Watch out, NRA: There’s new momentum in gun reform fight

Thousands of teenagers from multiple high schools across Florida descended on the state capital to demand reforms in gun laws.

Something is definitely different in the movement for stronger gun safety laws this time around.

The impetus comes from the honest and heartfelt pain, anger, and eloquence of the teenagers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 of their classmates and teachers were killed by an expelled student with an AR-15 in the Valentine’s Day mass shooting. Their televised speeches and media appearances criticizing the National Rifle Association and legislative inaction have gone viral worldwide.

These students are unafraid to call out the NRA or state and federal lawmakers. As one Stoneman Douglas student, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, said in an op-ed published on CNN:

We can’t ignore the issues of gun control that this tragedy raises. And so, I’m asking — no, demanding — we take action now.

Why? Because at the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience—our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of school.

But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account. This time we are going to pressure them to take action. This time we are going to force them to spend more energy protecting human lives than unborn fetuses.

There are right-wing conspiracies and smear jobs claiming that the students are being coached by adults, or that the entire Parkland shooting was a “false flag” fictional event, designed to take away people’s guns. In the most ridiculous assertion, some conspiracy nuts charge that the students aren’t students at all but are paid actors who “move from crisis to crisis.” Some threats are more serious: Kasky himself reported on Twitter that he was receiving death threats. At least media outlets are exposing the right-wing lies for what they are, and Google has removed some of the most outlandish conspiracy videos about the Parkland survivors from YouTube.

While these student leaders are obviously students, many have speaking and academic experience that’s coming in handy. Student David Hogg, managing editor of the student TV station at Stoneman Douglas, described how students in debate classes and on the debate team researched and argued about gun control last fall, gathering information that serves them perfectly right now in their media interviews and talks with legislators. Disputing the “paid actor” conspiracy theory, Kasky, a veteran of high school theater, joked to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “If you had seen me in our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that nobody would pay me to act for anything.” When people remarked after her impassioned speech that student Emma González should run for president, she said she already was president—of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. In her AP Government class, she’s learned all about the influence of special interest groups in American politics, including the NRA—knowledge that served the students well in their successful fight to get companies to sever ties with the gun lobby. Those kids are good.

So a group of telegenic and social media-savvy teenagers is moving the goal posts, just by being unafraid to speak the truth. As a result, there are other signs of movement in the fight for gun safety.

Record numbers are volunteering. The gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action is reporting record turnouts at meetings around the country and unheard-of numbers of new volunteers. Within one week of the shooting, the gun reform group had 75,000 new volunteers ready to join the Parkland teens’ #MarchForOurLives and #NeverAgain movements and work to enact gun safety laws. According to a story from Huffington Post:

For instance, a meeting in Maine that usually has about 20 attendees had over 250 people turn up on Sunday, a meeting in Raleigh that usually has two dozen participants had more than 350 on Monday, and an “advocacy day” calling for action from legislators in Missouri ― which about 150 people attended last year ― had more than 300 participants this week.

Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts says she knows the fight is “a marathon, not a sprint.” But she welcomed the younger new allies.

“I’m excited to let them lead and see where they’ll take us,” Watts said. “There is strength in numbers. We need every generation to get involved. It’s going to be up to the next generation to make sure this work gets finished. This is going to take a while ― and take every American.”

Student protests are growing. Thousands of high school students protesting gun violence and mass shootings marched in the Florida state capital of Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C. Students across the country joined in. There have been reports of student walkouts in schools in multiple cities, including Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Pittsburgh.

About 300 students walked out of classes at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois to protest school shootings. They’re planning bigger walkouts for March 14 and April 20. (Photo by Cathy Cerniglia)

Other student groups organized walkouts in Illinois, Virginia, Minnesota, Arizona, and Michigan. There’s a walkout planned on March 14 for 17 minutes, one minute for each victim. A major nationwide student school walkout is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in which two students killed 13 people and injured 21. That effort is being coordinated by the official National School Walkout Twitter account, which already has more than 100,000 followers.

And you’d better believe that these kids will all register to vote and deliver their message at the ballot box. A story on Think Progress quotes one of the D.C. student protesters: “I understand marching isn’t automatically going to change legislation … but it’s not just about change,” Montgomery Blair High School student Jedediah Grady told Mother Jones reporter Kara Voght. “Next year I’ll be able to vote.”

Poll numbers for better gun laws are rising. Public support for gun safety measures, already in the majority range, is reaching an all-time high. A new Quinnipiac Poll described such support as being at “record levels.” Support for universal background checks is now at 97 percent, and support for a nationwide ban on assault weapons is at 67 percent.

“If you think Americans are largely unmoved by the mass shootings, you should think again. Support for stricter gun laws is up 19 points in little more than two years,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

Republican lawmakers are feeling the heat. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has been severely mocked on Twitter and elsewhere for his initial mealy-mouthed responses to the Parkland shooting, always with references to the millions he’s received from the NRA in campaign contributions. He didn’t fare any better during a CNN Town Hall in Florida, where he was roundly criticized by Parkland parents and student survivors for his inaction. including refusing to say he wouldn’t continue to accept NRA money. By the end of the evening, however, Rubio suggested that he was open to some actions, such as raising the legal age to purchase a rifle and to reducing the size of magazine ammunition clips. (To me, limiting magazine clips should be a no-brainer. That could be the single most effective reform, because shooters always have to buy new ammunition. If they can’t fire as fast, and if their weapon won’t fire as many bullets at once, they’ll have to stop and reload. They’ll kill fewer people.)

Multiple media outlets are publishing lists of lawmakers who have received NRA money. A double-page ad in The New York Times listed the names and phone numbers of 276 members of Congress who have been on the receiving end of NRA contributions. The $230,000 ad was paid for by Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety.

Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman was repeatedly booed during a recent town hall when he offered to discuss what he called “reasonable restrictions within the parameters of the Second Amendment.” Coffman’s Denver-area district contains the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora, the site of a 2012 mass shooting during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in which 12 people were killed and 70 were injured. Littleton, the site of the Columbine massacre, is just over the district line.

How things have changed. Colorado passed gun restrictions after the Aurora shooting, but two Democratic state lawmakers were recalled in 2014 because of those new laws. Now, Democratic candidates seem more willing to take on both their GOP opponents and the gun lobby over the issue, demanding that Coffman return his NRA campaign contributions.

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it anymore. It took long enough, but it’s doubtful we’ll be hearing those words again anytime soon in responses to gun violence. Slate reports that GOP lawmakers have gotten the message that the empty phrase is worse than meaningless, even if they’re still not willing to take any meaningful action.

Either way, the backlash seems to have worked, in the narrowest sense. The public responses to Parkland suggest that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become sufficiently toxic that politicians have learned not to deploy it as part of their public response to tragedy. Of course, the quiet expiration of one specific phrase does not mean Republican lawmakers are doing anything beyond thinking and praying about gun violence. Many of them still offered variations on the promise to pray for victims and the Parkland community. But it does mean they have been successfully shamed into changing one tiny aspect of their behavior. In the dismal context of the American conversation about guns, that just might count as a positive step.

Even Donald Trump is playing lip service. He’s testing the waters on such issues as background checks and banning bump stocks. During a White House “listening session” with parents and survivors of both the Parkland shooting and the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, that claimed the lives of 26 students and teachers, Trump listened as tearful parents and students described their experiences. Most strongly disagreed with Trump’s NRA-backed proposals for arming teachers and ending gun-free zones around schools. His words about mental health also rang hollow, since he signed a law reversing President Obama’s moves to make it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns.

And given Trump’s track record on not following through on his promises, why should anyone in that group meeting in the White House State Dining Room believe what he says, anyway?

So what are your plans for March 24? The main #MarchForOurLives event will be in Washington, but related marches are being planned all over the country. The group’s website is still in its early stages, but it offers a chance to organize your own local march, to donate money, or even to buy “Merch for the March”—T-shirts and other apparel. The group’s Facebook page lists a growing number of sister marches in cities across the country, even including one at the U.S. Embassy in London. Hundreds of thousands of people already have indicated that they intend to protest with their feet.

I have a feeling that the combined numbers of people in those marches might dwarf even the enormous numbers of those at the Women’s Marches.

The phrase “single-issue voter” often refers to Republican voters who consider a candidate’s stance on abortion to be a make-or-break position. In this year’s midterms, guns could very well be the single issue that Democratic voters think is most important. A story in The Independent put it bluntly:

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said: “The public is united behind common-sense gun laws. Members of Congress can step up or voters will throw them out.”

No one thinks the path to common-sense gun laws will be easy or quick, and activists have had their hearts broken too many times in the past in the face of congressional inaction. But this time, there’s a new generation of activists who won’t back down.

Be afraid, GOP and NRA. Be very afraid.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 25, 2018.

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