An unexpected wild card in the gun regulation debate are the powerful voices of young people from Parkland, Florida who experienced the slaughter of their classmates first-hand last week.
And they are translating their voices into action. Today busloads of students, along with teachers from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are headed to the State Capitol in Tallahassee to persuade legislators to impose reasonable gun regulators. On one respected ranking of states, Florida gets a D- for its gun control laws, compared to an A- in California. Tomorrow they will meet with President Trump. There will be follow-up events on a national level, including a “national student walkout” on March 14 and March for Our Lives gatherings in Washington D.C. and elsewhere around the nation.
The question is whether this new, outspoken youthful element will make any difference in nudging GOP-controlled statehouses or Congress any closer to action.
One of the main reason for pessimism is the complete paralysis, at least in Congress, that followed the Newtown massacre in 2012 when twenty 6 and 7 year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary lost their lives, along with six teachers and other school personnel. Stories about the littlest victims of gun violence failed to move lawmakers, despite having a president at the time who argued passionately for Congress to enact gun regulations.
Unlike Sandy Hook’s elementary school age children, eloquent teenagers from the Parkland high school have now emerged as forceful spokespersons. They include David Hogg, the editor of the high school newspaper, and Emma Gonzalez who presumably will be heard demanding action in the coming days and weeks. In an op-ed in the New York Times, freshman Christine Yared wrote, “If you have any heart, or care about anyone or anything, you need to be an advocate for change. Don’t let any more children suffer like we have. Don’t continue this cycle.”
In recent decades, there have been other examples where teenagers made a huge difference in propelling change in their countries. One of the most notable cases was in South Africa, where in 1976 , teenagers in Soweto rose up against the apartheid government. Hundreds of students lost their lives. But the Soweto uprisings represented a turning point against racial rule, and contributed directly to Nelson Mandela being released from jail 14 years later.
Young people in the Middle East also were heavily involved in the “Arab spring” uprisings against entrenched political parties. In the United States, college students were at the core of the movement against the Vietnam War.
The stakes in the battle against gun violence are different but arguably as important in life and death terms as in those instances of youthful political engagement.
However, in South Africa and in the anti-war movement in the U.S., young people were fighting for a cause that affected the majority of their peers. The reality is that gun violence in schools is still relatively rare. It seems unlikely the vast majority of high school — and college — students who have never been directly affected by gun violence will be mobilized to participate in a national movement.
And even if they were, it is from clear what impact they would have on legislators who so far have not been moved by the horrors of Columbine, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas. Most students are not old enough to vote, and even among 18 year olds, voter participation is typically lowest of any age group. So they do not represent a powerful political constituency.
Nor do they represent President Trump’s “base” in any way. In fact, the opposite is true. It appears some students at least are working in tandem with Women’s March organizers and other organizations linked to the Democratic Party who have taken the lead in organizing the March 14 National Student Walkout. That is sure to encourage Trump supporters, if not the president himself, to denigrate and belittle their efforts. In fact, the process of tearing down these young people has already begun.
None of this is to downplay the importance of the Parkland students voice at this moment of pain, sadness and anger. The powerful voices of young people who are at risk of being victims of gun violence may well make a difference — if not now, over the long term at least.
For now, it is impossible to know how their voice will influence the debate. But given that so far nothing else has had any impact on regulating the sale of assault-style rifles, or preventing people who should never have been able to acquire them, or any kind of weapon for that matter, in the first place, we should yield the floor to young people and amplify their voices in whatever way is possible.
It seems like a long shot that they could actually get something done. But these high school students represent the only new element in an otherwise dark landscape and the only hope that this time change might actually occur.