By James Norton
On 14 February 2018, seventeen people – fourteen students and three staff – were killed at a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was the deadliest high school shooting in US history, and the eighth deadliest mass shooting overall.
In the United States, gun-related tragedies are part of the landscape. According to the pro-regulation Brady campaign, gun violence kills on average a staggering 35,000 Americans per year. Supporters of the status quo have tried to deflect attention away from guns by scapegoating video games or mental health problems, but those exist everywhere in the world, whereas the US is the only country blighted by regular mass shootings.
The real problem is obvious: in the US it is too easy to buy a gun. In most US states, at 18 you are considered too young to buy beer, but old enough to buy an assault rifle.
Unsurprisingly, there is a huge appetite for gun regulation among the US public. 97 per cent of Americans are in favour of universal background checks, and 67 per cent favour banning assault weapons. A poll taken after the Parkland shooting put support for stricter gun regulation at 70 per cent, its highest level since 1993; strong support outstripped strong opposition by nearly four-to-one.
It ought to be straightforward for lawmakers to pass measures that can mobilise this much support.
The US could follow the example of the UK and Australia, which introduced stricter gun laws after mass shootings in 1996 at Dunblane and Port Arthur respectively. Instead, it does virtually nothing. The reason is simple: the US political system is both undemocratic and profoundly corrupt.
Money dominates politics everywhere. But after the so-called Citizens United ruling in 2010, corporations in the US were given a green light to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns and candidates – introducing a system of legalised bribery designed to keep politicians in the pocket of big capital.
Regulation would mean a cut to profits intolerable to the multi-billion dollar gun industry. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the vociferous pro-gun organisation, has donated millions of dollars to political candidates to ensure their cooperation. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator for Florida, has received $3.3 million over his career, and some estimates of the NRA’s donations to President Trump over the last two years exceed $30m.
At the same time, the gun industry has cynically equated mass firearms sales with individual and political freedoms and a self-serving interpretation of the Second Amendment, encouraging strong ideological identification with gun ownership on the Republican right in particular. A week after the shooting, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre made a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that posed opposition to gun regulation as a struggle against socialism.
This pincer movement has guaranteed that few senior politicians are willing to challenge the agenda of the gun industry. On 4 March, the Florida Senate voted to reject an amendment that would ban assault weapons – despite an AR-15 being used in a massacre in one of their own schools.
Immediately after the shooting, Trump suggested banning bump stocks, which allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun. This is a sensible, if inadequate, proposal, already seen as an acceptable concession by the NRA. But Trump’s other flagship initiative has been the grotesque plan to arm teachers so they can exchange fire with mass shooters. Putting guns into the hands of staff whose proper role is to nurture children, not kill them, would inevitably lead to tension, mistakes and still more tragedies. This ‘good guys with guns vs bad guys with guns’ narrative is symptomatic of a low level of debate on the right, led by a cynical ruling class that tolerates the shooting of children for the sake of profits, but refuses to properly supply American schools with the teachers and equipment they sorely need.
A new activism
In spite of this backward political context, there seems to be an upturn in the struggle against the gun industry.
Almost immediately after the shooting, young leaders rose from among the survivors themselves and quickly created their own movement under the name Never Again MSD. The group is also known by the Twitter hashtag #NeverAgain, started by Cameron Kasky. At a rally three days after the shooting, Emma González made an powerful 11-minute speech that has been watched 20 million times since it was posted to Facebook; in a matter of days she won more Twitter followers than the NRA. Within a week of the shooting, walkouts were organised in schools across Florida. Students marched to their state capitol – the seat of Florida’s government – to demand stricter gun laws. And at a ‘town hall’ screened on CNN, Kasky, unfazed by the occasion, stood face-to-face with Senator Marco Rubio and demanded that he stop taking money from the NRA.
This activism is already getting wins. In response to complaints and campaigning, a series of big companies has withdrawn special deals, such as discounts on car rentals, offered as perks to NRA members. The companies include Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Hertz, and the IT firms Symantec and Norton. Others are being pressured to follow suit, including such giants as FedEx, Apple, and Amazon (which screens the NRA’s TV channel on its streaming service).
Another significant win was a gun-control bill passed by the Florida legislature on 7 March and signed into law two days later. The bill’s measures include a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases, raising the minimum buying age from 18 to 21, and a ban on bump stocks. These measures fall short of the activists’ demands, and were packaged with the (voluntary) arming of school employees, but they are the first gun-control laws in Republican-dominated Florida for twenty years, imposed in defiance of the NRA.
Further school and college walkouts are scheduled for 24 March, which will include a march on Washington called March for Our Lives, and 20 April, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school massacre. The demands for the March For Our Lives are framed to win broad support: a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and background checks for every gun sale.
There is public outrage after every shooting, but this new movement seems to indicate a qualitatively different level of politicisation and engagement, especially of young people, many of whom are sick to death of inaction, fake arguments and corruption. Its strength is self-organised leadership by the victims themselves, whose authority as the survivors of a tragedy has won them a platform and makes them harder to shout down (though they have nonetheless been targeted by crude right-wing attacks, such as the bizarre claim that they are hired actors). Young leaders like Emma González and David Hogg are articulate spokespeople and show an impressive political maturity: they are building a grassroots network of activists, appearing on news channels, promoting #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives, and engaging fearlessly with media attacks and the NRA. The movement is already organising for the mid-term elections in November.
Inevitably, there have already been further shooting incidents in the US since 14 February – the task of the #NeverAgain movement is to sustain its momentum and keep gun regulation at the top of the agenda, in the face of media drift and the intense resistance of the powerful and highly organised gun lobby.
Stronger gun regulation would also have implications for wider politics. #NeverAgain has launched in the context of other movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and progressive movements like Our Revolution and the Justice Democrats. The US working class is more progressive than it is sometimes given credit for, representing a left shift that has made Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in the country. A breakthrough on gun regulation would be a defeat not only for the NRA and the gun industry, but for reactionary politics in general.
Most importantly, it could achieve the immediate goal of sparing human beings from the fear and trauma of mass shootings, and saving thousands of lives.