Kids Versus Guns
Once again thousands of Americans poured into the streets to express a clear political position. This time it was high school students horrified at the mass murders of other students and at the unwillingness of politicians to do anything about it.
Students lay down in front of the White House last Monday. Survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida rallied at the state Capitol and urged legislators to change gun laws. Thousands of students across the country walked out of school last Wednesday to protest gun violence.
A nationwide school walkout is planned for March 14, lasting 17 minutes for the 17 Florida victims. Then come a march in Washington, called March For Our Lives, on March 24, and a National High School Walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
We never know what incident will provoke a mass social movement. Wikipedia conveniently lists all school shootings with 3 or more deaths over the past two centuries. There were 3 in the 19th century, one in the first half of the 20th century, 6 more before 1990. Then there were 9 in the 1990s, 5 in the 2000s, and 11 since 2010, more than one a year. Before Columbine in 1999, only one incident involved more than 7 deaths; since then, six with 10 or more deaths. In the past year, three school shootings have left 26 dead. If we widen our gaze to all shootings at schools, then there was one every other day in January, mostly without deaths.
After Columbine and Sandy Hook there were protests about how easy it is for those who plan mass murders to get powerful weapons, but they didn’t last long enough to force politicians to listen. Will this time be different?
Days after the Florida massacre, Republican state legislators there voted not to consider a bill to ban large-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Instead, as school shootings increase, the Republican response has been “More guns!” Republican state lawmakers recently decided to bring guns onto college campuses in Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin and other states. Two Republican candidates for Congress, Tyler Tannehill in Kansas and Austin Petersen in Missouri, are giving away an AR-15 as part of their campaigns. Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers and spend millions training them fits neatly into the Republican policy of arming everybody.
It’s useful to stand back and think about whether this idea has even been proposed for other similar situations. Dylann Roof murdered 9 people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, on June 17, 2015, with a Glock .45-caliber handgun. On November 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with an AR-15 pattern Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle. These mass killings are the most horrific of a growing wave of church shootings.
Dallas Drake and his team of researchers at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis counted 136 church shootings between 1980 and 2005, about 5 per year, but 147 from 2006 to 2016, over 13 per year. Should we arm priests and rabbis and ministers?
Right now, the political engagement of young Americans for gun control is very high. Can the kids accomplish politically what generations of adults have not be able to do – prevent further school massacres?
The political protest of youngsters can move national politics in particular circumstances. In May 1963, schoolchildren marched in Brimingham, Alabama, to protest segregation and discrimination. That Children’s Crusade had political effect mainly because of the violent response of Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and his policemen, and the bombing a few months later of the 16th St. Baptist Church, killing four little girls. Politicians learned that attacking children with fire hoses and batons is stupid. Now they politely listen and then ignore the youngsters’ message.
The Australian response to a massacre in 1996 is sometimes brought up as a model for the US. The government not only banned further sales of semiautomatic weapons, but confiscated 650,000 guns. Since then there have been no mass killings. But an Australian gun owner and supporter of restrictions argues persuasively that Australians, with their very different history, don’t like guns and offered no opposition to this revocation of their right to own weapons of mass killing. Too many Americans love guns for this to work here. Our culture accepts, even glorifies gun violence.
But it is not necessary to transform our culture to deal with guns in America. Most of the kids may not be able to vote yet, but persistent political action could shift the small number of votes needed to defeat the small number of state and federal legislators who stand in the way of majority votes for banning assault rifles and large capacity magazines, for tightening rules about who can own guns.
We’ll see if students can keep up the pressure all the way to the elections in November. That would require behavior uncommon among teenagers – long-term political engagement. It may save their lives.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 27, 2018
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