Gun violence in the US

How Florida school shooting survivors are shifting the battle lines in the gun control debate

Paul Letters says the #NeverAgain movement led by teenagers after the mass shooting at a school in Florida has gained more ground in the gun control debate than past efforts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 11:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:28am

Following every mass shooting in the US, false optimism for change rises as media interest in gun-control spikes – for a few days. This time, over two weeks later, a group of media-savvy teenage survivors are not accepting “be quiet” as an answer.

Soon after the Valentine’s Day massacre, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky and other survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School founded the #NeverAgain movement, with the aim of making this America’s last such massacre. Emma González has emerged as a powerful public speaker, now known for her “We call BS” refrain at a gun control rally. She has attracted over a million Twitter followers – double that of the National Rifle Association. Furthermore, Google searches for “gun control” have sustained for an unusually long time after a massacre. Schools across the US have organised protests and petitions, energising young people ahead of the “March for Our Lives” in Washington. These kids could never secure a comprehensive ban on guns – and that’s not their aim – but to believe that they can accomplish nothing is to overlook their ongoing achievements.

As a result of the public concern stirred up by the #NeverAgain campaigners, around 20 companies have dropped discount deals they previously offered NRA members – from Avis and Hertz to Delta and United Airlines, to motel chains and insurance companies. Video service Amazon Prime is facing mass cancellations of subscriptions for carrying NRA TV. Moreover, one retailer, Dick’s Sporting Goods chain store, decided to immediately stop selling assault-style rifles and to not allow anyone under the age of 21 to purchase a gun. Walmart is also raising the minimum age for firearms and ammunition purchases to 21.

The regularity of school massacres in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon: the millennial generation is the first to have suffered it throughout their entire schooling

Polls suggest a much bigger shift than is normal after a gun massacre. Fifty per cent of respondents to a CNN survey following the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas said they wanted tighter gun restrictions; now, that figure is 70 per cent. The young feel more strongly than the old. The regularity of school massacres in the US is a relatively recent phenomenon: the millennial generation is the first to have suffered it throughout their entire schooling. The Floridian survivors and their followers will soon vote for the first time – many in November’s midterm elections.

Even voters who identify as Republican are shifting in favour of greater gun restrictions. This is making some politicians on the right waver. At a town hall meeting in Florida, Casky hurled questions at Florida Senator Marco Rubio – rated A+ by the NRA which donates over US$3 million to his campaign funds. And Rubio ceded some ground, saying that he supports raising the minimum age for buying rifles from 18 to 21. Florida governor Rick Scott – formally in the NRA’s pocket but now gearing up for a midterm election run for the US Senate – has made his own U-turn to now support the age increase.

Although he may be pulled into line by the NRA and Republican leaders, Rubio also assured the pupils of the need for stronger background checks and a ban on bump stocks (a device to increase a gun’s rate of fire). There is every chance that, under pressure from the #NeverAgain campaign, NRA darling Donald Trump will get further with gun control than President Barack Obama ever managed.

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Earlier this week, the student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were in the capital, meeting leaders of both parties. As tragic as the massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) and Las Vegas were, neither pushed the debate this far. The survivors of the Florida school shooting are well informed, articulate, social-media-savvy and energised by the hope of youth. Critics have told them to shut up, just as the young were told to be quiet about women’s suffrage, the Vietnam war and civil rights. Don’t expect the #NeverAgain kids to be left on the losing side of history.

Paul Letters is a novelist, journalist and historian. See