Students to the Front

Independent student activists have proved crucial to reforming gun violence in America.

By Natalie Denby

If you’ve been paying any attention at all for the past few decades, you probably thought the gun lobby was invincible. Even the most horrifying of mass shootings—Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Orlando among them—proved no match for the NRA. It didn’t matter what the number or age of the victims was, no tragedy was too much for a population that was simply insensate to carnage. A reckoning on gun violence was impossible. So when the survivors of the Parkland shooting began aggressively lobbying for gun control, you could have been forgiven for some initial skepticism. And then, of course, you would have been proven (at least partially) wrong.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, student activism has proliferated on a national scale unseen since Vietnam. While the post-shooting norm is usually a sea of condolences and prayers, the post-Parkland marches, town halls, and vigils were no small feat, and the sheer scale of the March for Our Lives was a welcome shock. None of us had considered corporate disentanglement from the NRA, raised age requirements on gun purchases, and bump stock bans as realistic possibilities.

These changes, of course, are nowhere close to enough. But they probably struck you as improbable only months ago. While most of us find post-Parkland changes to be insufficient thus far, we’re also amazed that they’ve happened at all. If the success of this activism is welcome, it’s a bit puzzling. How did a national movement grow out of this particular tragedy, and why did it manage to quickly accomplish more than any before it? 

The answer has less to do with the substance of the activists’ speeches than it does with the speakers. Previously, the gun control advocates to emerge in the wake of shootings were also people who had been deeply affected by those shootings: victims like Gabby Giffords, family members like the parents of Sandy Hook victims, teachers, and so forth. These advocates, crucially, were usually adults. But after Parkland, it was the students who took the reins.

That, it turns out, might have made all the difference. It also revealed quite a bit about the strength and scope of student political power.

It’s clear to anyone with ears that students—and the young in general—occupy a strange place in American politics as a population that is both vulnerable and largely disenfranchised. The youth of America have limited ability to dictate their own circumstances: They make up a political minority in most jurisdictions, and many can’t vote in any case. Moreover, they are usually someone else’s financial dependents, and most are required to be in schools. That confluence of dependence and constrained political influence makes the young feel like a uniquely collective responsibility, which voters generally feel obligated to consider.

But this collectivist feature hardly guarantees that youth interests are a force in American politics. Part of the reason that the United States has historically abdicated on addressing gun control, in spite of gut-wrenching body counts, is rooted in the nature of political advocacy on behalf of the young. When youth interests are constructed by other groups (i.e. when adults make arguments about youth issues), every side claims to have the best interests of the young at heart, making those interests a meaningless political dud. Liberals claim to represent the interests of the children by restricting the weapons that routinely kill them, while gun advocates somehow also claim to represent their interests by calling for teachers to be armed as well. In the melee over guns, “youth” is a political keyword bandied around so often and so shamelessly that it has effectively lost its potency as a political mover.

Enter the angry student. You might be able to dismiss the gun control advocacy of a politician or even a grieving parent as misguided partisan theater. Political operatives are dismissed as disingenuous, and grieving relatives are offered condolences and prayers—and then nothing happens. But what about a march of thousands of students, asking not to be murdered? They can’t be politely told to shut up. They aren’t candidates or demonstrators working for candidates. They don’t represent a political party, even if you can guess which one most of them belong to. They’re there in their capacity as students, and the confrontational question they pose (how little do you care about my life?) can’t be comfortably ignored when most adults readily accept that youth welfare is a shared political responsibility.

Parkland students and others across the country have found success precisely because they insist on doing the actual advocacy for themselves, loudly and continuously. Their physical presence in the debate transforms youth interests, from an empty buzzword everybody can use to an active force most would rather not confront head-on.

The post-Parkland activism is instructive for students in a climate where political engagement is on the rise. Parkland offers two lessons and an implicit warning. The first lesson is that who is speaking is critically important. Student voices are only compelling when they’re just that: student voices. The prototypical advocacy effort, when the politically-inclined take predictable stances on one of a dozen pet issues, lack the political punch of a student speaking. That might seem obvious, but in the past, students have only joined or supported larger political initiatives about student issues; they haven’t formed their own predominantly student demonstrations.

The second lesson from post-Parkland activism is that how we speak is also important. Showing up matters. Anyone who’s been watching the marches and town halls in recent weeks understands the visual impact of the crowd itself. Students advocating exclusively online are easier to write off as words on a screen, and the scale of activism doesn’t feel as impressive when it’s limited to social media. On the other hand, the physical presence of thousands of students lends credence to the notion of a representative voice: You look at the crowds of students walking out of their classes or marching on D.C. and you stop thinking of them as a group of partisans wrapped up in a partisan cause. Pro-gun advocates have a more difficult time claiming they fight for student safety when the students themselves are just down the street, with a very different take on the issue. 

The post-Parkland success ultimately tells us that a coherent “student voice” is a matter of scale and presence. It also serves as a warning. Come November and the next round of midterm elections, student gun-control advocates can’t become just another partisan constituent group. They’ll be seen as just another knee-jerk Democratic subgroup, and that will give them license to be ignored. Students have made remarkable progress in the past few months, but to keep that momentum going we have to keep showing up as an independent, student-led force that is not beholden to parties or candidates—the sort of movement that politicians court but cannot claim. 

Natalie Denby is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.