Changing of the Guard

  • 03/08/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Kids Step Up to Protect America

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

This time, it’s different. You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media, but year after year, decade after decade, the facts have always been against the National Rifle Association’s extremist positions on guns: The facts about guns making us less safe. The facts about guns and the Constitution. The facts about guns and public opinion—even of NRA members.

The facts haven’t mattered in the paranoid, lie-littered landscape of national gun politics constructed by the NRA during the past 40 years — until the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. What’s changed — thanks to the student survivors who formed Never Again MSD — is the landscape, not the facts. And in that landscape, hundreds of other teenagers, like Trevor Schnack, of Long Beach, have stepped forward to organize local marches in support of the national March For Our Lives the Parkland students are planning for March 24 in Washington, DC.

The landscape has changed because they’ve refused to play by the NRA’s pre-scripted rules — starting with denouncing do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric intended to silence them before they could say a word.

“If all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see,” Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez said in her viral, “We call BS” speech. And they were well-prepared. “The students at this school have been having debates on guns for what feels like our entire lives,” she explained. “AP [Advanced Placement] Government had about three debates this year.” Congress, meanwhile, has been silent.

But the most powerful part of Gonzalez’s speech zeroed in on the lies:

Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this.  We call BS!

Two decades have passed since Congress prohibited federally funded research into gun policy impacts, a ban that began when research in the early 1990s started to show the wrongheadedness of the NRA agenda. Still, enough other research has been done to support the rest of what she had to say:

They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.

A New Movement Forms

A whole cadre of articulate Parkland classmates had already emerged to back her up. Student journalist David Hogg began documenting events in real time from a room 200 feet from the shooter, and was interviewed by Fox News later that night.

“I don’t want this to be another mass shooting,” he said. “I don’t want this to be something that people forget.”

It was Cameron Kasky who came up with the idea of starting a movement with a small group of people to “create a march and get in the media and pull the focus onto the politicians who are performing poorly in their jobs,” as his friend, junior-class president Jaclyn Corin, told  New York magazine.

They’ve called for a March for Our Lives in Washington on March 24, and hundreds of local marches have sprung up since. Kasky also came up with the #neveragain hashtag, encouraging everyone following him to repost and retweet at 3 p.m. on  Friday, March 16.

“To those following our message, please remember the difference between the NRA as an organization and the members of the NRA,” Kasky tweeted recently. “The vast majority of NRA members are decent people. Patriots. Our issue is not with them individually.”

The movement was already well underway when Gonzalez supercharged it with her Feb. 17 speech. Since then, politicians’ reactions have been all over the map, while the students have gained enormous cultural momentum with their unflagging outrage and practical demands — getting companies to cut ties with the NRA, and even stop selling assault weapons—as Dick’s Sporting Goods, the nation’s largest sporting goods retailer, announced two weeks after the massacre.

“Our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these [guns] out of there,” Dick’s chief executive, Edward Stack, said on Good Morning America.

Increasingly, it looks like politicians will only start to catch up after the 2018 midterms, when a good number of them are replaced, difficult though that can be, especially in gerrymandered states like Florida.

“The @FLSenate has rejected the ban of AR-15’s, the weapon of choice used at my school to kill 17 souls,” Corin tweeted on March 3, after several measures the students wanted were voted down. “This breaks my heart, but we will NOT let this ruin our movement.”

“Florida is not disheartened by the pathetic choices made by our lawmakers,” Kasky tweeted. “We’re simply excited to kick them out and save our own lives …  We have a very clear understanding of who’s with us and who’s against us.”

From the very beginning, they set out to be inclusive, still—with very few exceptions—Republican politicians’ have chosen to re-up their loyalty to the NRA. It’s just one more way in which the GOP is losing touch with younger voters and voters-to-be: from gay marriage to global warming, immigration reform to legalizing pot, and raising the minimum wage. But in addition to a broader generational sea change, the gun control issue has its peculiar history, the last several decades of which can be seen in three movements—two towards an increased infatuation with guns, and one toward trying to control them.

Reinventing the Second Amendment

First, as explained by Michael Waldman, author of The Second Amendment: A Biography, there was the effort spearheaded by the NRA and its allies to transform the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment into a guarantee of individual gun rights. In fact, it was about arming militias—well-regulated militias.

“Back in the time of the founding, there were gun laws,” Waldman explained in a recently-recorded video op-ed.

“For example, in Boston, you were not allowed to have a loaded gun at home, because they tended to explode, and set fire to the houses. In 1824, the Board of Regents of the University of Virginia voted to ban guns on campus. Who were gun grabbers? Well, James Madison, who wrote the Second Amendment and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. The founders would think the idea that you should arm everybody and especially arm teachers was crazy.”

As for why that understanding changed, he explained:

The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule that the Second Amendment reflected an individual right to gun ownership until 2008. This was product of a concerted, very skilled, 30 year campaign by the National Rifle Association to change how we saw the Constitution. We changed our understanding as a country of what the Second Amendment meant, not because of some dry words scratched on parchment, but because the gun rights lobby poured its energy into changing our view of the Constitution. They want to pretend that it’s an unlimited right, that any smart, sane law is an infringement on sacred freedom. And that’s just nonsense. The Second Amendment does not prohibit, does not bar strong, sensible gun laws. Only political will and the broken political system stands in the way of that.

The NRA, with their twisted view of the Second Amendment, is an integral part of that broken system. Fortunately, even that 2008 Supreme Court decision, D.C. v Heller allowed for plenty of regulation—even outright bans.

“The Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes,” it read, citing “the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons,’” such as “weapons that are most useful in military service — M16 rifles and the like.” Assault weapons are precisely what’s meant by “the like,” and an appeals court last year upheld Maryland’s ban on them, based precisely on that language.

Guns as a ‘Positive Good’

The second movement was described by Josh Marshall, a trained historian who edits the Talking Points Memo blog. On Feb. 22 he wrote, “Gun Rights, ‘Positive Good’ and the Evolution of Mutually Assured Massacre,” in which he described Trump’s proposal to arm teachers as a logical manifestation of a widespread “gun rights” mindset.  It is supported by the now-debunked work of disgraced “gun rights” economist named John Lott, who purported to show that more guns produced less crime and less violence—the exact opposite of what virtually all other research has shown in multiple different forms.

Marshall specifically drew a parallel to the “positive good” arguments for slavery, which emerged in 1830s and 40s precisely when the abolitionist movement began to seriously threaten its continued existence. Before that time, slave owners generally did not defend slavery as good, but rather as a temporary necessity, better than the available alternatives. Once it came under serious attack that they took up the notion it was a positive good.

A more complex combination of events seems to have played a similar role regarding guns: the 1994 assault weapons ban made broader bans seem imaginable, the sharp drop in crime rates made guns-for-safety arguments less widely salient, and shocking shootings like Columbine made their deadly dangers more salient than ever. Whatever was most responsible, Lott’s research struck a chord, and the logic of his work spread in the NRA-nurtured gun culture, even though his work was discredited. Open carry laws, stand your ground laws and more are evidence of this same logic—a coherent narrative entirely at odds with the facts.

A Missing Movement’s Emergence

The third movement was described by Kristin Goss in a Twitter thread on Feb. 26—the under-appreciated growth of a gun control movement since the Columbine shooting, around the time she began work on Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, published in 2006. In it she wrote that—contrary to popular perceptions—the Columbine massacre, together with other mass shootings around the same time, did change something that “countless other gun violence traumas failed to do.” She explained: “These shootings planted the seeds of a sustained, visible, grassroots, nation-spanning gun control effort. New leaders emerged, new tactics were pioneered, and new interest groups formed.” When the book was published it was still too early to say what the future held, but she aimed to answer the question, “If a gun control movement were to arise in America, why didn’t it happen before Columbine? Where was this missing movement?”

In her thread, Goss first summarizing the main things she found missing:

1) money;

2) realistic policy goals;

3) a message inspiring  to everyday sympathizers.”

But now, she said, “Much has changed. The movement is no longer missing. Philanthropists have made big commitments. But more importantly, social media have drastically cut the costs of communication, coordination and mobilization. People who never would have met now ‘gather’ on Facebook to build solidarity and organize their offline work.”

What’s more, Goss said, “The gun violence prevention movement is much more strategic, too. It’s working state by state to pass laws that empower local authorities to enforce the gun laws we already have, especially around domestic violence.” But, “Most important, there is a critical mass of survivors and family members — more than 1,000 of them, organized state-by-state — as well as tens of thousands of energized moms who are providing a moral vision: We don’t have to live like this.” And, she pointed out, “People say, ‘After Sandy Hook, nothing changed.’ That’s wrong. A lot changed. The movement got moving. But the groundwork had been laid by Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora.”

Goss highlighted that in her book, “I examined historical movements for social reform that faced big obstacles but mobilized masses of Americans. What was their secret? They framed their activity in terms of caring for children,” and thus, “@MomsDemand picks up a long tradition of women’s activism,” but “What I did not foresee when I wrote that book was that children would become a moral voice of the movement. The #MSDStrong kids shame us with #NeverAgain. They ask us, their civic parents, to take care of them.”

It won’t be easy, she warns, “But this isn’t fundamentally a policy debate,” it’s about our capacity to act for the common good, and also about political power which “isn’t just about money, or even primarily so. It’s about creating a moral vision and organizing to attain it.”

“That’s what the young people at #MSDStrong are doing,” she concluded. “They are developing a moral vision and asking us, their civic parents, to stop fighting and join them. Is this different? Yes, I think it is.”

The exact outlines of that moral vision are still being fleshed out. But at least three key themes are worth noting, for how they’ve begun to break the NRA’s spell:

First, that preventing gun deaths should be the paramount concern, and that more guns are not the solution. Student after student from Parkland said the same thing, each in their own way. “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” is how Gonzalez put it. “We are going to be the last mass shooting.” And when Donald Trump proposed arming teachers as a way to protect schools, everyone from veterans groups and law enforcement to teachers and school administrators echoed the students rejection of it.

Second, that there’s no conflict between the Second Amendment and banning assault weapons. Student after student said they had no problem with the Second Amendment, echoing what the courts have already said, but in common sense conversational terms.

Third, that the NRA is a bad-faith actor, and doesn’t represent what millions of its members want — much less gun owners in general or the American people. There’s now a good deal of polling on this point, and it only becomes more obvious the more wildly the NRA attacks the students survivors of Parkland.

A Changing Vision

One week after the Parkland massacre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he claimed that the right to bear arms is “not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”

That statement was called “patently heretical” by Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary and Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of Union’s Episcopal Divinity School. The statement “demonstrates the NRA intends to continue sacrificing children on our culture’s—not God’s—bloodied altar,” they said, adding:

Contrary to Mr. LaPierre’s rhetoric, this ubiquity of weapons is not a holy, ordained right but rather induces divine lament. In Isaiah, the prophet foretells a world in which people, “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” The NRA’s dream of a gun for every person simply does not square with this biblical vision. Between Mr. LaPierre’s word and the Bible’s, it’s clear where we must place our trust. Similarly, the NRA’s claim that safety lies in guns directly contradicts Jesus’ own teaching. In the moment he was arrested to be crucified, Jesus commanded his followers to disavow violent response, promising “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

In fact, the pretence that gun rights come from God isn’t Biblical at all. It comes from severely misreading John Locke, whose Second Treatise on Civil Government helped inform our Founders’ political worldview. Locke did say that men had god-given rights in a pre-political “state of nature,” in which no one rules over them. But those rights in that state were so insecure, that it “makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers” Thus, according to Locke, it’s the very inability of weapons to provide individual security which is the foundation of legitimate government. I wrote about this at length for Al Jazeera English after Sandy Hook, in a piece titled “Locke and Unload.”

The Parkland survivors aren’t talking about Locke or Jesus. They’re talking about their dead friends and classmates, and their fierce determination to see that carnage end. But eventually, over time, they will inevitably meet up with these older streams of philosophical argument, because that is where our true protection lies.

Meanwhile, they’re reaching an entire generation that feels the same way, with 455 March for Our Lives events listed on Facebook by March 5.

In Long Beach, Trevor Schnack took the lead. “I had to create this event using my father’s account because, while I’m old enough to buy a gun in some states, I’m not old enough to create a public Facebook event,” he explained. (See community events for details.) Schnack told Random Lengths he considered himself apolitical, though he had interned for Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and his father serves on the city’s Commission on Children and Youth. A planning meeting he organized drew students from five high schools and one middle school. Right now, they’ve just got their hands full planning for the march. But already there’s mention of California’s official High School Voter Education Weeks, April 15-28, in the events discussion thread. It only takes one student at a school to make it happen, with pre-registration starting at age 16. And there are hundreds of similar groups all across America.

The future is being shaped right now.

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