A month ago, in a nation with more guns than cars, two things seemed certain: That there’d be another epic mass shooting, and that no matter how many died, nothing would change.
Then some teenagers emerged from a Florida high school massacre with a hashtag (#NeverAgain), a slogan (“Protect Kids, Not Guns’’) and a movement. Suddenly, five years after the Newtown shooting failed to spur passage of a federal gun bill, the “passion gap” between gun control’s opponents and its proponents didn’t seem so wide.
But why now, and not after equally horrible shootings at a Charleston Bible study or an Orlando nightclub? When the Las Vegas concert shooting failed even to prompt restrictions on devices that convert semi-automatic weapons to automatic? When faults in the gun sales background reporting system were illustrated by, yet unaddressed after, the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas?
How can an issue seemingly turn on dime, for no reason or rhyme?
Actually, the experts say, it can’t. Regardless of appearances, the reaction to the Parkland shootings “didn’t happen out of the blue,’’ says David Nasaw, a City University of New York historian.
Nasaw says he’s as surprised as anyone that major corporations have distanced themselves from the National Rifle Association; that retailers have stopped selling some kinds of guns; that politicians have professed a new willingness to consider gun control measures; that hundreds of thousands are planning to march on Washington this month.
But he says history happens for a reason — usually, several reasons — even if we can’t see it right away.
And it appears the exceptional reaction to the killing of the 17 students on Valentine’s Day is attributable to a confluence of factors: A new group of survivor-advocates; the resiliency of the gun control movement; the man in the White House; the #MeToo movement; and the cumulative impact of two decades of innocent blood.
At a time when everyone else was tired, they were fresh.
Almost as soon as the shooting stopped at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a group of students began calling for stricter gun laws. The students pivoted quickly from trauma and sorrow to call for a range of measures, including a ban on assault weapons sales and expanded background checks for all gun sales.
"We're fighting for these kids who died," one student, David Hogg, tells audiences around the country, "because they can’t fight themselves."
But what separates them, as change agents, from their many predecessors in tragedy?
After the failure of the federal guns bill in 2013, many parents of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School turned their focus to helping schools prepare for and prevent shootings. After the Charleston shooting in 2015, many relatives and survivors talked forgiveness, not politics. Last year, most of those affected by the Sutherland Springs shootings kept a low profile. So many people were affected by the Las Vegas concert shooting last year and the Orlando shooting in 2016 that no one could speak for the group.
But the Parkland students eagerly did what you’re not supposed to — politicize a tragedy.
“They seized the mic and used the moment to rivet the nation,’’ says Robert Spitzer, a State University of New York-Cortland political scientist who’s written five books on gun policy.
They’re fluent and media savvy — good on TV and Twitter — and irreverent.
Here’s Cameron Kasky, a movement founder, talking to Sen. Marco Rubio, a gun rights advocate, at a CNN town hall: "It's hard to look at you and not look down a barrel of an AR-15." Against that, the obligatory “thoughts and prayers’’ typically offered by politicians have begun to seem hollow.
And, Spitzer says, the kids are a novelty — a good story about how individual men and women, even young ones, can tilt the drift of history.
Written off as a spent force in 2013 after the Senate failed to pass the guns bill inspired by Sandy Hook, the gun control movement never went away. It got stronger. And it was able to capitalize on the reaction to Parkland.
New groups joined the fray. They include one (now known as Giffords) founded by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband after she was critically wounded by a gunman in 2011, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded in 2014 by the multi-billionaire and former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
One of Everytown’s constituent groups, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, was founded the day after Sandy Hook. It now has chapters in every state, with 75,000 volunteers joining after the Florida shooting.
Last year, gun control advocates helped elect Ralph Northam, who’d demonstrated outside NRA headquarters, governor of Virginia.
“We have more political money and more grassroots activism than ever before,’’ says Josh Horwitz, a Washington gun control lobbyist.
The result may have been apparent in public opinion polls. Even before Parkland, most polls showed that most Americans wanted more gun control.
Since Parkland, Donald Trump has shaken up a playing field that for a generation has been dominated by the NRA, an organization to which he belongs and that helped put him in the White House.
The president has spoken in favor of the NRA's proposal to arm classroom teachers. But he has also spoken in favor of "comprehensive" background checks for gun sales; of raising the minimum age for assault weapons purchases to 21; of summarily taking guns away from mentally disturbed people. And he invited students from Parkland to the White House to discuss changes in gun policy.
Although it’s unclear what, if anything, the president will do about any of this, his musings have encouraged gun control advocates and seemingly unnerved the NRA. Its president, Wayne LaPierre, accused the news media of “spearheading a socialist revolution."
“The NRA got into bed with Trump in the election,’’ says Albion College sociologist Brian Melzer, author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA's Culture War, “and now he talks about their worst nightmare’’ — seizing guns without due process.
The #MeToo movement shares much with #NeverAgain, including a reliance on social media for connections and a cast of attractive (and largely white) protagonists for communications.
"Harvey Weinstein and the Parkland shootings were both foundations for movements,’’ says James Grossman, director of the American Historical Association.
And, by proving that what seemed immutable is not, #MeToo also helped create an environment in which #NeverAgain could flourish.
A year ago, the idea that large numbers of powerful men would suddenly be called to account for sexual harassment that occurred years earlier would have seemed fantastic; in some offices, sexual harassment remained as much a fixture as the water cooler.
But the fact that women began to speak out suggested that even the intractable debate over guns might change. #MeToo gave #NeverAgain a movement’s most precious asset: hope.
The drip, drip, drip of history
Not everyone touched by gun violence favors gun control. For many millions of American gun owners, a firearm remains a symbol of freedom.
But each mass shooting has produced a fresh crop of gun control advocates and supporters. #NeverAgain has traded on a two-decade accumulation of fear, shock and anxiety, as mass shootings have invaded every realm of public life.
And they have moved a president to tears. In 2016, while announcing executive orders to strengthen gun control laws, Barack Obama began to cry. He was talking about the Sandy Hook Elementary victims, but may also have been thinking about his own inability to pass the guns bill introduced after that massacre.
Parkland has evoked memories of Columbine, another big suburban high school, where in 1999 a mass shooting started the nation on its current course. Today, Americans disagree on what to do about the problem. But no one can pretend to be immune from it.
"Everybody's been talking about it," Molly Bowden, a senior at Portland (Maine) High School, told the local Press Herald the day after the Florida shooting. "Of course you start to think: Could this happen here?" After years of lockdowns and emergency drills, how could you not?
"This is how social change works," says Nasaw, the historian. "It’s not instant coffee. It takes time."