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How Gen Z is changing the politics of guns in America

Young people are seen on the Emory University campus in Atlanta, Georgia on October 14, 2022.  Young people tend to be among the most politically engaged groups in the United States. (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images)
Young people are seen on the Emory University campus in Atlanta, Georgia on October 14, 2022. Young people tend to be among the most politically engaged groups in the United States. (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images)

Many of us remember exactly where we were when the name “Sandy Hook” became part of our lexicon. I was in New Hampshire, working as a backcountry lodge caretaker and running resupply errands when news crackled from the radio of my loaner pickup truck that 20 elementary school students and six educators had been murdered by a young man wielding a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle.

The viciousness and the scale of the Sandy Hook mass shooting seemed like an inevitable come-to-Jesus moment for Americans — a shooting so horrific that Congress would be forced to enact restrictions on the sale of weapons that are structurally designed to inflict maximum carnage on human bodies.

Nearly as horrific as the shooting itself was the slow, incredulous realization that our federal government would do nothing to prevent the next Sandy Hook. That the Republican Party, in its fealty to gun manufacturers and lobbyists, would squelch any substantive efforts to control the proliferation of assault weapons among American civilians. And that similar weapons would later be used to massacre even more students at school, including in Parkland, Florida, and Uvalde, Texas.

Nearly as horrific as the shooting itself was the slow, incredulous realization that our federal government would do nothing to prevent the next Sandy Hook.

A decade after Sandy Hook, the shooting of children has become a fixture of American life. Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit founded by family members of several Sandy Hook victims, has clocked more than 2,000 school shootings that have taken place in America since 2012. To put this number in perspective: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently identified firearms as the leading cause of death for American children and teens.

But something else has happened in the wake of Sandy Hook that offers a tangible way out of this uniquely American nightmare. Generation Z — Americans born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, who came of age in the aftermath and threat of school shootings — have begun participating in the electoral process. About 1 in 8 voters who cast ballots in November’s midterm elections were less than 30 years old. Tufts University’s’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates that voter turnout among Gen Z was 27% — one of the highest youth turnout metrics for midterm elections in the past three decades.

Why is this so important? Because by most accounts, Gen Z voters were responsible for staving off the Republican Party’s “red tsunami” that many pundits and political analysts were predicting. More so than any other adult generation — even Millennials, once considered the foil to the GOP — Gen Z has announced itself as the bane of the Republican Party’s existence and future.

This should be a resounding note of hope for the 71% of Americans who want stricter gun laws.

The initial promise of expanded gun control laws after Sandy Hook was ultimately snuffed out by Congressional math. The Democrats didn’t have enough seats to overcome the Republican Party’s opposition to gun control laws. For a lot of Americans — including many Democrats — the big takeaway from that blood-boiling defeat seems to have been: If we can’t beat the GOP, then we’ll have to work with them. Since Sandy Hook, some of us have found hope and comfort in the idea that within the block of Republican resistance to gun restrictions, there are reasonable allies to be cultivated. Leaning into this idea that bipartisanship could be the path to better gun laws, and some gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety have endorsed Republican candidates in significant Congressional races who had articulated some degree of support for gun control.

It’s a nice fantasy, but the political courage of a few rogue Republicans is not going to be the catalyst for gun control in America. While a couple of Republicans have defected from the party machinery on this issue, most of the GOP remains fiercely committed to the free flow of guns in America.

Youth turnout numbers and voting patterns in the 2022 midterms offer a real path to gun control: marginalizing the GOP’s political influence.

Republicans have also been busy taking over legal institutions, so that they’ll have a better shot at putting down any legislative efforts to reign in gun sales in the future. The Supreme Court has been stacked with activist justices who have already used their power to strip Americans of their right to abortions.

When a political party captures civic infrastructure like this, using institutions to protect its own power and agenda even as most of the country protests, that party can no longer be reasoned with. It can only be clobbered into humility. And that’s what Gen Z voters, who have suffered some of the worst consequences of the Republican Party’s destructive, antisocial position on guns, understand better than their older peers. Youth turnout numbers and voting patterns in the 2022 midterms offer a real path to gun control: marginalizing the GOP’s political influence.

This must be the agenda for more Americans — not just the young — who are weary of all the bullets and bloodshed. No more magical thinking about finding a Mr. Smith hidden in the GOP caucus. No more fretting about “one party rule” and the need for balance.

In this country, for better or worse, we have two choices when we vote. Generation Z has identified the correct choice for dealing with gun violence at scale. The rest of us would do well to follow their lead.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is a freelance writer who covers culture, travel and transformational politics.

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