What We Can Learn From High Schoolers

Mass shootings and gun deaths as a whole have become mainstream in the United States, with the number of guns proliferating and accumulating over the years so that there are nearly as many guns as people in the country. Shooting after shooting, death after death, for a multiplicity of reasons, the topic of gun control falls out of the news cycle, because the complexity of the issue prevents policymakers from proposing a clear-cut solution. Without agreeing on a possible end goal, lawmakers can’t begin to debate the merits of a possible solution to that goal. However, over a month after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL, where seventeen high schoolers died, their peers and fellow students have successfully done what no one else, regardless of position or authority, has been able to do: keep the debate around guns in the news for an extended amount of time.


Following the Sandy Hook massacre, shock overcame the nation, and Democrats hoped the sympathy felt for the slain children and their families would be enough to put comprehensive gun control legislation in place. While some state legislatures enacted laws that have increased background checks in their respective states, federal legislation has potentially gotten worse since Sandy Hook. For example, Congress failed to pass the Assault Weapons Ban and a measure that would have made background checks universal. Furthermore, the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act passed in December allows any owner of a concealed carry permit to use it in any other state. While the gains at the state level represent necessary changes to gun policy, that the federal government has failed to implement any gun control legislation demonstrates a fundamental failure on the part of legislatures.


Despite the minimal gains made at the state level, the failure of more states and the federal government to act in light of several notable mass shootings since Sandy Hook becomes even more reprehensible. While Sandy Hook was not the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, the tragedies of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and Las Vegas this past November motivated no legislative action. Many would think that if the death of over 20 young children and teachers, 49 people in a nightclub, and 58 concertgoers could not provoke legislators to pursue gun control measures, then surely the death of 17 high schoolers would fail to move the needle on gun control. The activism displayed by the Parkland High School students, however, has kept the issue of gun control in the news for a month, far longer than the issue has been in the news after previous mass shootings.


While the issue should have been taken up far before this shooting, the students’ success as activists should be no surprise given their age. Born into an era when social media has been the norm for adolescents, these students seized the moment and organized across the nation within a matter of days. School shootings have happened before, of course, but the combination of the age of the victims with the timing of the incident gave students, some of whom are of voting age, a microphone and they have not let it go. Mere days after the shooting, a group of students from Parkland High School created Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and set dates for nationwide marches and school walkouts. Already, on Wednesday, March 14th, at 10:00am, exactly one month after the shooting, students of all ages, in schools spread across the country, walked out of class and stood in silence for seventeen minutes in solidarity with Parkland High School and the lives lost there. On March 24th, all across the country, people will take to the streets in the March for Our Lives; through Facebook, the students from Parkland High School organized these marches with allies in all the major cities of the United States. Furthermore, they post constantly on the March for Our Lives Instagram page so that the issue remains present in the public consciousness every day.


Another unique advantage the students possess is their lack of fear. Had this issue been taken up by adults or elected officials, their courage would certainly have failed to match that of the students. Elected officials, in particular, hesitate to demonstrate a profile in courage because coming out strongly in favor or against the wrong issue risks their reelection hopes. High school seniors, however, will face few repercussions if they walk out of class or march in the streets, for example. In fact, numerous colleges and universities have come out and said they will not let any punishments against high school students who choose to protest peacefully affect their application status. This type of safety net, coupled with the lack of risk students take on by speaking their mind, allows students the freedom to organize and generate a movement the size of this one.


Ultimately, their swiftness in addressing this issue after the tragedy allowed the issue to stay in the mainstream for this long. Had the students waited more than five days to begin this movement, it could have been too late; looking at the most recent mass shootings, victims and the allies of the victims failed to speak about the issue in such an influential way this soon after the shooting. Therefore, despite organizations, such as Moms Demand Action, being formed, their goals became long-term instead of pursuing immediate change. The students, however, about only a day after the shooting, shouted to the nation that “We call BS!” The students formed the slogan of the movement organically and quickly, giving the growing number of allies of the movement a simple and succinct way to express their anger.


The last thing to consider in regard to this movement is its significance within the progressive movement since the election of Donald Trump. Following in the footsteps of Women’s Marches, which are obviously the hallmark demonstrations of resistance since the 2017 inauguration, the March for Our Lives is set to take place in more cities than any other demonstration. According to the March for Our Lives website, 825 events are set to take place worldwide. This movement and march are also emblematic of other social movements in American history. For example, students played huge roles in the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights movement. In that perspective, this social movement is representative of some of the more significant protests the country has ever seen.


The movement may also be encouraging young people unlike other moments in the progressive movement of the past couple years. Young people seeing other young people taking this action without fear of repercussion will inspire their peers to become civically involved, get registered to vote, and potentially run for office in the future. Unfortunately, it took this many tragedies for young people to mobilize and increase their political efficacy. Perhaps most importantly, the movement started by these students will pressure elected officials to take immediate action; if they don’t, keeping this issue in the news will force candidates in the 2018 midterms to make it a part of their campaigns. From there, the issue is in the hands of the voters, and if polling is any suggestion, the American people seem to be in favor of tighter gun control legislation.


Ultimately, we should all learn from the students that being afraid of the repercussions of speaking out is no reason to remain silent. When you realize an injustice, you should speak out against it and hope that being on the right side of history will be enough to affect positive change in this country.


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