Beyond the March: How Students Can Sustain the Gun Reform Movement

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By Barbara A. Lewis, author of The Teen Guide to Global Action: How to Connect with Others (Near & Far) to Create Social Change

One of the largest youth-led protests in US history occurred March 14, 2018. One month after the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, thousands of students nationwide from more than 3,000 schools walked out of school as a way to demand tighter gun laws. Although 25,000 public schools and 10,000 private schools did not participate, it remains a very large student protest. Students clad in orange clothing—the color of the gun control movement—carried signs with messages such as “Fix This Before I Text My Mom from Under a Desk” and chanted slogans like “Hey-hey, ho-ho, the NRA has got to go!” The 17-minute walkout honored the 17 lives lost at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Supportive students in other countries, such as Ireland, Israel, and Mexico, as well as many students’ parents, teachers, local and national politicians, and other adult allies joined the walkout.

How Did It Get Started?
The emotional outrage that Parkland students and others felt after the February 14 shooting mobilized them into immediate social action. Women’s March Youth EMPOWER organized the March 14 demonstration. In addition, several Parkland students surrounded Capitol Hill, lobbying and discussing their concerns with lawmakers in closed-door meetings. Students demanded bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. They also urged lawmakers to enact universal background checks for gun purchasers. Students appeared on national news shows, and some were invited by President Trump to have a personal discussion with him.

The March 14 demonstrations were a high point in this growing movement.

What Else Have They Accomplished?
Now that they have the attention of the country, young people and other protestors have grabbed lawmakers by the lapels, and lawmakers are listening.

  • Florida Governor Rick Scott planned a $500 million “action plan” to prevent gun violence. He also signed a bill that includes the following:
    – The legal age to purchase a firearm will be raised from 18 to 21 years
    – A three-day waiting period for firearm purchases
    – A ban on bump fire stocks, which allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire like an automatic weapon
    – That law enforcement has authority to seize weapons and ammunition from those deemed mentally unfit or a threat
    – Additional funding for armed school resource officers and mental health services
  • President Donald J. Trump is pushing the justice department to ban bump stocks, and measures are under discussion in Congress to address school safety improvements and violence-prevention training for teachers and students.
  • States across the country are beefing up their gun protection laws.
  • Cameron Kasky, a student in Parkland, started a campaign that is closing in on its goal of $3.5 million for organizing and supporting anti-gun events.
  • DICK’s Sporting Goods banned sales of assault-style weapons.
  • DICK’s and Walmart raised the age for gun sales.

Planned Protests and Events
After the March 14 #ENOUGH national school walkouts across the United States (and supported by students of several world nations), more events are planned:

  • March 24: March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and other cities
  • March 25: Adult-led voter registration drive to register students
  • April 20: Second school walkout worldwide (on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado)

What’s Next?
So their enthusiasm is up. How can students sustain this activism?

When I wrote the first edition of The Kid’s Guide to Social Action in 1991, the last-resort social action activity was to protest. Today, protesting has become a primary way to enact change. But there are many other actions that students can take to sustain their energy, and adults can help without manipulating them. Here are some suggestions for students to continue forward.

Research every side of gun control and gun violence issues. Look for multiple unbiased sources. Check out how statistics were compiled. For example, the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) states that 98.4 percent of mass shootings occurred in gun-free zones. However, Everytown for Gun Safety claimed that only 13 percent of mass shootings were in gun-free zones. Those are opposite results. Check out their resources. What are they counting? Always research statistics, and make your own conclusions.

  • Study the gun laws that are in place in your state and the nation. Why have some of them not worked? What could be done to fix them?
  • Be “legal beagles.” Check out local ordinances and laws for any action you take.
  • Do your own original research. Survey your school (collecting anonymous responses) to find out how students feel about gun safety issues. Present those statistics to your lawmakers. Give all students a voice.

Hold discussion groups in classes or clubs, brainstorming all the possible solutions to gun issues. Follow the possible outcomes of each solution, looking at both bad and good outcomes. For example, what are the possible positive outcomes of raising the age for purchasing an assault rifle to 21? What are the possible negative outcomes? Consider both short- and long-term consequences.

Work with state lawmakers to make changes that your school suggests. It is easier to make changes on the state level than on the national level, as students in Parkland have already experienced. Several years ago, Utah students at Jackson Elementary worked with lawmakers to create stiffer penalties for possession of weapons near schools and for drive-by shootings.

Work with your opposition.

  • Interview and record advice from both pro-gun and anti-gun experts. Most adults in the country do not want to hurt young people. Ask your opponents for their help. Ask what you can do to further your cause. Don’t be discouraged. Progress can come slowly.
  • Always remember that no student should be ostracized or teased for having a different view. Not all students are on the same page, but all voices need to be heard. Brandon Minoff, a survivor of the deadly shooting in Parkland, said he though certain media outlets were using the tragedy to push gun control.

Join a youth activist organization. There is a huge coalition of international youth groups to tap into. This story from the advocacy organization ONE provides short profiles of ten youth movements that are changing the world. Here’s a thorough list of worldwide youth-run organizations from the Child Rights International Network (CRIN). You can also check out the World Youth Organization.

Start your own group. Build a team for those who wish to work on gun safety or gun laws locally, nationally, or worldwide. Using social media and safe youth websites, brainstorm actions you can take together.

  • Choose teachers or adults (community leaders) who are good facilitators to be your chaperones to keep you safe and legal in action.
  • Plan meeting times and locations with adult leaders.
  • Design a logo that represents your cause.
  • Create a website where you can connect with schools across the nation and around the world. You can conduct surveys, collect petitions, ask for comments, share stories, ask questions, and much more on your website. The information you collect can become original research that you can use to prove your points.

Gain representation on local boards and councils. You can make your voice heard and seek support for gun laws or safety programs with many groups: PTA boards, education boards, city and neighborhood councils, governing councils for 4-H clubs, scouting organizations, and sports organizations. Many students attend their local community council and make contributions on neighborhood issues.

Invite the media to any events you host.

In an interview with CNN, student survivor Ryan Deitsch spoke of how hard it is to move the needle of progress. “It feels like the first step of a 5k run,” Deitsch said.

I politely raise my eyebrow and say to Ryan that’s putting it mildly. It’s a lot longer than a 5k. But if these students with a cause hang in there, they will accomplish what Shannon Watts, founder of gun safety group Moms Demand Action, described: “We want to make this a movement rather than a moment.”