The student-led campaign to change gun laws
In the wake of the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012, the teenage survivors of last week’s massacre in Parkland, Fla., have launched a determined, high-profile national campaign for gun-control legislation—one that has already prompted President Trump to signal his openness to some possible reforms. The mass shooting, in which alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz, 19, used a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle to kill 17 people and injure 14 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High as hundreds cowered in closets and behind desks, ignited both grief and outrage among the students, who blamed politicians backed by the National Rifle Association for blocking commonsense gun regulations. (See The Last Word.) They traveled to the state capitol in Tallahassee to speak to lawmakers, spoke passionately at a gun-control rally in nearby Fort Lauderdale, and launched a gun-control campaign called “Never Again.” Activists have organized two nationwide demonstrations for next month: a 17-minute school walkout, and a march on Washington. “This is not just another mass shooting,” said 18-year-old survivor David Hogg. “This needs to be a turning point.”
After seeing extensive television coverage of the teen activists, Trump called on Congress to strengthen background checks, and ordered the Justice Department to ban bump stocks, which essentially convert semiautomatic rifles into automatics. In a meeting with shooting survivors, he also said he favored arming teachers.
Former classmates said Cruz, who was expelled from Parkland last year, was a troubled, gun-obsessed loner who posted pictures of weapons and dead animals on social media. He sank into depression after his adoptive mother died last November; his adoptive father died in 2004. The FBI apologized after admitting agents had received two tips about Cruz: the first after a YouTube user with Cruz’s name posted a comment saying, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter”; the second from “a person close to Cruz” who expressed concerns about his gun obsession and his talk of killing people.
What the editorials said
“As surely as there are camels’ backs and straws to break them, moments arrive when citizens say they’ve had enough,” said The New York Times. This may be one such moment. After seeing their friends mowed down by yet another deranged person with “easy access” to weapons of war, the young survivors of the Parkland atrocity are challenging political leaders in Florida and in Washington “who kneel before the NRA.” If these teenagers can sustain their “righteous anger,” they may just be able to “make their senseless elders take heed—and act.”
Act how, exactly? asked NationalReview.com. Banning and seizing millions of AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles from law-abiding citizens “would be a radical step,” as well as an ineffective one. (See Controversy.) Killers could always turn to bombs or other weapons. Improving background checks wouldn’t have stopped Cruz, who “had no criminal record and had not been judged mentally incompetent.” Wishful thinking won’t stop these shootings, so schools, concert venues, and other public places need better security, including “armed guards.”
What the columnists said
Democrats, the time for “incrementalism” is over, said Francis Wilkinson in Bloomberg.com. Rather than settling for minor tweaks that would do little to reduce gun violence, they should demand real reforms that have already worked at the state level. In Hawaii, for example, gun owners must obtain a license and register, just as drivers do; in California, every gun sale must include a background check through a licensed dealer, and family members and authorities can obtain court orders to restrict a dangerous person’s access to guns.
Mental health is the real issue, said John Carlson in The Wall Street Journal. “Someone like Nikolas Cruz shouldn’t be allowed to legally buy a gun.” He was kicked out of Parkland for fighting and making threats, and attended a school for kids with emotional problems. The local sheriff’s office “received more than 20 calls” about his behavior, in addition to the two tips to the FBI. We need a national task force that would make “clear recommendations to Congress” on how and when to ban weapons ownership by deeply troubled people.
What we need is a change in our culture, said Bill Scher in Politico.com. Gun-control activists think the NRA is so powerful because of its political contributions, but its real clout stems from its success in convincing millions of Americans that “terrorists and criminals lurk everywhere”—and that gun ownership is thus “central to one’s freedom and safety.” These gun owners are passionate, single-issue voters, and politicians fear them. To change the politics of guns, “the gun-control majority” will have to take a page from the anti-smoking movement, and launch a “truth” campaign that graphically shows the horrific damage guns do to so many Americans every day.
There is also evidence that the NRA’s influence is waning, said Alec MacGillis in ProPublica.com. The proportion of American homes with guns has declined to 36 percent, its “lowest level in decades,” and most of them are clustered in certain deep-red states. In recent elections in Virginia, gun-control advocates won despite fierce NRA opposition. Sure, the students leading this newfound charge against our senseless gun laws will “run up against plenty of hard realities.” But “the worst odds of all lie in declaring any effort hopeless.”
What Trump ultimately decides to do about gun control is “an open question,” said Eliana Johnson and Rachael Bade in Politico.com. While aides say the president was genuinely “affected” by footage of students calling on lawmakers to act, he has “always been a base-conscious politician.” Given his strong support from Second Amendment activists, Trump is in a “unique position” to act, said Stephen Collinson in CNN.com. But those hoping for change should remember that he was also uniquely positioned to push through immigration reform—and ended up scuttling bipartisan reform to keep his core supporters happy.
Illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from AP, Getty, AP