By Alexandra Sosik and Fadel Allassan
Capital News Service
For the second time in as many months, thousands of students throughout the country united in a national school walkout last week, demanding government action on gun control with their piercing cry of “never again.”
The walkout marked 19 years since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire in Columbine High School in Colorado, murdering 12 fellow students and a teacher. In the aftermath of that bloodbath, President Bill Clinton urged Congress to pass gun control laws. But nothing happened then – or after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 or Las Vegas last fall.
But after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, the political winds seemed to have shifted in favor of gun control. What made the difference? Generation Z – roughly defined as those born in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.
On March 24, 17-year-old Harry Kelso stood atop a van with a megaphone in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He looked at the crowd of some 5,000 gun control advocates gathered before him at the Richmond March for Our Lives.
“I pray for the school year without the drills and the hide-and-lock exercises we’ve experienced since elementary school that remind us of the ever-present danger we face,” Kelso, a senior at Hermitage High School in Henrico, told the crowd. “I pray for the day I don’t have to pray about this anymore.”
Cameron Kasky – the 17-year-old firebrand and Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who made a name challenging Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall – echoed a similar message at the main rally happening simultaneously in Washington, D.C. More than 800,000people attended that demonstration.
“My generation, having spent our entire lives seeing mass shooting after mass shooting, has learned our voices are powerful and our votes matter,” Kasky said. “We must educate ourselves and start having conversations that keep our country moving forward. And we will. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come.”
Kelso and Kasky, in Richmond and D.C., respectively, were two of the many voices participating in the March for Our Lives – a protest sparked by the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. The protest, like a school walkout staged 10 days earlier, was organized primarily by high school-age youths.
It all started Feb. 16, two days after the shooting in Parkland, when the hashtag #NeverAgain began trending on Twitter. That became the impetus for a rally that was originally planned for Washington but then spread to cities and towns across the nation and world.
The movement, inspired by tragedy and fueled by anger, has used social media to galvanize members of Generation Z. Among other tactics, they have confronted businesses and excoriated political leaders who accept financial donations from the National Rifle Association.
The students have had some success. Just weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Florida enacted a gun-control law that bans rapid-fire “bump stocks” and raises the minimum age for buying a firearm from 18 to 21. Although Virginia did not follow suit, Democratic legislators have formed a committee to consider ways to stop gun violence, and Republican lawmakers appointed a panel to bolster school safety.
It’s not unusual to see Kasky or other survivors of the Parkland shooting such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez on cable news promoting their cause nationally. In Richmond, students such as Kelso and Armstrong High School freshman Corey Stuckey lead the charge.
The recent activity among young people surrounding gun control has been a long time coming.
Since 1982, there have been 98 shootings in the U.S. in which three or more people were killed. Sixteen of those incidents happened at schools. Of all mass shootings, Marjory Stoneman Douglas had the seventh-highest number of fatalities; Sandy Hook ranked fourth; and Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed in 2007, was third.
On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 children and six staff members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In response, parents created the Sandy Hook Promise to “prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.”
But the Sandy Hook tragedy did not prompt governmental action on gun control. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, explained why such incidents don’t necessarily result in new laws.
“The Columbine shootings have energized the gun-control debate, and moreover, they have given the emotional edge to the gun-control advocates,” Sabato told the Denver Post. “However, an edge in a debate is not an edge in Congress or the state legislatures.”
Today’s generation of students advocating gun control faces a similar test, and questions remain about whether they can impact the 2018 midterm election.
“One of the most difficult times for a movement is after the initial burst of energy when grinding work needs to be done,” said Derek Sweetman of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. “The movement will not end on Election Day, but I do expect many students in the movement will view the results as a measure of their influence, and therefore will work toward that date.”
The Sandy Hook survivors were too young to understand the magnitude of their tragedy, much less utilize technology to express their emotions. The Columbine survivors lived in a pre-digital age. The students leading the #NeverAgain movement, Sweetman said, are in the right place at the right time.
“Our political environment has destabilized some established political truths, and that has left more room for real action than we saw after Sandy Hook,” Sweetman said. “The students are taking advantage of that.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said the students’ efforts have already been more successful than previous attempts to influence gun policies. For example, Kaine noted, Walmart agreed to stop selling firearms to people under 21; Kroger decided to stop selling guns altogether in its Fred Meyer stores; and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles.
Kaine, a Democrat, also credited activity in Congress to young activists. A spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March lifted a decades-long ban that prevented the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on the causes of gun violence. In addition, the bill prods federal agencies to upload records into the background-check system for gun purchases.
“I had grown somewhat despondent in my efforts with the General Assembly and Congress. But then I saw the students of this country … standing up and saying to adults, ‘What matters more – our safety or political contributions?’” Kaine told students at the March rally in Richmond. “Now I have more hope because of you.”
Scott Barlow, a member of the Richmond School Board, said he has been inspired by the students’ grassroots activism.
“Students haven’t had the opportunity to lend their voice in this debate. Now they’re bringing the perspective of people who are most impacted by school shootings, and the most impacted by gun violence in our city,” Barlow said about the rally. “It was the first time in a long time I felt optimistic about our ability to legislate gun safety.”