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Students lead calls for gun control in aftermath of Florida shooting

Joe Raedle, Getty/AFP | People join together after a school shooting that killed 17 to protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County Federal courthouse on February 17.

Victims of last week’s Florida school shooting gathered with thousands of supporters on Saturday to say “enough is enough”. The crowd chanted “shame on you”, denouncing politicians’ inaction in the wake of the country’s latest mass shooting.


Mass shootings in the United States systematically trigger debates on gun control. But in the aftermath of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the most prominent voices have been those of the victims themselves, not the politicians.

No time to grieve

"To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you!" said student Emma Gonzales in a passionate speech on the steps of Fort Lauderdale’s federal courthouse on Saturday. She criticized President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association (NRA) for creating a political environment where even the most narrow gun control proposals rarely make it to the floor of state legislatures.

The debate is a familiar one. On Thursday, Trump, who ran for office promising to protect American gun rights and warned that Hillary Clinton was “coming for your guns”, pledged to make American schools safe, but held firm to the line that guns are not to blame for these incidents.

“Gun-control proponents try to quickly capitalize, if not exploit these tragedies to push their political agenda,” Gun Magazine editor David Workman told FRANCE 24.

It’s a common criticism in the wake of shootings like these. Tomi Lahren, a right-leaning Fox News commentator, tweeted, “Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda?” But in this case, the victims were the ones pushing back, slamming Lahren on Twitter.

"Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving," said Gonzalez on Saturday. “"But instead, we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”

After the shooting, Cameron Kasky, a junior at Stoneman Douglas, and a few classmates started a Facebook page, “Never Again”, on which students have shared their experiences and posted information about organizing protests and public appearances.

“People say it’s too early to talk about it,” Kasky said. “If you ask me, it’s way too late.”

A new generation

The way that students have sprung to action marks a departure from the aftermath of past shootings. After the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, “There was nobody who took an activism stance,” said Austin Eubanks, who survived the massacre that shocked the entire world. “I just wanted to be left alone. I was so destabilized and traumatized,” he told the New York Times.

But this generation of high-school students, all born after Columbine, have grown up with “code red” intruder drills in addition to fire drills. The oldest of them would have entered high school two years after a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

An uphill battle

Since then, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide. Sixteen of them are considered mass shooting events, in which four or more people have been shot.

Wednesday’s shooting is Florida’s third major shooting incident since a gunman massacred 47 people at the gay nightclub “Pulse” in Orlando in 2016. Yet the only victories for gun-control advocates have been the defeats of legislation aimed at loosening gun control, like a proposed law that would allow some people to take guns into airports. State Senator Linda Stewart, a Democrat, proposed a ban on assault weapons after the Orlando massacre, but the legislation was not assigned to a committee.

State-level advocacy was able to produce some change in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and the Las Vegas shootings. After Sandy Hook, Connecticut expanded an existing ban on the sale of assault weapons, forbade the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds, and required registration of existing assault rifles. But efforts in Nevada and Florida have faced hurdles. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas attack, voters approved a new law requiring criminal background checks for private gun sales, but it was blocked before it could go into effect. The same loophole undermined background check laws in Florida, where much of the existing legislation is poorly enforced.

‘We are going to change the law’ – Emma Gonzalez

“The students at this school have been having debates about guns for what feels like our entire lives. Some discussions on the subject even occurred during the shooting while students were hiding in the closets,” said Gonzalez, referring to David Hogg, who recorded his fellow classmates’ views on gun control while they cowered in a supply closet.

“The only thing I could think of was, pull out my camera and try telling others. […] Get other people’s stories on tape. If we all die, the camera survives, and that’s how we get the message out there, about how we want change to be brought about,” Hogg told TIME magazine.

The students have not gone unnoticed. “The interviews with the surviving students have been nothing short of remarkable. They have shown more compassion and fortitude and poise than we are seeing from [Florida Senator Marco] Rubio or [Florida Governor Rick] Scott or the president,” Andrew Patrick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, told FRANCE 24.

Much of the power of the National Rifle Association and gun rights advocates comes from a vocal minority of single-issue voters voters who will not vote for candidates who advocate for gun control. Patrick sees these students as a chance to apply opposing pressure on state legislatures. “This constituency of students is adding to a long list of people, like the LGBT community after [the 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in] Orlando, who are building a coalition to defeat the gun lobby and make America a safer place.”

Indeed, students at high schools around the country staged walkouts in solidarity, and a gun control advocacy group, Moms Demand Action, told the New York Times that it received so many requests from students that it had decided to set up a parallel student-focused advocacy group.

Students have also planned a “March for our Lives” in Washington on March 24, and the organizers behind the Women’s March are planning a 17-minute national school walkout on March 14.

“We’ve seen a lot change in the last five years,” said Patrick, noting that attention has faded more slowly in the aftermath of more recent mass shootings. “This is a movement that is growing by the day. It gets much stronger after people witness these terrible events.”

But he is realistic about the current climate. “Given the current makeup of Washington, we are not holding our breath [for federal regulation]. But there is action we can take at the state level,” he said.


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