I’ve been asking the wrong question all along, and I only realized it after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week in Parkland, Florida. Ever since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered 12 students and one teacher, I’ve asked myself, how many have to die before we make it more difficult for people to access weapons?
It took 25 more school shootings for me to understand that children being shot to death in their classrooms won’t move Republicans who have been bought off by the National Rifle Association to pass gun control legislation. There have been 10 shootings since Columbine in which four or more people were killed, resulting in 122 fatalities, including the death or suicide of the perpetrators, and Republicans haven’t batted a legislative eye. The Washington Post calculated that approximately 150,000 students have experienced a shooting on a school campus since Columbine.
If we want to make it harder for people to buy guns, a new kind of standoff is necessary. Change, it seems, can only come from student-led civil disobedience. The youth will teach us adults how to convert the endless gun debate into actual legislative change, and that kind of education needs to be lived out in the real world, not from the safety of textbooks. Students are taking their demands for gun control to the streets, halls of Congress and courtrooms — on their own terms.
The growing number of student deaths clearly doesn’t move legislators to enact “common sense” restrictions on the ability to purchase weapons. For instance, a year ago, President Donald Trump rescinded an Obama-era regulation crafted in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that required the Social Security Administration to report beneficiaries with severe mental disabilities to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. This directive would have affected about 75,000 people found mentally incapable of managing their financial affairs, according to an analysis by Fortune magazine. Trump also rolled back other rules that attempted to define who exactly is too incompetent to buy guns.
Attorneys for 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, have cited his chronic battle with mental illness, family trauma and a fascination with guns and violence that was reflected in his social media profile and school disciplinary history. Gun laws that account for mental stability might have prevented him from buying the AR-15 he used to commit the shooting.
Republican lawmakers won’t budge on this issue because of the pile of money placed in front of them. Last week, The New York Times listed the top 10 career recipients of NRA funding among current House and Senate members, alongside their statements about the Las Vegas massacre. The lawmakers — all Republican — offered their “thoughts and prayers” to families but, not surprisingly, didn’t mention the need for legislation to regulate guns.
Anticipating more inertia from Republicans in Congress, students and family members are speaking up and demanding to be heard.
After Trump tweeted, “My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Sarah Chadwick’s reply went viral:
“I don’t want your condolences you f—ing price [sic] of s—, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But Gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
A grieving mother stared directly into a CNN camera during an interview, screaming exactly what Trump could do: “You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands!”
Yet the president made no mention of guns in his initial response to the shooting.
“If all our government and president can do is send ‘thoughts and prayers,’ then it’s time for victims to be the change we need to see,” said Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in a passionate entreaty to elected officials at a rally in Florida.
Thousands of students took to Twitter to organize a national walkout on the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting on April 20. They are using the hashtags #NationalSchoolWalkout, #April20 and #April20Walkout. Thousands more have signed a petition distributed by the Twitter account National School Walkout.
Women’s March Youth EMPOWER, an affiliate of the national organizing network Women’s March, is planning a national school walkout that will occur on March 14 at 10 a.m. in every time zone. Participants are instructed to leave their schools and gather in the streets for 17 minutes to honor the Florida victims.
This Wednesday, one hundred students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will march on the state capitol in Tallahassee for what is believed to be the first organized protest of their #NeverAgain movement.
Hopefully, there will be more protests. (And eventually, these students will turn 18 and be able to create change at the ballot box, too.)
Non-violent direct action rocks the boat. No one can ignore millions of students out in the streets as they might ignore op-eds and interviews with grieving families. There are an estimated 3.6 million teachers and more than 50 million public school students in the country, and they live in blue districts and red ones, in neighborhoods where every family has a gun and cities where hardly anyone does. Mass shootings have made bedfellows of school students around the country, and this lobby may be even more powerful than the bags of money the NRA uses to buy its politicians.
Through sit-ins, boycotts and marches, student activists in the civil rights movement forced once-segregated places to integrate by spurring the passage of new laws and demanding the enforcement of existing ones; so, too, will teachers and students have to disrupt the status quo to fix our broken gun control laws.
Students are grabbing the education they need by walking out of schools. It’s time to give legislators the civics lesson they apparently never received.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.