The Year the Gun Conversation Changed

States passed a flurry of gun-control measures in 2018, but the future of the push for greater regulation is tied to the much larger political drama playing out in America.

Alex Brandon / AP

The year was not a month old when a 16-year-old allegedly opened fire in a cafeteria in Italy, Texas, injuring one of his classmates on January 22nd. It was the first shooting on a K–12 campus this year. One day later, in Benton, Kentucky, a 15-year-old student allegedly killed two of his classmates and injured 17 others. Over the next three weeks, there were shootings at or near Lincoln High School in Philadelphia, Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles, and Oxon Hill High School in Maryland. And on February 14, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, allegedly killed 17 people and wounded more than a dozen others.

2018 has been indelibly marked by school shootings, and there was concern—at least at the outset—that it would be a year defined by a failure to address the problem, which several political figures, mostly Democrats, identified as access to guns. There had been hundreds of gun laws passed since a gunman killed 26 people, including elementary-school students, in Newtown, Connecticut, and most of them had expanded access to guns. But according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun-violence-prevention advocacy group, “the gun-safety movement experienced a tectonic shift in 2018.”

The law center tracked 1,628 firearm bills in 2018 and compiled a year-end review, which was released earlier this month. In total, 26 states and the District of Columbia enacted 67 new “gun safety” laws. “The growing number of mass shootings and domestic violence homicides, as well as the devastation wrought by guns in urban communities, has culminated in a surging pressure to address this epidemic,” the report reads.

The raft of legislation is significant not least because after so many years of school shootings, it had started to feel like every mass school shooting would be met with a familiar round of “thoughts and prayers” and calls for action, and then another school shooting would come, with little having changed. To be clear, school shootings remain rare, despite the devastating consistency with which they seem to occur. As of EdWeek’s latest tally, there were 24 school shootings with injuries or deaths this year—an average of two each month. But the very act of keeping count has its own complexities, and as my colleague Isabel Fattal wrote in February, “the messiness of counting school shootings often contributes to sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America.”

Parkland helped cut through the debate about numbers, putting a face and a voice to the violence. The students affected by the shooting took control of the conversation. “They have been through a trauma that would leave most adults curled in a prenatal pretzel under the bed,” Michelle Cottle wrote in The Atlantic.  “But these teens have elbowed their way into one of this nation’s most vicious policy debates, demanding to have their say.” The students energized the efforts that had been laying the foundation to challenge gun laws since the Newtown shooting, and they helped plan a nationwide March for Our Lives, which included a massive rally in Washington, D.C. State legislators set to work rewriting laws. The Trump administration banned bump-stocks, an attachment that makes semi-automatic weapons fire faster. And according to an NPR analysis, gun-control groups outspent gun-rights advocacy groups during the 2018 campaign cycle; in previous cycles, spending by gun-rights groups far outpaced that of gun-control groups.

For activists, 2018 has offered reason for hope. “We are going to be the kids that you read about in textbooks,” Emma González, a Parkland student, said in a viral speech. “Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be because of the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, and most importantly, the students.”

But as much as some things were changing, there were reminders of how firmly entrenched the shape of the gun debate is. For instance, Trump’s school-safety commission, formed in response to Parkland, said that it wouldn’t focus on guns. Earlier this month, it released its recommendations to “make schools safer.” The report downplayed the role of guns, emphasized mental-health services, focused on Obama-era school-discipline rules, and advocated “no notoriety” for school shooters. All told, the report signaled that even though the conversation has shifted somewhat, the changes are marginal, and for the most part the gun debate in America looks more or less the same.