Young Rebels

Survivors of Parkland’s mass shooting fight for stricter gun laws and are having great success with the media. Could this be the beginning of a mass movement?

Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is open again. About two weeks after the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day during which an attacker killed 17 people, the survivors have returned to their classroom. They were greeted by 17 activists dressed as angels to remember the victims.

The demonstration itself was not unusual, but the fact that it made an impact beyond the city is definitely rare. For a long time, the U.S. seemed resigned to school shootings. This time however, the attention on this issue is not fading away. Important retail chains want to implement restrictions on gun sales, and even U.S. President Donald Trump has recently become willing to consider taking political measures.

This is largely due to the survivors of Parkland’s massacre: emotional and credible young people spurred to demand political change by their own pain. Their activism keeps the media focused on the issue and inspires other young people to participate in the debate. A few days ago, spokeswoman Emma Gonzalez reached a higher number of followers on Twitter than the National Rifle Association gun lobby. Is this the beginning of a new mass movement that can challenge America’s lax gun laws?

The Powerful Influence of Rural Populations

It is not that easy. True, polls show that a majority of the American population is in favor of stricter gun laws. However, guns and pistols are an indispensable part of everyday life in large areas of the country. Firearms give the sensation of safety to many inhabitants of rural regions, where the nearest police station is miles away. Hunting as a hobby has deep cultural roots. In these areas, demands for more stringent gun laws are viewed with extreme skepticism.

Recently, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that only a third of city dwellers approves of the NRA’s work as a gun lobby. In the countryside, that percentage amounts instead to more than half of the interviewees. Even support for the ban on the assault rifle AR-15 is clearly more restrained in rural areas than in city centers.

This is not good news for advocates of stricter gun laws, as the United States’ political system is greatly influenced by rural populations. Sparsely populated states such as Wyoming or North Dakota, where gun rights play a large role, have just as many Senate seats as densely populated states like California or New York, where access to firearms is significantly more regulated. Therefore, supporters of laxer gun laws already have a structural advantage.

Add to that the fact that both sides of the debate barely agree on anything in terms of content. Conservative thought leaders explain this as mainly a matter of cultural differences. According to commentator David French at the National Review, there are two fundamentally different starting positions concerning guns: “Among conservatives, there is the broad belief that the right to own a weapon for self-defense is every bit as inherent and unalienable as the right to speak freely or practice your religion.” Progressives instead view the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which forbids limitations on the right to own and carry weapons as an “embarrassment,” an obscure aberration that needs to be limited as much as possible.*

It is because of these different views on weapons that the debate is so difficult. A large majority of both city and rural inhabitants does approve of increased checks on gun sales to prevent criminals or mentally ill people from procuring firearms, but that is where the common ground ends.

Gun Advocates See Activism as a Provocation

Conservative media write that rural areas perceive demands for gun control as patronization by allegedly progressive city dwellers. “What you have to understand is that while you believe you have all the moral force on your side,” writes John Podhoretz at the New York Post, addressing gun control advocates, “you cannot make a gun owner believe that he is the Parkland shooter. Because he isn’t. And let’s face it, somewhere, deep in your heart, you think he is.”

In this climate, firearm supporters view activism from Parkland’s survivors as a provocation. In the far right fringe of the internet, there are already conspiracy theories depicting these young people not as victims but rather as paid actors.

Moderate conservative media obviously do not go that far, yet even serious publications attempt to deny the students’ right to take part in the gun law discussion. The Wall Street Journal commented, “Quick show of hands for those with children: How many of you look to your teens for political wisdom, whether it’s the daughter obsessing over her Snapchat streaks or the son who would spend his day eating Doritos and binge-gaming “Grand Theft Auto” if you let him?”

Even Young Americans Are Gun Supporters

Such hyperbolic remarks are not just indicative of a movement put on the defensive attempting to prevent unstoppable change. Even though public opinion seems to be in favor of stricter gun laws now, it remains to be seen whether this will result in a new mass movement.

This is so especially since the societal division concerning the issue of guns may persist even in the future. Current surveys show that Americans under 30 are hardly different than their parents or grandparents on this matter: While the majority does urge stricter gun laws, a considerable minority refuses them completely. According to Kim Parker from the Pew Research Center, “What we’re hearing now in the immediate aftermath of Parkland might not be representative of what a whole generation feels.”

This is unusual; normally young Americans are positioned considerably more to the left than their parents, whether the topic is marriage equality or the legalization of marijuana. That this trend is not being reflected when it comes to gun control shows that views on this issue are not a generational matter.

Despite these obstacles, Parkland’s activists do not give up. Their next test is already before them: On March 24, they have organized a major demonstration in Washington. Almost 120,000 people have already confirmed their attendance on Facebook.

*Editor’s note: The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

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