richard Corcoran, Florida’s Speaker of the House, vowed to them to unveil what he said would be the most sweeping gun reform package in the nation’s history by week’s end. Nevertheless, when 16-year-old student Alondra Gittelson asked, “I just want to know why such a destructive gun is accessible to the public—why that gun, the AR-15, that did so much damage, how is an individual in society able to acquire such a gun,” Corcoran responded that he was against banning the military assault-type weapon used in the attack that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers.
“I think that if you look,” he said, “it’s widely used in multiple different hunting scenarios,” he said. “I know people who go out and they’ll do boar hunts and they’ll use them.”
“I understand your question,” Corcoran added. “And we’ll look at it, but I’ll just be honest with you: Me personally, I don’t believe that’s the solution.”
By the afternoon, hundreds of supporters had joined the students and the tone grew more demanding.
“Shame! Shame! Shame,” they shouted outside Governor Rick Scott’s offices. Outside of Corcoran’s, they chanted “Face us down! Face us down! Face us down!”
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
In other communities across the country, similar actions were taking place. Students back in South Florida walked miles from their own high schools to Stoneman Douglas for a rally. At other schools—in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix—thousands left their classrooms to stand silently for 17 minutes. In those places, too, messages went out to students about their right to speak, even in the most extreme situations. At Needville High School outside Houston, administrators threatened to impose a three-day suspension on any student who protested. “Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative,” Curtis Rhodes, the superintendent, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “We will discipline no matter if it is one, 50, or 500 students involved.”
Meanwhile, at a special “listening session” held with President Trump, the president made several commitments, including taking a serious look at arming teachers and other school staff. “A gun-free zone to a maniac—because they’re all cowards—is, ‘let’s go in, and attack.’” The students, of course, were asking for fewer guns in their schools—not more.
So, all of this is a problem. How do the NRA and the lawmakers in league with them respond to the wave of thousands of children demanding they be allowed to live without the constant threat of gun violence? Marco Rubio found it difficult to maintain his positions in front of the crown of grieving children and parents on CNN’s Town Hall on Wednesday night. But even so he would not say he would refuse to take NRA donations. The New Yorker described it this way:
A few minutes later, a seventeen-year-old junior named Cameron Kasky, one of the founders of the #NeverAgain movement, which is pushing for gun-control reforms, approached Rubio…He asked Rubio, “Would you refuse to accept donations from the National Rifle Association in the future?”
Rubio, hesitating, settled, eventually, on the idea that he would continue to accept N.R.A. funds because, he said, “people buy into my agenda, and I do support the Second Amendment.” The crowd booed. He added, “I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda”—a comment so bland and euphemistic that it only dramatized the corrupt aroma surrounding money, guns, and politics. Under stress, Rubio tends to repeat himself, and he cycled through his talking point—“people buy into my agenda”—in a way that was reminiscent of his downfall in the 2016 Presidential race, when Chris Christie mocked him and his repetitive platitudes onstage, effectively ending Rubio’s campaign.
The NRA’s own confused response appealed to the basest of values. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, the NRA’s Dana Loesch charged, “Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it. I’m not saying that you love the tragedy, but I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many of the legacy media.” (There’s so much wrong with this statement, but one not so subtle point is that the pain of white mothers losing their children to gun violence “secretly” moves us more than the similar pain of mothers of color. The statement cleverly reinforces various dominant narratives.)
Minutes later, the NRA’s president, Wayne LaPierre, warned of the ostensible socialist agenda behind the protests. “As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain,” LaPierre said, adding that 20th-century community organizer “Saul Alinsky would have been proud of the breakneck speed for gun control laws and the breathless national media eager to smear the NRA.”
So, now that the stakes are whether to protect the rights of the NRA or the lives of American students, President Trump got right back on board, declaring his agreement with LaPierre that schools must be “hardened,” a term used by LaPierre in his speech.
“I don’t think I’ll be going up against them,” Trump said about the NRA, revealing that he had spoken to them on more than one occasion in the past few days. “I really think the NRA wants to do what’s right. I mean, they’re very close to me; I’m very close to them; they’re very, very great people. They love this country. They’re patriots. The NRA wants to do the right thing.”
Watching the Republican Party and the NRA close ranks like this only strengthens our conviction that this generation of young people, born after Columbine into a world where school shootings are maddeningly commonplace, scares them like nothing else. Decades of platitudes, half-measures, and compromises crumble before a movement with the courage to call it all, as Emma Gonzales did, “BS.”—Ruth McCambridge