Marching for our Future
Young people stepping up to lead a movement that could affect gun control legislation are being helped by the tone deaf response of NRA spokespeople
By Alison Holmes
March for our Lives has been receiving a huge amount of press over the past few weeks. Young people are stepping up to lead their generation in a movement that could finally tip the balance in the effort to demand change for more gun control. Strong emotions and stirring words from the mouths, decidedly not of babes, but self-assured young adults who are "calling out" the older generation and baldly stating that enough is enough for this self-described "school shooting generation".
They are being profoundly helped in their cause by the tone deaf response of spokespeople for less control or, as they like to frame the debate, against the taking away of a basic and fundamental freedom. Leading that particularly inept charge is, as always, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and this week's star blunderer is Ted Nugent, former rocker and NRA board member who called the Parkland activists "mushy brained" and "soulless".
So much has already been observed, commented upon, and written about the movement that stepping back to watch it unfold may be the wisest move, but as we do, there are three (admittedly tangential) questions that arise in this tidal shift where activism meets emotion and – one hopes – results in positive change.
The first reflects the hope that, if the NRA board is really trying to engage in productive discourse (and one can argue this is a bad starting premise) surely they have someone who could refrain from insulting and bullying the victims of violence? To look at the list of board members that would seem to be true. Mother Jones (a progressive US politics magazine) has offered several jabs, pointing out that it is a large board, does not seem to change hands often and is largely male and white. However, there are some other interesting things to note. The first is that they come from right across the country. There is no preponderance of western or southern states and, as for their interests or occupations, while 48 are hunters, the majority are lawyers, entertainers, competitive shooters and lawmakers. The way the information is laid out it is clear that the categories overlap significantly, but the stereotype of the white man in camo from a red or red-necked state is also not the full story. The follow up question that remains unanswered must be if they have people who could represent their views in a more favorable light, why don't they use them? – or why don't those voices offer themselves? (otherwise why are they on the board at all?).
The second question was prompted by the claim repeated many times that March for our Lives was a cry that was portrayed as heard and echoed back to our shores from places around the world. Cities and countries were listed and photos shared (all with placards in English) to add support to a sense of shared outrage and global action. The question is simply, what are the gun laws in those places? Do they also suffer from gun violence in schools? Why would they join this movement? Every day, 96 Americans are killed with guns and the gun homicide rate in the US. is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries. Shocking yes, but perhaps less surprising when you take into account the fact that the United States is one of about 17 countries (of approximately 195 in the world) with permissive gun legislation, keeping company with some real gems: Albania, Austria, Chad, Republic of Congo, Honduras, Micronesia, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Tanzania, Yemen and Zambia (though a few others declare to be restrictive, they are less so in practice). The Facebook pages of these "sibling" marches reveal audiences primarily of the American diaspora gathering at embassies and consulates in other parts of the world in order to connect with those back home. Perhaps their awareness of what life is like without guns has prompted a need to respond, but certainly the UK, Japan, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands – some of the places listed in National Geographic or the Guardian – all have laws that make schools safer and a Parkland (nearly) impossible.
The final question is premised on the painful observation that many of the shooters are of the same generation as these young leaders. This is far from universally true, but data compiled by Everytown (an organization committed to gun control) identified 160 school shootings across 38 states between 2013-15. Further, 53 percent of these took place at K-12 schools, and 47 percent took place on college or university campuses. Specifically in K-12 schools, where the age of the shooter was known, 56 percent were perpetrated by minors and the guns were brought from home.
The Washington Post recently updated this information using data compiled by Wikipedia (because as Everytown also found, apparently no one compiles this information centrally) and similarly found that, in the period since 2000 through the Parkland shooting, there have been more than 130 shootings at elementary, middle and high schools, and 58 others at colleges and universities for a total of 188. Of those that happened at high schools, including Parkland, almost 70 people were killed and nearly 200 wounded. At the elementary and middle school level, about 60 people were killed and about 60 wounded. Those numbers are inevitably pushed up by the deaths in Newtown, CT in 2012, but there have been shootings at elementary schools in seven other states since then. The tragic end result is that shootings have taken place at a rate of about one a month and left about 250 students and teachers dead in this timeframe.
This generation of activists is entirely right to challenge those in authority and ask what they are going to do to address this ongoing heartbreak and to demand an answer as to where we are going to collectively find the willpower and determination to create change. Perhaps the bigger question for us all is to ask is, why are young people turning to guns (and drugs – viz. increasing rates of heroin addiction and overdose) to deal with their problems? A crisis of identity and lack of resilience in the face of modernity seems to be a root cause of both the types of crime that created this movement and the resonance it is finding in other places in the world. If the NRA wants to reframe this as a fight about freedom then by all means, let us talk about what freedom means in the 21st century, not in terms of the constitution or rights. Rather, what the future holds when our young people are capable of such heights of altruism and leadership while also feeling such depths of misery that they are led to the destruction of their peers and themselves. It is clear that both the highs and the lows are an integral part of this generation's story.
Dr. Alison Holmes is Associate Professor of International Studies and Politics at Humboldt State University, CA. She lived in the UK for over 20 years and worked at the BBC, ran BritishAmerican Business in London and was speechwriter to the US Ambassador. A PhD in International Relations from the LSE, she has been an Associate Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford, a Churchill Memorial Trust History Fellow and the Transatlantic Studies Fellow at Yale.