Florida’s state legislature disappointed gun control advocates Monday when it declined to consider a ban on the assault weapon used in last week’s high school massacre in Parkland, Florida. But for students, both in the state and around the country, that wasn’t the end of the story.
From Minnesota to California, high school students walked out of schools Wednesday to commemorate last week’s shooting, which resulted in 17 deaths. In Pittsburgh, students gathered Downtown during the day with signs demanding “Gun Control Now.” And in Florida, students who survived the shooting demonstrated in the state capital to call out lawmakers who voted against increased regulations on the AR-15 gun used to kill their classmates.
If the students’ agenda isn’t succeeding in the halls of state government, it’s at least been able to hold the national news media’s attention for a full seven days — which is saying something, given the industry’s notoriously short attention span. Emma Gonzales, a senior at the Florida high school, went viral after giving a speech calling on legislators to do better. A CNN-hosted town hall last night kept the conversation going. And even though it wasn’t much, President Donald Trump began to push this week for some modest gun regulations, including a proposed ban on bump stocks — an attachment that allows semi-automatic guns to fire like automatic ones.
It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of overwhelming government inaction in addressing America’s gun violence problem. This is especially true when politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., advance absurd arguments against gun control measures that amount to giving up on passing any laws at all because some people will still break them. While the progress made so far is sorely inadequate, keeping the pressure up is essential — and protests like yesterday’s walkouts are a big part of that.
Of course, one of the main strengths of the student protests is the moral position of the people protesting. The students in Florida have the distinction, for better or worse, of having gone through a tragedy of almost unprecedented proportions. Their voices speak from a place of direct experience and come with a kind of authority that’s not easily to resist.
Yet some, including Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, have taken issue with the very authenticity that makes recent demonstrations so powerful. Metcalfe, a Republican who represents the area around Cranberry Township to the north of Pittsburgh, insinuated in a Facebook post yesterday that the students demonstrating outside Florida’s legislature were actors.
“The hypocrisy of the left struck me,” Metcalfe wrote. “They expect lawmakers to listen to the policy advice of 18 year old and younger ‘students’ who are advocating for gun control.”
It’s telling that a Republican in elected office — even one with an awful history like Metcalfe — would resort to a style of argument pioneered by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones in order to try to discredit Wednesday’s protests. If opponents of gun control can’t muster anything better, this could be an opening for real progress toward more sensible gun policy in America.