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Amid the grim routine of high-school shootings in the United States, the latest is different in one key way: it has sparked a wave of student activism. By Josephine Tovey.

US students push for gun control

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks at a rally for gun control in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, last Saturday.
Credit: RHONA WISE / AFP

Darryl Verna’s week has been punctuated by funerals and viewings. Last Saturday, it was his friend, Joaquin Oliver, an exuberant 17-year-old athlete nicknamed “Guac”. On Tuesday, it was football coach Aaron Feis, who treated the kids on the team as if they were his own.

“Guac was close to everybody,” Verna told The Saturday Paper this week, his voice wavering with emotion. “And Coach Feis, he was looked up to by student athletes all over Broward.”

Verna was huddled in the school’s band room at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last Wednesday, frantically texting his sister and a friend, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, went on a six-minute killing spree that claimed the lives of Oliver, Feis and 15 others. In a crowded field, it stands out as the deadliest high-school shooting in United States history.

“I kept getting calls, so then I had to turn off my phone, because I didn’t want anybody to hear,” Verna says. “I just remember feeling so afraid and so scared… Everything just felt unreal.”

A procession of funerals is part of the ritual aftermath of a mass shooting in America. What comes after is usually a rapid decline in media attention and a political resistance to reform. This happens often enough to have for itself a repetitive formula.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is different, however. Teenagers in this relatively liberal enclave, in a state notorious for lax gun ownership laws, are angry and increasingly organised. Together, they have reinvigorated the fight for gun control in the US, a children’s crusade for justice and accountability.

On social media, they’ve bluntly taken on President Donald Trump: “I feel unsafe in an American school, and your prayers do not provide me with any safety … While you send out empty ‘thoughts’, I practice drills that I need to save my life.” At rallies, in opinion pieces and in television interviews, they have confronted the inaction and empty words of political leaders: “To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.”

In just one week, planning is under way for two national school walkouts, and a “March for Our Lives” on Washington, DC, on March 24, under the catchcry “Never Again”. The latter event has already been embraced by prominent liberals such as Oprah Winfrey, who has thrown money and praise at the teens. “These inspiring young people remind me of the Freedom Riders of the ’60s, who also said we’ve had enough and our voices will be heard,” Winfrey said.

Verna has been asked to address a rally in a neighbouring town in the coming days.

“I’m still a little iffy about it, because I just went to Joaquin’s funeral the other day,” he says.

“But at the same time, I’m probably going to go for it anyway, because I do need to. It’s my job as a friend, as a classmate, as member of the Parkland community.

“I need to speak on this. I need to do something.”

 

The senior year class at Douglas was mostly born one year after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The shooting deaths of 12 students and a teacher by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in 1999 made it America’s worst high-school shooting at that time. Its cultural impact was seismic.

Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine spotlighted the issue of gun control, but the months of news coverage was at least as interested in a seemingly nihilistic youth culture, provoking a moral panic about violent video games and goth music.

Although many American adolescents of the time became advocates of gun control, there wasn’t the same immediate blast of activism.

“I think we all just thought somebody else was going to do something, you know?” says Helen Kruskamp, who was just starting college when Columbine happened. “Since then I just think it’s happened over and over, and we’ve been realising that no one’s going to do anything if we don’t.”

Today Kruskamp, 37, has kids of her own and is a community gun control activist with Moms Demand Action in North Carolina. She got involved in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, in which 20 kids, mostly in Year 1, along with six staff members, were slaughtered. Her activism is driven by a simple belief: “It shouldn’t be an act of courage to send your kids to school.”

It’s Sisyphean work. Most of the victories for gun control advocates have either been local, or simply preventing new, more lax laws from being passed. Kruskamp is cautiously hopeful about the Florida students’ ability to cut through, though: “It’s a sadly beautiful thing.”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas teenagers can’t remember Columbine, but it shaped their lives. Just as their baby boomer relatives were taught to duck and cover from nuclear attack, American children are taught to hide in closets or behind desks from gunmen. Nine out of 10 US public schools run “lockdown drills”, according to an analysis by Vox Media. Douglas had one just weeks ago.

This week’s outcry from teenagers was a rejection of just how normalised gun violence has become. Americans are 25 times more likely to be shot dead than people in other developed countries, while mass shootings – where four or more people are killed – occur at a rate of about 20 per year, according to data from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The worst mass shooting in modern American history, the shooting of 58 people at a Las Vegas concert, happened less than five months ago. There have been nine more since.

Students such as Verna are old enough to recognise the routines that follow mass shootings, but not too old to be worn down or cynical about them. Unlike the traumatised six-year-olds of Sandy Hook, these teens are old enough to speak out to the media, but still young enough to cut a novel presence.

“The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives,” Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Douglas, said in her now-viral speech. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks, not because we are going to be another statistic … We are going to be the last mass shooting.”

It is not just their age, but also the age they’re living in, that has shaped these students’ response.

Teen activism on gun violence was already burgeoning in America. It was the high-school classmates of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a young girl shot dead accidentally in Chicago in 2013, who spurred the national day of protest called Wear Orange – a day in which participants wear the same bright colour worn by hunters so they can be seen safely. The Black Lives Matter movement, which swept the country in 2014, was born in response to the shooting deaths of African–American teenagers Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

The election of Donald Trump has seen an explosion of public protest on a scale reminiscent of the Vietnam War and civil rights era. Many of the rallying issues, such as the threats to young Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigrants or the affront of police brutality, affect teenagers acutely, especially those of colour. Despite the shallow stereotypes, youth culture in America is more attuned to progressive politics than many previous generations.

“A lot of young people saw the impact that activism had and the voice that it gave them,” says 20-year-old Madison Thomas of the wave of protest in 2017. A Seattle college student and an organiser with the Women’s March youth wing Empower, she’s now marshalling support for the national school walkout over gun violence on March 14.

Young Americans, she says, “want to reclaim our future and our safety”.

 

The Douglas teenagers are already being pilloried by parts of the right-wing media, and the political setbacks have already begun. Although Trump has made some cautious moves – supporting the strengthening of background checks and banning so-called bump stocks – on Tuesday the Florida House of Representatives blocked debate on a bill to ban assault weapons, as some of the teenagers, who had travelled to the state capital, looked on in horror.

The fact is, gun control in America, like abortion, almost perfectly divides the two political parties, says Dr David Smith, a senior lecturer at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Any prospective or incumbent Republican candidate’s staunch opposition to new gun control measures is a crucial litmus test in the party’s primaries.

“It’s not even so much the NRA, though it does act as whip hand on the Republican side; it’s really that polarisation,” Smith says. “It’s going to be very difficult to achieve anything.”

But there may still be a powerful shift, brought on by the Douglas students and their refusal to accept the routines of gun violence. Come 2020, many of them will be old enough to vote.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Young Americans". Subscribe here.

Josephine Tovey
is an Australian journalist based in New York City.

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