Students Should Refuse to Go Back to School

Despite the hopelessness after Uvalde, we’re closer to understanding the kind of social movement that might actually affect gun reform.

A silhouette of four students protesting on top of a broken assault rifle
The Atlantic

It’s baffling. How can there be so much consensus among Americans about the need for stricter gun laws—63 percent want an outright ban on assault weapons—while we seem locked in this house of horrors, a schoolroom of slaughtered children around every turn, with no way out?

Yet moments of such misalignment, when the ideals of a critical mass clash with the rules that govern our collective lives, can also give rise to effective social movements. Most of us are unwilling to bear this American ritual any longer. The faces of those children. The unfathomable anguish of those parents, of those broken towns. The cruel inaction of politicians. At the same time, overwhelming evidence from countries such as Australia and Britain shows that reducing the number of guns in a society diminishes the possibility of mass shootings—and, I repeat, this is what a majority of Americans want.

The argument that we’ve been here before, that the gun lobby has a generation of politicians in its pocket, that our political system, and particularly the structure of the Senate, will always give outsize influence to Second Amendment absolutists—all of it is true. And yet, as awful as it is to say, we’re learning with every killing. We’re moving closer to the kind of movement that might actually make a difference.

Today, I’m left with one conclusion: The children and parents of our country need to take the summer to organize locally, build a set of national demands, and then refuse to go back to school in the fall until Congress does something.

Let me explain. Social movements need two elements to be successful: narrative and tactics. Borrowing from the political scientist Joseph Nye, we might think of these as soft power and hard power, respectively. Activists need to tell a compelling story that brings people along to a new way of thinking and emboldens them to act. But that isn’t enough. There is also the hard work of mustering actual political power to elect different representatives, change laws, and leverage lobbying.

When it comes to narrative, those whose lives are most at risk in mass shootings make for the best storytellers. This has been a strangely hard-won realization. Dave Cullen, who covered the Columbine shooting in 1999 and later wrote a book about it, has said that in the days and even weeks after the attack, none of the survivors wanted to talk about gun control. Though a common right-wing talking point is that speaking about new regulations immediately after a shooting is “politicizing” the tragedy, few people pay this much heed anymore. “Everybody keeps telling us that it’s not the time to be political,” Kimberly Rubio told The New York Times, two days after her daughter was killed in Uvalde, Texas. “But it is. It is.”

It’s one thing for public figures like Beto O’Rourke and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr to vocalize the emotions many Americans want to scream out loud: Why does this keep happening? Do something! But it’s quite another to hear this sentiment from young people or the parents of the victims. We saw this after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. How different the accusation sounded in the sobbing voice of Emma Gonzalez, a high-school student and one of the survivors: “They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS,” she said at the time. “That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”

The Parkland kids, as they became known, built one of the most forceful movements around gun control to date, including the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., among the largest youth protests in history, held just a month after the shooting. They also helped persuade Florida’s governor to sign a bill that raised the minimum age for purchasing a gun to 21 and extended the waiting period to three days.

But another promising—and clearly agitating—action they carried out after the shooting was a national walkout. On March 14, 2018, they asked students to leave school at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes (for the 17 victims at Parkland). The protests were moving but happened haphazardly and only for a brief, emblematic period of time; they were repeated a month later on the anniversary of Columbine, and there were even some separately organized student strikes last week. The walkouts of 2018 may seem forgettable now, but they did point to a tactic that, used more aggressively, could genuinely get under the skin of some grown-ups.

And here is where hard power comes in. One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that when children aren’t in school, society strains. This would make a strike an extremely powerful form of leverage. A walkout with enough students involved and taking place over days, not minutes, puts concrete pressure on officials, from the municipal level all the way up to Washington. When students aren’t in school, parents have difficulty getting to work. Suddenly understaffed services—hospitals, subways—suffer the consequences. Politicians and local officials have a mess on their hands—children falling behind in learning, parents overloaded—and a strong incentive to accede to a demand.

I’m not looking forward to having my own children at home or seeing them pay an unfair price in lost education. They’ve suffered enough during the pandemic, and they shouldn’t be on the front lines solving a problem their elders created. But history tells us that successful movements always demand difficult trade-offs. Take the classic example of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to protest segregation in the mid-1950s. For 381 days, at great burden to themselves, the Black citizens of the city walked and carpooled and otherwise put in the hard work to organize themselves so they could avoid taking the bus. This kind of self-sacrifice not only built an enormous sense of solidarity; it also allowed them to win.

The other thing movements need is time. This might be the reason the 2018 walkout failed to make much of an impact. It was a rushed response to the Parkland shooting that felt more symbolic than strategic. Acting in moments of heightened feeling, such as the one we’re in right now, can be good for soft power and not so good for the long-term accretion of hard power. It’s all too raw. Whatever emotion emboldens people in these moments tends to wear off as the frenetic news cycle turns its attention elsewhere. This might seem counterintuitive, but time is necessary to plan and to cohere as a movement. Luckily, summer vacation is just around the corner.

What if students, parents, and teachers took the next three months to mobilize? They could create thousands of local committees supporting the strike and decide on what the national demand might be—say, an assault-weapon ban. They could figure out the mutual support and child care they would need to get through the days and maybe weeks it would take for Congress to act. They could bolster their commitment to one idea, one tactic. For the youngest children, parents would have to take the lead. But Parkland showed us how committed teenagers could be to the cause of securing their own safety and futures. The movement could take time to coil its energy until the new academic year, when it would attack all at once.

This is all hypothetical, of course. I have no idea if such a dramatic action, demanding widespread dedication and sacrifice on the part of millions, could ever actually happen. But I do know that we are at a crossroads. The unbearable history of these shootings has exhausted us, but it has also given us a hint of a way forward. Have we suffered enough sorrow to consider it?