A surprise lesson after the Parkland shootings

In the year since the Florida school tragedy, the student activists had to learn not to see their policy opponents as ‘bad people.’ This shift toward listening may help shape the gun debate.

AP
Cameron Kasky, center, speaks in Parkland, Fla., last June.

Of all the school shootings in the United States, the one in Parkland, Fla., a year ago Feb. 14 helped change the national conversation about guns. Why was that? It was largely the activism of student survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their mass rally in Washington and their March for Our Lives tour put politicians on the spot to pass some measures – not many – aimed at curbing gun violence. The teen activists flipped the narrative on victimhood by standing for something bigger.

Yet many also had to learn a lesson from their confrontational approach. In meetings with ardent advocates for gun ownership, they realized they could no longer vilify their opponents because of their views. They had to listen for shared experiences and shared goals.

“We’ve already met NRA members. They’re not bad people,” Parkland student Sarah Chadwick told The Washington Post. “We can agree, we can disagree, but we can talk.”

One co-founder of March for Our Lives, Cameron Kasky, told the BBC that he let his feelings get in the way of objective thinking. He regrets a part of his famous confrontation with Sen. Marco Rubio in which he said he could not look at the senator without seeing the shooter.

To achieve a civic goal, civility had to replace vitriol; humility had to replace the temptation to belittle.

“If I vilify half the people in this country, where is that going to bring me?” Mr. Kasky said. “I think there is so much that we can do if we all look at each other and say, ‘Where can we agree?’ Because that’s normally where the most progress is made.”

“I think the more you think about how right you are and how wrong everybody else is, the less you’ll learn. A lot of people in this country get stuck in bubbles – especially because of social media,” he adds.

The lesson learned was not only avoiding personal attacks. The students had to be open to the well-meaning intentions and the full context of their policy opponents. What fears lie behind their views? What past sadness drives their advocacy? Out of their own fears and sadness after the Parkland shooting, the students could understand similar feelings in others with different views on guns.

This shedding of stereotypes and the de-demonizing of opponents is a valuable spinoff from the Parkland shooting. The students have achieved some success in new gun legislation. Yet their more valuable contribution may be in changing the nature of the debate itself. By recognizing that “bad people” may really be good at heart, they have smoothed a path toward joint solutions.

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