Politics & Policy

Parkland and the Problem with Waging a Youth Culture War

Students participate in a march in support of the National School Walkout in Queens, March 14, 2018. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Demonizing the NRA won’t move the needle, even if the Democrats win in November.

On Wednesday, high-school students throughout the country took part in marches and protests — including a 17-minute walkout from their classes to memorialize the number of the victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In the nation’s capital, there was a rally on Capitol Hill featuring outraged students and Democratic politicians.

It made for a compelling story. The rhetoric of student activists and their Democratic elders was rooted in confidence that, after decades of stalemate in the battle for more gun control, this children’s crusade would make the difference. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the Washington rally, this time liberals would beat the National Rifle Association because “this time we have you.”

But like much of what happens on Capitol Hill, Schumer’s rhetoric was just for show and in no way connected to anything that is likely to happen in either this Congress or the next. The American system of government was specifically designed to prevent the passions of the moment from influencing policy. And in the longer term, by demonizing the NRA and gun-rights activists rather than debating them, the demonstrators are helping to continue the deadlock.

These realizations seem not to have occurred to the young activists making impassioned speeches.

To be sure, gun-right supporters should not deprecate the willingness of the Parkland survivors and other teenagers to step forward and take a stand. They have every right to speak their mind and don’t deserve to be smeared as fakes. That’s as true for those who have spoken immoderately about the issue as it is for those who have engaged in civil discourse. But even as we laud the willingness of these teenagers to become involved citizens, it’s important for the pro-gun-control crowd to understand that the more Americans are forced to listen to lectures from petulant teenagers, the less likely they are to change their minds.

Indeed, if the principal voice for gun control is now Stoneman Douglas senior David Hogg, who has become a ubiquitous presence on MSNBC and CNN in the past few weeks, then we are seeing not a political sea change but a continuation of a culture war. It is that war that has divided the city from the country and red states from blue ones, and that has intensified feelings on both sides of the issue and ensured that the stalemate will continue.

The problem is not the spectacle of teenagers speaking out on an issue. It’s that so much of what the teenagers are saying is feeding the fears of the 40 percent of the country that lives in a household with a gun.

Liberals, including some of the kids themselves, dismiss those fears. Echoing President Obama’s claims every time a mass shooting occurred on his watch, they say they are merely for “commonsense” gun laws such as extending background checks or banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and have no interest in taking away the guns that law-abiding citizens legally own.

But as with so much else that has been said in recent decades on this issue, the talk of “commonsense” laws is disingenuous, since none of the provisions they talk about would have prevented mass shootings. While many on the right have no problem with largely anodyne measures such as background checks, the rhetoric behind this push betrays a wider cultural debate that transcends the pros and cons of specific legislation.

In their rhetoric on Wednesday, students were for the most part not reading from a script of restraint. Much like Hogg in his television appearances, they gave little effort to show how their proposals would stop mass shootings. Moreover, they highlighted the notion that the NRA and its supporters are engaging in terrorism or buying off Congress so that weapons manufacturers can profit from the slaughter of innocents.

Venting frustration about kids who did not join in the protests because of concerns about its connection to the Women’s March organization — which is tainted by its connections to anti-Semitism — one New York teenager said that “fighting guns” is as important as combating hatred. This is exactly the sentiment that fuels suspicions that new gun laws aren’t about closing loopholes but instead are a product of urban and liberal elites’ contempt for guns and those who see them as a normal part of life. A fight against guns per se speaks to a wish to transform the country into a place that is no longer awash in guns, and where citizens consider it a privilege, rather than a right, to own one.

Even if 2018 is a good year for Democrats, that will not be the result of a surge of liberalism.

Red-state America also has noticed that the kids who didn’t demonstrate on Wednesday, or who might have different views about gun rights, aren’t being invited to explain their views on TV. That’s particularly troubling since polling has consistently shown that Millenials — the very group that Schumer thinks will sweep away the NRA — are less likely to be against guns than previous generations.

Kids like Hogg are right to say that legislators serve at the pleasure of the people. But even if 2018 is a good year for Democrats, that will not be the result of a surge of liberalism. It will happen only if Democrats are smart enough to nominate more centrist candidates like Conor Lamb, the winner in this week’s Pennsylvania special election. Lamb presented himself as “pro-gun” and said that new gun laws wouldn’t stop mass shootings like that in Parkland.

The student marchers are about to learn the same hard lessons that previous waves of young activists were forced to absorb. Trying to persuade the country to change on an issue on which sentiment and ideology runs deep is a long, frustrating business. And it’s not a battle you win by demonizing the very people whose votes you need.

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