Students have taken to the streets in the largest showing of a student led movement since the Anti-War Movement protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. On March 24, students, teachers, and supporters of further gun restrictions took to the streets in over 800 marches planned across the United States and abroad to “March for Our Lives.” The New York Capital District and its surrounding area made a show of support with a large rally and march in downtown Albany, which had over 5,000 people in attendance. As with many large-scale protests and demonstrations, public commentators, politicians, and private interests have begun to question what actions should be taken in response to yet another mass shooting.
One indicator of health in a democratic society is the responsiveness of government their constituents and public opinion. However, there has been continuing debate over how responsive government and its elects should actually be to the will of the people. On one side you have democratic responsiveness to the will of the people, while the other is democratic representation, where representatives reflect the general preferences of the public. The fear of direct response to public demands is that mob mentality may cloud undermine rational thinking or lack the necessary political and economic expertise needed when dealing with certain issues. However, as Dahl explains in his discussion of Polyarchy, a key characteristic is the continuing responsiveness of government to the preferences of its citizens.
After every mass shooting, a few distinct messages rise in the public discourse:
- Sharing Thoughts and Prayers
- Call for gun reform and legislation from both the public and representatives
- Backlash and critique (on how the situation could have been avoided) from the NRA and those against gun reform
The sharing of “thoughts and prayers” was redundant in the statements of political representatives and media following Sandy Hook in 2012, in addition to calls for gun reform. However, the shooting resulted in no far-reaching federal gun legislation.
The main difference between Sandy Hook, and the other interim mass shootings, is that there was capacity for organizing to create a movement. Elementary students can hardly be called upon to become public figures in the name of gun violence and organize a mass movement. Victims of the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs church shootings were victims of horrific attacks, but connections to a network of recent similar attacks that would allow for coalition building.
The Stoneman Douglass High School shooting struck at a time where activism and public protest has increased, following the 2016. Students again face a unique position, as with the Vietnam War, where they are suspended between childhood and adulthood. Highschool students, and those in the grads below them, cannot vote; however, between 2013 and 2015, the majority of school shootings occurred at K-12 schools and 56% were perpetrated by minors. Students are at the whim of legislation passed by voting age citizens, but high school students can be socially and politically knowledgeable.
Student protests of the Vietnam War took on many issues, but one was the draft age versus voting age. Students were being conscripted to fight with no way to vote against a war they disagreed with. Students across the country were able to create a loose coalition based upon similar goals and experiences. One result from the Anti-war protests was lowering the voting age to 18. Students across the United States find themselves in a similar position today, which may actually result in political action. Student protest and coalition building across state and organization boundaries could create the pressure needed for legislation. Statements of “thoughts and prayers” are now being retorted with:
“I don’t want your condolences you fucking price of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But Gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
– sarah (@chaddiedabaddie) February 14, 2018
Those same sentiments and experiences were echoed throughout the various marches last Saturday, where students talked about shootings in their own schools. Stories of school shootings wove into both larger community and more personal experiences of gun violence. The message of the March for Our Lives movement has moved beyond the single event at Stoneman Douglass High School, a barrier that previous mass shootings struggled to overcome.
How politicians and representatives respond will ultimately reflect the health of democracy in the United States. More Americans than ever support stricter gun laws and representatives should reflect the interests of the general public, not special interest minorities. Of course, the movement must continue to build coalitions and exert pressure until legislative change is actually achieved, but considering that the 2018 March for Our Lives in D.C. outnumbered the 1969 Demonstration against the Vietnam War and nationally ranked as the third largest protest in U.S. history, they are off to a good start and do not seem to be taking the pressure off anytime soon.
Photo by Anne Pfeifenberger, Creative Commons Zero License