The Parkland Teens Are Winning the Culture War

The face that enrages the right.

On Friday night, a day after apologizing for taunting school shooting survivor David Hogg about his college rejections, Fox News host Laura Ingraham announced that she would be taking a week off for what the network called a “preplanned vacation,” as sponsors continue to flee her show.

Ingraham’s swift retreat is just the latest sign that, six weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the gun reform movement is winning the cultural battle that must precede any sweeping political change.

Almost immediately after the shooting on February 14 (as with so many events during the Trump era, it feels much longer ago than that), it was obvious that the preternaturally poised survivors who have since become familiar media presences — Emma González, Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and others — would present a unique challenge to gun-rights champions, who in the past could count on the country to move on from a school shooting soon after the initial mourning period.

As the media-savvy students blanketed the airwaves with their eminently reasonable arguments, the big questions were whether the momentum they created could actually last, and, if it did, whether it might actually result in major changes to the country’s gun laws, a goal that has eluded activists for decades.

The second question is still up for debate, though initial signs are surprisingly positive. But the answer to the first question is clear: In just the last few weeks, there has been a significant change in the conversation around guns, one that seems likely to stick.

On March 24, the March for Our Lives drew enormous crowds into the streets of cities worldwide and only a smattering of counterprotesters. Weeks before, a CNN town hall featuring an out-of-his-depth Marco Rubio was an early sign that guns, once a subject Republicans didn’t have to much worry about, were not so easy to navigate anymore. On the internet and off, the conversation around gun violence has hardly faded into the background, even amid the usual swirl of Trump administration chaos. It’s hard to imagine that when the next inevitable mass shooting rolls around, Republican lawmakers will be able to get away with offering the “thoughts and prayers” that have felt so inadequate for so long.

Public opinion polls have emphasized this new reality, showing a marked trend toward more robust gun laws. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews notes, the polling shifts immediately after school shootings have traditionally been ephemeral. But, while it’s still early and surveys have varied, there are signs that Parkland may really be different. The surge in gun reform sentiment hasn’t faded as much as in previous instances, while some of the transformations in public opinion have been dramatic. One particularly striking Gallup poll, conducted in early March, showed that support for stricter gun laws stood at 67 percent, its highest level since 1993, and that 13 percent of Americans mentioned guns as the most important problem facing America, the highest number since the issue was first included in that question in 1994.

Another clear sign that the winds of opinion are changing is that right-wing commentators have largely abandoned their well-rehearsed talking points about guns themselves in favor of ad hominem attacks against the Florida students.

As conservative websites peddle outrage and easily disprovable conspiracy theories about the students, commentators like Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson have adopted a strangely aggressive attitude toward David Hogg. Lesser residents of the fever swamps have followed suit with the insults. On Saturday, gun zealot and White House guest Ted Nugent said that the Parkland student activists are “soulless” liars, and Hollywood also-ran Frank Stallone called Hogg a “pussy.”

These brutal tactics seem likely to backfire, as they already have in the case of Ingraham. As the old political maxim goes: “If you’re personally attacking the survivors of a school shooting, you’re losing.”

In the past, the NRA has been able to exert so much sway not because of its money, but because of the passion it stirs among members, which in turn terrifies Republican lawmakers nationwide. Taken together, the shifts in culture since February 14 show that the Parkland students have supercharged the gun reform movement that gained steam after the shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012. For the first time in recent memory, gun reform advocates have a clear advantage on the raw emotional terrain of America’s gun debate. Given the country’s entrenched gun culture and the natural advantages its political system hands rural voters, it was always going to take this kind of deafening, concerted outrage to seriously challenge a gun-rights movement that has expertly redefined what it means to own a firearm.

But will all that translate to political change? At the federal level, the odds of anything significant passing with a Republican Congress are still slim to none. The Florida students are right to focus so heavily on registering voters who can help install a Democratic Congress, which is the only reasonable path to major reform.

Still, while that kind of nationwide transformation may be a long way off, it’s instructive to look at what two states have already done.

Earlier this month, Florida, known as the Gunshine State for its extremely lax firearm laws, raised the age to buy rifles to 21 while imposing waiting periods and rules that allow the authorities to seize firearms from those deemed a security risk — measures that would have been unthinkable before the shooting in February. (Just two years ago, Florida was home to the then-deadliest shooting in American history, an event that led to precisely zero changes in gun laws.)

And this week, Vermont, which despite its liberal politics is one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation, was on the brink of raising the age for firearm purchases to 21, while expanding background checks and banning high-capacity magazines.

In the past, mass shootings have typically inspired gun-friendly states to make gun laws looser. The fact that the trend is going in the other direction is more than noteworthy. It indicates that the cultural upheaval is already translating to political gains, and that a real sea change might finally be on the horizon.

After years of fatalism on gun reform, the movement that the Parkland students have galvanized is still only beginning, but its effects are already unmistakable.

The Parkland Teens Are Winning the Culture War