On February 22nd, students and faculty of the University of Pennsylvania lined Locust Walk, the campus’s central pathway, to protest gun violence and call for reform. Their demonstration occurred less than a week after a 19-year-old gunman murdered seventeen students and teachers at his former Parkland, Florida high school.
Publicized throughout the week on Facebook and on campus, the event invited students to hold signs as reminders of mass shootings. Each sign listed the date, location, and number of deaths and injuries that resulted from a shooting that has occurred in the past year. Volunteers passed out homemade paper signs to demonstrators who lined both sides of the walkway. After all signs had been passed out, the demonstrators engaged in an eight-minute, seventeen-second moment of silence. Organizers explained that the time of 497 seconds was chosen to honor the 497 victims of mass shootings that have occurred in the last year.
The protest was organized by a group of college students who have since formed the club, Penn Students Stand Against Gun Violence. These students are not alone in their protest of mass shootings. They are part of a national movement of students advocating for stricter gun control laws.
Still nascent, this movement will serve as a litmus test for the presence of democratic erosion. Robert Dahl believes that the “continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens” is key to maintaining democracy. He believes that every citizen must have the opportunity to formulate their preferences, signify those preferences to the government and other citizens, and to have those preferences equally weighed.
Clearly, the students at Penn and across the country that are calling for gun reform have formulated and directly communicated their preferences. Last week, students, parents, and teachers who experienced the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland shootings joined President Trump at the White House to discuss gun control efforts. They have been heard, but will their preferences be weighed equally? Many have doubts. Republican politicians, including Florida senator Marco Rubio, are facing scrutiny for accepting sizable campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Many demonstrators feel as though their preferences for gun reform are not being weighed equally against those of the wealthy NRA. These feelings were intensified after Senator Rubio stated that he intends to continue accepting the donations.
Michael Barber and Nolan McCarthy consider dramatic increases in campaign funding an external explanation of polarization. They suggest that as individual donors and Political Action Committees (PACs) become more ideologically extreme, candidates will be forced to take more radical stances on issues to raise funds. It is likely that Rubio is facing such pressure. While It is impossible to know his true feelings on the subject of gun control, it is not difficult to understand the attraction of over one million dollars being funneled into his campaign (directly and indirectly) by the NRA.
Campaign donations from the NRA represent only one of the ways in which the gun control debate is fueling dangerous polarization in our nation. The hostile rhetoric being spewed on both sides of the aisle is creating a polarizing political environment that could create conditions that would favor antidemocratic measures. Milan W. Svolik explains that the more polarized a nation becomes, the more accepting individuals will be of antidemocratic acts. When citizens start to view their opponents as evil, they become increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that the opposition stays out of power.
Following CNN’s Town Hall on gun reform, musician-turned-activist Bill Madden tweeted, “Apparently, spokesperson for domestic terrorist organization @NRA, Dana Loesch has finished scrubbing the blood off her hands and is now onstage at the CNN Town Hall to argue for more mass murder, assault weapons and AR-15s”.
On the other side of the issue, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) saying, “Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it.” Such emotionally charged and exaggerated statements encourage citizens to view their ideological opponents as malicious individuals. Such feelings make it easier to go along with candidates or actions that violate democratic norms.
To prevent democratic erosion, Madden and Loesch should take a lesson from the Penn students who lined Locust Walk last Thursday. Regardless of whether we agree with their views that gun reform is the solution to ending mass shootings, we can learn from their method of demonstration. They effectively formulated and communicated their views to the government and their peers – two of the three conditions that Dahl considers necessary for democracy.
And now we wait. The government’s response to the students demonstrating at Penn and across the nation will show if Dahl’s third principal – equal weighing of these opinions – is being honored. This is not to say that government leaders must accept the students’ demands for America to remain a democracy. However, it must be clear that the resulting policy decisions were made with everyone’s interests in mind.
**Photo by David Mulder “Day 231. Gun Control” (Flikr), Creative Commons Zero