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Why Parkland Is Different

The gun debate hasn't faded away since the high school shooting, thanks to a specific set of circumstances.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

As horrifying as they are, mass shootings in America have become commonplace enough to be ritualized. They start with the breaking news and the steadily rising casualty count, followed by speculation about the nature of the killer (terrorist? mentally ill?), then calls for stricter gun control and counter-calls for more permissive laws. After people rehearse their same tired positions, and it becomes clear that Congress won’t act, the debate soon ends. Silence ensues until the next mass shooting.

The Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17  dead, has already broken from that narrative paradigm. Nearly two weeks after the killings, Parkland continues to dominate the political conversation. FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver noted the high number of Google searches for “gun control” four days after the shooting: “Parkland is *not* fading from the news the way that mass shootings usually do.” That remains true today, nearly two weeks after the shooting:

Meanwhile, public opinion is moving dramatically—though perhaps temporarily—toward gun control. A CNN poll released Sunday found that 70 percent of Americans back stricter gun laws, up from 52 percent in a poll taken shortly after the concert shooting in Las Vegas in October. “Support for stronger gun laws has not been that high in CNN polling since a December 1993 survey conducted just after the Brady Bill was signed into law,” wrote Jennifer Agiesta, CNN’s polling director.

The response to Parkland has been unexpected, based on the scale of the shooting alone. While it was the ninth-deadliest massacre in modern U.S. history, it wasn’t the worst one of President Donald Trump’s young presidency: 58 people died in Las Vegas, and 26 died in the church shooting in Sutherland Spring, Texas, in November. Nor was Parkland the deadliest school shooting, a grim distinction that goes to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, which killed 28 students and teachers.

The Washington Post’s James Hohmann credits Trump for changing public opinion by endorsing stricter background checks, a ban on “bump stocks,” and a higher minimum age to buy assault rifles. “A spike in support for stricter gun laws is a testament to the power and possibility of presidential leadership,” Hohmann contends. “The new numbers demonstrate the enduring potency of the bully pulpit, even when the president is unpopular. They also show how individual leadership can still move the needle, even in a hyperpolarized country with such a fragmented media environment.”

There’s a small smidgin of truth to this. When a Republican president speaks out in favor of gun control, as President Ronald Reagan did for the Brady Bill, it can shift opinion among wary, gun-loving conservatives. And Trump’s engagement with the issue has helped keep it on the front page. But it would be a mistake to credit him entirely with the shift in public opinion since Parkland. The sensible measures he’s endorsed are modest, and he’s also proposed more extreme, unpopular ideas, such as arming teachers. In reality, he’s being pulled along by the Parkland survivors and their broad public support.

But how did these students emerge as the leading critics of America’s laissez faire gun laws? Why not the survivors of earlier massacres?

The Las Vegas survivors, for instance, had come to the heavily touristed city to attend a country-music concert, so the survivors weren’t part of a community; afterward, they dispersed across the state and country. By contrast, the Parkland students continue to live in a small community, so they had a social basis for their activism. (They return to school this week.) Unlike the very young survivors of Sandy Hook, the Parkland students are nearly adults, so they’re able to speak with confidence and authority (especially the theater students). As digital natives, many are adept at social media, fearlessly taking on conservative critics.

The Parkland students only know post-9/11 America, an age that has also seen increasingly deadly mass shootings. They’ve grown up with a fear of terrorism and of school massacres, and have been drilled since a young age on how to survive such events. This means that even before the last week’s shooting, they were shaped by an awareness of gun violence as a threat. As NPR reporter Susan Davis notes:

Parkland student David Hogg offered a similar assessment:

Class also plays a factor. Parkland is an affluent suburb in the Miami metropolitan area with a median family income of $128,000 per year. In their media appearances, the Parkland kids have shown great confidence and poise. As Daily Show host Trevor Noah quipped, these are children of privilege who are using their privilege for good:

The Parkland survivors are part of a much larger wave of youth activism that can be traced back to Black Lives Matter. There is undeniable racism in the fact that the majority white, well-to-do kids of Parkland have attracted broader public support than African-American protesters. Still, if we see Black Lives Matter and Parkland as part of a continuum, this suggests America might yet address seemingly intractable social problems like police brutality and mass shootings. A new generation is rejecting their elders’ complacency about these ills—and more of these youth reach voting age every day.