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I’m not making this up. But today this story failed to evoke the nauseated rage that’s my usual response to the disingenuous promotion of semiautomatic weapons as tools for democracy. It didn’t leave me feeling helpless and despairing. Thanks to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the millions of teens and teachers around the country who have been galvanized by them, I feel like the 98-pound weakling about to witness the take-down of the schoolyard bully. And no, I’m not glibly speaking of Nikolas Cruz, but of the industry and government that armed him.
The students (and their teachers) are taking on not just the gun lobbyists, but the politicians they court. Beyond organizing walkouts and marches on March 24 and April 20 (the anniversary of the Columbine shootings), they are calling for a Badge of Shame to be bestowed upon any politician accepting funding from the National Rifle Association. And in demanding that any official opposing gun control legislation be voted out of office, they are exposing the self-serving sanctimony of the so-called leaders who have done nothing but stretch out their hands for NRA donations, then sit on them.
In her fiery speech at a gun-control rally in Fort Lauderdale a few days after the shootings, Douglas senior Emma Gonzalez framed the implications of legislators’ inaction in terms they understand, the language of dollars and cents. After (inaccurately) noting that the NRA contributed $30 million to the Trump campaign (when in fact according to Quartz, they spent $34.5 million on advertising during the 2016, with $11.4 million of it going directly to Trump’s campaign), she framed the issue in a novel and penetrating way: “Thirty million dollars. Divide it by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the 1 ½ months since the start of 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800. Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump? If you don’t do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up and the number that they are worth will go down ..."
The bluntness of Gonzalez and the thousands of other young people who have taken to Twitter, Instagram and to the streets has for once been met with similar candor. Speaking on CNN, Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich said the students "are absolutely right when they say that politicians have not been responding to any of this." Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told CBS, "I am not optimistic that until there is real action by the American public to demand change in Congress that we’re going to see real action to confront gun violence out of this Congress."
With the certainty and defiance so characteristic of their age, young people are accepting the challenge, organizing a movement with insight and a bracing savviness about how to use technology to enhance, not undermine, our sense of shared humanity. While the shootings were in progress, they were streaming video to document the carnage as it was occurring, texting updates, and interviewing one another as both a means to bear witness and to incite action among those who sat safely outside the school walls. And since the killing has ended, they’ve smartly, relentlessly used social media to expose hypocrisy and organize further actions.
“To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you,” Emma Gonzalez declared to the Fort Lauderdale protest. She’d been wiping away tears, but a poignant smile broke through as the crowd took up the chant, Shame on you. Her call-and-response continued. “They say guns are just tools, like knives, and are as dangerous as cars: we call BS. They say that no laws would have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that occur: we call BS.” Engaging the crowd of angry mourners, her speech culminated in a simple truth: “That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”
As Virginia Heffernan wrote in Wired, “Their uprising provides a new model for all of us who live in two worlds: The real one, where the blood is, and the digital one, where the lies are.”
My cohort hasn’t done nearly enough to protect their futures. We owe them the world. Let’s give it to them.
Sadly, predictably, the “uprising” is awakening the political propaganda bots -- both Russian and homegrown -- that amplify the noise and obfuscate the truth. But it is also activating emotionally and intellectually honest gun-owners like Scott Pappalardo and Ben Dickmann to revisit their choices and destroy or turn in their semiautomatic weapons. Their stories about why they’ve chosen to divest themselves of their AR-15s, accounts of how they literally cannot live with these weapons any longer, demonstrate that these young people are not just challenging authority, as kids are prone to do, but arousing a moral pulse that tends to grow all-too-faint in their elders.
Fifty years ago I fought different battles with the same righteousness. Back then we used to dance and sing along to The Doors’ "When the Music’s Over." “We want the world and we want it … now.” But the Parkland students and the Black Lives Matter activists preceding them have made me sick of my own whining nostalgia. My cohort hasn’t done nearly enough to protect their futures. We owe them the world. Let’s give it to them.