THREE days after Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and shot dead 14 students and three teachers, one of his former schoolmates addressed a gun-control rally. “They say that tougher gun laws do not prevent gun violence,” shouted 18-year-old Emma Gonzales, barely pausing to wipe away the tears that were streaming down her face. “We call BS!” Her moving speech, in which that line became a refrain taken up by a chanting crowd, was broadcast around the world.
The school shooting, on February 14th, was America’s deadliest since 2012 when a gunman killed 20 children, six adults and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But it has been the response of the surviving students, rather than its grim toll, that has kept the tragedy in the news a little longer than usual. The pupils, from Broward County, an affluent area north of Miami, have poured their grief and rage into a new campaign for gun control. In television interviews, speeches and social-media posts they have excoriated politicians who take cash from the National Rifle Association and argue against expanding gun controls. With other activists, they have announced plans for nationwide protests in March.
Why has their response been so forceful? One reason is the age of the survivors. The pupils, in their late teens, started their education after a massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, in which 13 were killed. That means they have been practising active-shooter drills in the classroom since kindergarten. Seeing a school shooting as an event to prepare for, rather than an awful aberration, seems to have fuelled the students’ anger. Though polling suggests that young people are only slightly more in favour of gun-control measures than their elders, those surveys focus on those aged 18 and above. There may be a pre- and post-Columbine divide within that group.
The survivors of the latest school shooting have also grown up using social media, which has helped them channel their rage into a potent hashtag movement, #NeverAgain. And they have, at a formative age, witnessed the visual power of mass protest, thanks to the #MeToo movement and the women’s marches of the past two Januarys. Indeed, they have received help from its organisers, as well as other groups, for the “March for Our Lives” planned in Washington, DC, on March 24th.
What will the teenagers’ impressive campaigning achieve? Some politicians seem to have taken note, at least. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, has said he welcomes a Democratic bill in the state legislature that would allow Florida’s courts to temporarily prevent people from having guns if they are considered a threat to themselves or others.
President Donald Trump, who waited 20 hours before addressing America about the tragedy but is unlikely to have missed the students on the Sunday talk shows, said he backed a bill to improve background checks on those who buy firearms. Then he said more teachers should be armed. The president has ordered the Department of Justice to propose regulations to ban bump-stocks, which can help convert semi-automatic firearms into automatic ones, and which were used by a gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas in October. Congress talked about banning them then, but did nothing. In any case, a bump-stock ban would have made no difference in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which was carried out with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle.
More stringent gun controls, of the kind introduced by Australia and Britain after mass-shooting atrocities, are unlikely to come soon. But the national protests the students are planning for next month could gather momentum. A new poll by Quinnipiac University suggested that 67% of Americans back a nationwide ban on assault rifles—a higher percentage than after Sandy Hook. And in Florida, the issue could become prominent in the mid-term elections later this year, especially if, as seems likely, Rick Scott, the state’s gun-loving governor, runs for the Senate.