Author:Smith, Patricia
Position:Student movements

The response to the mass shooting at a Florida high school has been a surge of activism among students nationwide. Can they change the debate on guns?

Alex Wind survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February by huddling in a classroom closet with about 60 other students for an hour and a half. Listening to bursts of gunfire in the hallway and desperate with fear, Alex texted his parents what he thought might be a goodbye: "I think there's a shooter on campus ... I love you guys."

The following day, Alex was grief stricken and angry when he saw his best friend, Cameron Kasky, at a vigil for the 17 students and staff members killed at the school in Parkland, Florida. (The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student there, was already in custody.) Alex and Cameron hugged and agreed they had to do more than comfort each other and their classmates. They decided to take action, and Cameron proposed the name Never Again for a new group dedicated to pushing for stronger gun laws in the United States.

Within days, Never Again, formed along with other Stoneman Douglas students, had tens of thousands of social media followers, and Alex and his classmates had thrown themselves into staging political rallies, researching the legal framework of gun control, giving interviews, appearing on TV, and meeting with lawmakers.

"It was incredible to see how something that we started snowballed," says Alex, a 17-year-old junior.

'We Call B.S.!'

After decades of gridlock in the bitter national debate over the nation's gun laws, some observers are wondering if these student activists might tip the scales and convince lawmakers to put aside their differences and act. The students are determined to try to make that happen.

Stoneman Douglas senior Emma Gonzalez became an overnight celebrity after her impassioned speech at a Fort Lauderdale gun control rally a few days after the shooting went viral on social media. "They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred," she roared to a crowd of hundreds. "We call B.S.!"

Senior David Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed fellow students as they hid from the shooter, was so poised in TV appearances calling for stricter gun laws that conspiracy theorists began to circulate false stories online that Hogg, 17, was actually an actor paid by gun control interest groups.

Seizing their moment in the spotlight, the teens quickly announced plans for a national march on Washington to urge lawmakers to pass gun control measures. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey made huge donations to support the cause. (The March for Our Lives on March 24 was slated to happen after Upfront went to press, as was a nationwide student walkout planned for March 14. For updates, go to upfrontmagazine.com.)

The movement has continued to gather steam. The Stoneman Douglas students have met with lawmakers in Florida's capital, Tallahassee, to press for changes to state law. They've traveled to Washington to meet with members of Congress and with President Trump. And their activism has inspired high school students across the country to follow their lead and stage protests, rallies, and walkouts to draw attention to the issue of school safety and gun control.

"We're seeing lots and lots of students who weren't directly impacted by this standing up and taking action," says Angus Johnston, a professor at Hostos Community College in New York City who studies youth movements. "It's merging into a national movement."

A Long List of Tragedies

The school shooting in Florida follows a long string of national tragedies, including the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado; the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech; the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival in October. Each time, a familiar script has played out: horror at the death toll, calls for action in response, and ultimately legislative gridlock.

The big question for many has been: Might the passion and the engagement of all these young people be enough to change that script?

There are already signs of action in statehouses across the nation, with lawmakers considering a variety of measures. In Florida, the legislature in March passed a gun control bill that raises the minimum age to purchase any gun to 21, creates a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, bans bump stocks, * provides money for school security and mental health services, and creates a voluntary program to arm some school personnel. The bill--which did not include an assault weapons ban, tighter background checks, and other changes sought by student activists was awaiting Governor Rick Scott's signature at press time. Other states, including Wyoming, Idaho, and Virginia, were considering expanding gun rights, sometimes citing the Parkland shooting as a motivating factor. Whether Congress takes any action is another question (see "A Divided Nation, " facing page).

Matt Bennett, a founder of Third Way, a center-left advocacy group in Washington, D.C., is a longtime watcher of gun debates that have failed to lead to compromise on this issue, which stirs passion on both sides. He thinks this time might be different.

"What has changed ... is the kids and the extraordinary, galvanizing force they have become," Bennett says. "No one knows when we are going to hit a tipping point on this issue. We may have hit it--we don't know. But if we did, it's because of them."

Many people, however, while deeply concerned about school shootings, aren't convinced that the answer is more restrictions on guns.

"Of course we want to listen to these kids," Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said after meeting with students, "but we also want to make sure that we protect people's due process rights and legal constitutional rights while making sure that people who should not get...

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