Last Wednesday, the day that seventeen young people were murdered in their school in Parkland, Florida, one of my own children’s teachers interrupted the regular curriculum to talk to them about what to do if an “active shooter” showed up at their school. Here’s what he told them: If the shooter is in the school building but not nearby, dive out the windows of the classroom and run like hell. But if he is nearby, one person gets to hide in a closet. Maybe two children can fit under the teacher’s desk. Everyone else should cower near the windows, where the shooter might not be able to see them and thus go to the next classroom. If the shooter enters the classroom anyway, the teacher will stand by the door with something heavy like a stool and try to disarm them before they open fire.
As it happens, the teacher delivered this little lecture before anyone knew of the terrible tragedy unfolding at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At schools across the US, it has become fairly routine for teachers and kids to talk about this kind of horror. Preparing for the possibility of being gunned down in a classroom will be part of my children’s memory of their school years. This is what it means for gun violence to be normalized in American society.
Very shortly after the mass shooting in Parkland, a statistic circulated widely on social media: this was the eighteenth school shooting in the US in 2018. That is, the eighteenth such shooting in only 44 days. The Washington Post soon ran a story debunking that number, claiming that the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety had gotten the count to eighteen by including any incident in which a gun was discharged on school grounds–regardless of who fired the gun, whether or not there were injuries, and whether or not school was in session.
So no, there weren’t 18 massacres like the one in Parkland in 2018. But the statistics are bad enough that the actual number of school shootings in a given month is hardly the point. We can find lots of other horrific numbers. At the moment of this writing, 387 children between the ages 12-17 have been killed or injured by guns in 2018. There have been 34 mass shootings since the year began, including one in my own county. And Parkland is certainly not the only incident involving an “active shooter” at a school.
I have had quite a few conversations with Swedish and Finnish friends, family, and acquaintances (some of them firearm owners) about the topic of America’s gun violence. Americans own a lot of guns — about three times as many, per capita, as Swedes. But the rate of gun-related homicides in the US is eighteen times as high as that of Sweden. The Nordic gun owners I know will reasonably explain these differences by pointing to their own countries’ rigorous licensing requirements and strict laws requiring that firearms be locked safely away when not in use. Also, of course, many kinds of weapons and ammunition that are simply illegal in many countries—including those designed expressly for killing soldiers on the battlefield—can be easily bought in the US. Nothing makes the point better about the laxity of American gun laws than the fact that the troubled 19-year-old attacker in Parkland, Florida was able to legally purchase his military-style assault weapon and ammunition.
These Nordic examples, as well as that of Australia, which radically improved its gun-related death rate, offer evidence that a few sensible restrictions on gun ownership could dramatically improve public safety. But developing evidence-based solutions to this public health crisis has been actively blocked by forces opposed to gun control. So in the face of one horrific mass shooting after another, politicians will throw up their hands and say that they don’t really know what kinds of laws would work. At the root of this paralysis is the National Rifle Association (the NRA), which has successfully captured the conversation on gun control.
The NRA was once an organization dedicated to promoting marksmanship and weapon safety. Historically, it supported some gun control laws. But especially since the 1980s, it has transformed into a highly effective lobbying arm of the weapons manufacturing industry – an industry that, like the tobacco industry before it, is extremely vigilant about political efforts to limit its profitability on the grounds of public health and safety. The NRA now holds that any attempt to regulate the use of any firearm in any way is an infringement on a basic freedom enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It has frightened a whole constituency into thinking that the government is actively plotting to take away their guns, and it holds considerable political power, especially in the Republican Party. The NRA (and other donors who give money to candidates through the NRA) massively funds pro-gun-rights politicians; Republicans who don’t pass their “litmus test” on gun rights are faced with the prospect of ending their political ambitions in primary elections.
Thus, we have politicians like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has received more than $3 million in campaign contributions from the NRA. Though his home state has suffered three major mass shooting incidents in under two years (in addition to the Parkland shooting, there was the 2016 attack on a nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 and a shooting in the Ft. Lauderdale Airport that killed five), and though he has two teenage daughters himself, Rubio’s first response to this latest incident was to go right to the NRA’s favorite talking point: gun control doesn’t work because criminals will find a way to get guns anyway. (As many have pointed out, this makes a logical hash of the very idea of laws: should we get rid of all laws because someone will violate them anyway?) Meanwhile, Fox News and their ilk are working hard to deflect attention from guns by attributing mass shootings to mental illness, violent video games, or poor parenting. And then there is the perennial strategy of blaming the victims: President Trump chided the students for not reporting the killer as a suspicious person (he had been identified as such, and many reports, including one to the FBI, were ignored).
After a few weeks of grieving and outrage over another mass shooting, people and the news cycle tend to move on. But this time, things do seem to be qualitatively different. There is more rage over the political platitudes, and over the political inaction. Rubio in particular is currently taking some serious heat on the issue of gun violence. Most notably, the students at Douglas High School have become especially visible, and impressively effective, at directing their grief and rage into political action, speaking back to Trump, Rubio, and the NRA. Since Wednesday, they have been almost constant presences on social media and local news in much of the state of Florida. Along with other groups, including teachers’ unions and the Women’s March, they are organizing protests and walkouts to continue through the spring. This week, while their school is still closed due to the shooting, they are traveling in buses to the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee to challenge their legislators to do something about gun violence. Doubtless, some politicians there will have some very uncomfortable encounters.
Is this the beginning of new political momentum for gun control? It is too soon to tell. Even more intriguingly, and more speculatively: is this the beginning of a new youth movement? Youth activism of the 1960s was sparked and sustained by young people recognizing that their plans for their futures, and even their very lives, could be sacrificed by the political establishment to continue an unpopular war. Young Americans today also see their futures at risk—in the face of rising college debt and the shrinking of the kinds of career and economic opportunities that their parents had. Many young people again see a political establishment that has very little interest in supporting them, their goals, and their futures. And now they have concrete evidence that their very lives matter less than NRA cash.