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After Parkland, a new generation finds its voice

putting it in perspective

Teen activists are pushing for changes to gun laws via marches and walkouts in the wake of the recent shooting in a Florida high school. Their emerging power may be changing the long stalemate in the nation’s debate over firearms, some experts say.

Demitri Hoth (r.) asks for feedback from Bailey Feuerman, on an open letter he is writing to legislators, as they and fellow survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ride a bus between Parkland and Tallahassee, Fla., Feb. 20 to rally outside the state capitol and talk to legislators about gun control reform.
Gerald Herbert/AP
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On a bus to Tallahassee on Florida’s State Road 91 on Tuesday, Drew Schwartz sits with a scrum of fellow students planning the logistics of their march on the state capital, just hours away.

“Right now it’s all hands on deck,” says Drew, a 17-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., site of the nation’s most recent mass shooting and where 14 of these students’ fellow classmates died. “We divide the work the best we can, and then divide the work based on who is best at what,” he says in a phone interview with the Monitor from the bus. “This march will be crucial to the core campaign.”

But even amid the furious scramble of these determined student activists, Drew can only take a breath and reflect on the maelstrom that began last week on Valentine’s Day. As a student board member, he was bringing carnations to classrooms when the first shots rang out, and the course of his life was suddenly altered.

“This is a really new thing for me,” says Drew, mentioning how strange it feels to have gone from a kid who liked to hang out with friends, go to the movies, or plan homecoming and prom activities with others, to a committed activist. “Before this I had my opinions, but I was never involved. It's really sad that something like this has to happen for us to really open our eyes and fight for change.”

Across the country, too, thousands of mostly 17- and 18-year-old high school students are saying the same. The Parkland mass shooting, and especially the immediate and emotionally resonating response of the Stoneman Douglas students, has sparked something, they say, something akin to an awakening or a proverbial political coming of age. And many point to the dramatic speech of senior Emma González on Saturday. “We are going to be the last mass shooting,” she proclaimed, brandishing her AP Government notes.

Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting on Feb.14, visit the state Capitol to talk with legislators regarding gun control legislation, in Tallahassee, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.
Gerald Herbert/AP
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“Something that's been in my brain, something that I've been thinking about since this started, is that I feel like people underestimate the power of students when it comes to change like this,” says Evie Wybenga, a senior at Andover High School in Massachusetts.

Speaking with 'moral authority'

As the country watches hundreds of groups of high-school aged students begin to organize, this emerging power of students may be changing the long stalemate in the nation’s debates over guns, some experts say. Students around the country have been spontaneously planning marches, sit ins, and class walkouts, connecting through social media and the political hashtag, #MarchForOurLives.

“They are speaking with a moral authority, and there’s nothing more damning than having adult disfunction called out by a kid,” says Jerusha Conner, professor of education and counseling at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “That they shouldn’t have to know better than we do about what’s at stake, that they shouldn’t have to be thinking about this and filling that vacuum in national leadership.”

Still, the many hurdles that have frustrated gun-restriction advocates for decades remain, many observers say. Gun ownership is a constitutionally guaranteed right, with a long history of US Supreme Court precedents. And while states and localities have leeway to restrict the time, manner, and place in which a firearm may be carried, the interstices between government regulations and fundamental rights feature ferocious partisan battles.

“This is definitely something new [in the nation’s gun debates],” says Christopher Huff, professor of history at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., who has studied the protest movements of the 1960s and the rise of conservative student activism. “From my experience, when students are reacting, instead of being proactive about their activism, they don’t gain a lot of ground. An expression of frustration and anger can take it a little further, but that doesn’t always translate into, there’s something that’s going to gain traction here.”

“Are we going to see something here where the students themselves and others start a sustained movement?” Professor Huff says. “I’d be hesitant to go that far at this point, but I’m thinking that this might move the conversation forward a little bit, in some kind of direction forward rather than circular.”

On Tuesday, President Trump moved to ban the sales of “bump stocks,” which can make semi-automatic rifles fire at automatic speeds. The president also agreed to host a “listening session” on Wednesday afternoon with survivors from Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, and Columbine, the White House said. Lawmakers revived interest in bipartisan legislation introduced last fall by Senators John Cornyn (R) of Texas and Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut, a proposal that would improve the reporting process between state and local agencies to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.

In Florida, open carry legislation has stalled while some lawmakers signalled that they would introduce new legislation to raise the legal age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21 and institute a 3-day waiting period for such sales. Even so, on Tuesday the House rejected a proposal that would have banned certain semiautomatic rifles.

“Everything is in place for a mass movement,” says Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, a visiting international studies scholar from Nigeria at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “There is a trigger event – the mass shooting; there is a technologically-driven mobilizing structure – social media; there is a huge national grievance – a series of mass shootings; there are many compelling personal stories.”

“But a lot will depend on the how exponential the students’ voices can become,” says Professor Jacob, who studies the practices behind social-media-fueled movements such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in response to the Boko Haram kidnappings in his home country. “How they challenge the power structures will be determined by their capacity to create and represent alternative values and interests. These could be values of compassion, spirituality and/or loving kindness. But they won’t make any change simply by organizing protest marches on Washington,” he says.

Compelled to speak out

Many high school juniors and seniors, however, just feel compelled to speak out. Many self-consciously see the beginnings of a new political consciousness, fueled by a frustration that has often boiled over into rage at the monotonous cliches they’ve heard after mass shooting after mass shooting.

“There was an announcement at the end of the day [of the Parkland shooting] that offered ‘thoughts and prayers’,” says Ms. Wybenga, the senior at Andover High in Massachusetts. “We are tired of only hearing 'thoughts and prayers'.”

Her outrage over the platitude, in fact, spurred her into action, she says. She and friend Charlotte Lowell had an idea: instead of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ let’s stage a sit-in. They discussed logistics, talked to some teachers, and then posted their plan onto social media that same night.   

“And word spread extremely quickly,” Wybenga says. “We were not the only ones feeling this way. People were more than happy to be a part of it. By the end of the night, large numbers of people had heard about it and were active in spreading the word themselves.”

In the end, upwards of 700 high school kids in the area participated in the sit in on Friday, she says. “I was shocked. But I was incredibly impressed and I felt empowered, and I felt an incredible sense of community within in the high school, that so many people care.”

At the same time, this sense of solidarity has given many their own strange sense of generational identity – and a growing anger at those who came before them.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that at this point it is up to kids, who aren't even of legal age to reform the country, so we can feel safe,” says Casey Sherman, a 17-year-old junior at Florida's Stoneman Douglas High, in an interview with the Monitor. “I absolutely think there should have been so much reform in all of the years past, since Columbine,” she says. Instead, “they made military grade weapons available – they are slacking in that sense.”

Like so many of her peers, Casey, felt the need to spring to action after the shooting that altered her life. Casey, who was on the bus with Drew to Tallahassee, is also leading the planning for the Parkland March at the end of March. She was up late Monday night creating local Facebook, and Instagram accounts for the emerging #MarchForOurLives movement, and then woke up Tuesday and created the Twitter account. Her first tweet, in fact, was shared over 300 times in just a few hours.

Rethinking and moving forward

Henry Charman, an 18-year-old senior at Hellgate High School in Missoula, Mont., also started a Twitter account to promote local participation in a massive student-led walkout planned for noon on Wednesday nationwide called Student Walkout Against Gun Violence.

“We were talking amongst ourselves that it's messed up how normal it is now to get an alert on your phone that there's been another mass shooting,” says Mr. Charman. “That's not the future I saw when I was a kid.”

But when he was a kid, he says, he never forgot the day when he heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 6- and 7-year-old students and adult administrators in Newtown, Conn. His social studies teacher, he says, had gotten the news and started to cry in front of the class.

“It was something that I won't forget – how affected he was by it,” says Charman. “It just really got to him and that got to me as well."

And now, the Parkland shootings have caused him to rethink his views of guns – though he’s still not sure where he stands on possible solutions to the problem.

“It's really hard for me to say, because I am sort of a stereotypical Montanan,” Charman says. “I own guns and I hunt. But if giving up my guns meant there would be no more school shootings, I would do it in an instant.”

Which highlights a long-term trend that this generation’s coming-of-age, experts say, could mark a significant change. Younger Americans are already less likely to be gun owners than older generations were at the same age, and the Parkland shooting might be the defining political issue for those just now thinking about their responsibilities as voters and citizens, observers note.

“The significance of the youth movement is a turning point,” says Kris Macomber, professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., and an expert in social movements and gun violence. “After Sandy Hook, we didn't see videos of AR-15 owners destroying their guns or turning them in,” she says. “We are seeing this now. The narrative has shifted. When the narrative shifts, behaviors change.”

Drew, the junior from Stoneman Douglas, has been spending the past two days doing the work of an on-the-ground activist. With a group of fellow students, he's met with seven state senators and representatives since arriving on Tuesday, he tells the Monitor by phone on Wednesday.

The experience, he says, has been invigorating, even as events throughout the day showed these students the difficult political path that lies ahead. Not long after they arrived on Tuesday, the Florida state House blocked a measure that would have banned many semiautomatic guns, a vote that shocked and dismayed a number of his peers.

Even so, “they’ve made me more hopeful,” Drew says of his meetings with lawmakers on Wednesday. “I feel like the people we have talked to have listened to us and are taking in our perspectives. I do think there is hope, and we are moving in the right direction.”

“This trip, them listening to us – it’s all taking a step forward,” Drew says. 

Story Hinckley, Noble Ingram, and Rebecca Asoulin contributed reporting from Boston. 

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