In many ways, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last week has followed the same soul-deadening script that Americans have been forced to memorize by heart over the last two decades. A young man with bright-red warning flags in his past legally purchased a weapon of war and used it to massacre civilians, in this case 14 students and three staff members. The nation recoiled, again, in horror. Republican lawmakers offered mealy-mouthed condolences while promising precisely nothing to prevent the next tragedy; liberals alternated between impotent rage and unhelpful fatalism. Rinse, repeat.
But there has been one significant deviation to the story this time around: the survivors.
Almost as soon as the rampage had ended, a group of Stoneman Douglas students made themselves heard, lambasting lawmakers for their cowardice and wrestling the usual narrative (trying to divine a motive for the shooting, ephemeral remembrances of the victims) to one of moral outrage about guns. Their articulate, strident rejection of the Republican “thoughts and prayers” platform is unlikely to significantly alter federal or Florida gun laws in the near future. But it frames gun reform as an urgent moral issue better than any lawmaker or seasoned activist could, and sets the tone for a Democratic Party that is increasingly unafraid to take on the National Rifle Association. Heading into the 2018 midterms and beyond, the students are showing the way forward on one of the most intractable issues in America.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, several students spoke to television networks, voicing their outrage by simply making reasonable points.
“If kids aren’t even allowed to purchase their first drink of alcohol then how are we allowed to buy guns at the age of 18 or 19?” 16-year-old survivor Lyliah Skinner told CNN. “I feel like as our legislators and leaders, they shouldn’t be offering prayers and words, we need action.”
One student’s profanity-laden, since-deleted tweet directed at Trump gained widespread attention; others took aim at Senator Marco Rubio and right-wing personality/troll Tomi Lahren.
The students’ visibility has only grown since.
On Saturday, senior Emma González delivered a lengthy and passionate speech at a rally in Fort Lauderdale in which she excoriated politicians who refuse to do anything about gun violence.
“The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” she said. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS.”
“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” she vowed.
“We are going to be marching together as students, begging for our lives,” 11th-grader Cameron Kasky said. “At this point, you are either with us or against us.”
Meanwhile, others have continued to speak out on Twitter:
As Republicans make a show of considering some extremely basic gun reforms, President Trump has announced a listening session with high-school students and teachers on Wednesday, though it’s not clear where the meeting will take place or what will be discussed. These elementary steps probably won’t satisfy the most outspoken students, whose ability to detect meaningless gestures is clearly well developed.
In the long annals of American mass shootings, it’s difficult to find a corollary to the the students’ immediate and organized action. It’s true that after every high-profile tragedy, there are anguished parents, spouses, and survivors who cry out for sensible gun reform, and later become advocates for the cause. Major organizations like Moms Demand Action (now part of Everytown for Gun Safety) sprang up in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
But this time feels different. Social media, which didn’t exist in the Columbine era, is one explanation for the Parkland students’ visibility. But it’s depressingly likely that their voices could only have emerged from a society in which mass shootings are less an aberration than an ever-present possibility. The preternatural poise of the students in the killings’ aftermath made it feel almost as though they had been anticipating the tragedy — which, in a society where mass-shooting drills at schools have become a fact of life, may not too be far off.
As he was hiding in a closet during the rampage, 17-year-old David Hogg, a student journalist who has emerged as one of the most eloquent voices in the shooting’s aftermath, calmly recorded students’ reactions to what was happening.
“I want to show these people exactly what’s going on when these children are facing bullets flying through classrooms and students are dying trying to get an education,” he told CNN. “That’s not okay, and that’s not acceptable and we need to fix that.”
But beyond their composure, Hogg and his cohort intuit that fury — sustained fury — is the only force that will drive change on guns. “You sicken me,” he said on Sunday, responding to a Trump tweet blaming Democrats for a lack of gun laws.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the NRA is not an unbeatable, indomitable political organization — they lose all the time. Also contrary to popular wisdom, the NRA does not strike fear in lawmakers’ hearts simply because of its fundraising prowess. It wins because its members are so devoted to gun rights that they’ll punish any lawmaker who diverges from the loosest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment.
That level of passion is something gun reformers have simply failed to match. It has taken tens of thousands of deaths, and one high-profile mass shooting after another, to even come close.
But there are real signs of progress. Already, the Parkland students have probably helped prevent news coverage from pivoting away from gun control as quickly as it usually does after a mass shooting. They’ll keep trying to prevent the press from changing the subject. And if the majority of Americans who favor stricter laws follow their lead, gun-supporting Republicans will have one more thing to worry about this November.
The Stoneman Douglas students vow that theirs will be the last school shooting in America. They’re probably wrong. But by controlling the narrative around their own tragedy and using it to rally others to their cause, they’ve shown the country that despair and paralysis are no longer an appropriate response to our gun violence crisis.