What the Parkland shooting survivors are doing is both different and heroic. Just days after the most traumatic event in their young lives, they’re speaking truth to power. They’re in Tallahassee pressing Florida lawmakers for tighter gun laws, and they’re coming to Washington, D.C to lobby and to march. They are the adults in the room. The politicians are the children.
This role reversal in the wake of tragedy feels biblical, echoing the Old Testament verse “A little child shall lead them.” For generations accustomed to watching social and cultural movements play out over decades with civil rights and women’s rights, do we dare believe that these young students are on to something? It certainly feels that way. And we don’t have to look so far back for evidence that it’s possible: Today’s debate has notable parallels to the recent and rapid shift toward the acceptance of gay marriage.
The personal is the political. This has long been a rallying cry for women. And it applies to the transformation of attitudes toward same-sex marriage as more people came to know gay people as their neighbors and friends, and their sons and daughters. The same kind of awakening is occurring around gun violence. There are some 150,000 students—members of the post-Columbine generation—who have directly survived a mass shooting and want the rest of us to know what it’s like.
They’re speaking out and demanding accountability, and their parents, friends, and fellow students are being drawn into the debate. As the circles widen, attitudes shift with the young leading the way. It is reminiscent of the early days of Barack Obama, when young people saw him as an inspirational figure and convinced their skeptical parents that dark skin and a funny name could be an asset in an increasingly diverse America.
“It took children to shake me from my comfort zone to come forward to say: Enough is enough,” said 53-year-old Patti Seno at a town-hall meeting in Greenwood Village, Colorado, this week.
A benefits administrator, she expected to talk to her congressman, Republican Mike Coffman, about health care, but the Parkland shooting dominated the event. The congressman’s standard defense of the Second Amendment was met with jeers.
Among the comments on The Washington Post story was this from Jaredh: “All the GOPer kids at my child’s elementary school are incensed at Republicans. All the middle-school kids I know are liberals… even coming from crazy nutso conservative families. All the high school kids? They are ready to vote.”
A Quinnipiac poll found the highest ever numbers for gun-safety measures, 97 percent for universal background checks, even among gun owners, and 67 percent support for a nationwide assault-weapons ban. “There appears to be a trend here,” said pollster Tim Malloy, citing a jump of nearly 20 percent in the last two years among Americans who want stricter gun-safety laws.
That scale of change, if it holds and if the momentum can be sustained—two big ifs—mimics the cultural shift we saw with same-sex marriage. The generation that is the most multicultural in American history, and the most accepting of gender fluidity, is poised to say no more to school shootings and drive the change we all know is coming.
There are exceptions of course. Not everyone exposed to gun violence comes away a convert to gun safety. Steve Scalise, the Republican congressman who was gravely wounded at a softball practice last year, isn’t shifting his position one iota.
A phone call to Grover Norquist, best known as the architect of the GOP’s no-taxes pledge, who is on the board of the National Rifle Association, confirms there is no erosion in the group’s hard line on guns. He scoffed at the polls. “Everybody is for gun laws except the people who vote on this issue, and that’s 4 or 5 percent and they vote no. It’s one of those issues where intensity trumps numbers.”
The post-Parkland intensity, Norquist says, is countered by the 16.3 million people who have gone through the process for conceal-and-carry permits. And that doesn’t include those who live in the eight states (Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming) where no permit is needed, and conceal and carry is considered a constitutional right.
“The NRA includes hunters, but the conceal carry community is the heart of the membership and they’re invisible to the modern left, except when they show up to vote,” he says.
Still, the fault lines are there and becoming more and more visible. Ed Rogers, who has been active in Republican politics since he was a kid in Hoover, Alabama, in the 1970s, penned a short piece in The Washington Post’s postpartisan blog, declaring, “The day of reckoning is here” for the Republican Party on guns, “and I don’t want to go into the midterms without the GOP having done something to tangibly combat gun violence.”
Rogers is no softie. He was a protégé of Lee Atwater, a master of negative campaigning, and he’s in business with former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. For those who want to call him a sellout, he signs off his blog with the helpful advice that there’s no H in R-I-N-O—Republican in Name Only.
In a follow-up email that he wrote from Dubai, where he was on business, “I do believe and I do hope that this is a tipping point. And not just a time for Republicans to answer their usual critics but for Republicans to answer the questions that Republican voters are asking. It is untenable to do nothing when people are wondering if their kids are going to get home safely from school.”
It was precisely the presence of “an organized group of articulate kids,” Rogers added, that would drive the reforms, regardless of how forcefully the hardliners pushed back.
“Republicans have to do something,” he said. “Republicans cannot look like they are captive and controlled by the NRA.”