Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting have become nationally prominent activists for gun control almost overnight. But while they’ve drawn attention to their positions, these students will face an uphill journey: Yesterday, the Florida House voted down a motion to consider banning assault weapons—as Stoneman Douglas students watched from the gallery.

After mass shootings, discussions around gun violence—especially gun control legislation—often flare up and then die down, without new legislation, as the news cycle moves on. With help from our archives editor, Annika Neklason, I dug into the Atlantic archives, looking for insights into what might come out of this moment—and what might not.

The Parkland Moment: An Atlantic History

  • The weapon used by the Parkland shooter, the AR-15, has a storied history. The weapon at the center of today’s debate took an unusual path to prominence. James Fallows explored in 1981 how the AR-15 was developed, advocated for, and modified in the military. In the 1960s, after a series of evaluations, the Defense Department had recommended its lightness, reliability, and “lethality.” The weapon was soon deployed in Vietnam. But without a few more bureaucratic interventions, it might never have become notable.

  • A proto-school shooting in 1988 looks eerily similar to those of today. That year, in Virginia Beach, a student used a semi-automatic weapon he’d bought from a federally licensed dealer without facing checks to shoot teachers and classmates. In 1993, Erik Larsen said that gun manufacturers, dealers, and regulators “virtually assure [the] eventual use [of guns] in … school yards of America.” That was six years before Columbine.

  • The Clinton-era assault weapons ban passed in Congress by only one vote. In 1994, Bill Clinton signed a law that restricted the number of military features a gun could have and banned large capacity magazines for consumer use. But in Congress, many opposed it, wrote Patrick Griffin, Clinton’s chief congressional affairs lobbyist. And by strong-arming the passage of the law, Clinton helped to create the intense partisanship that now defines Congress—which his party lost to the Republicans that year. His victory “stands as an enduring cautionary tale.” The law expired in 2004.

  • Today’s debate sounds a lot like the script written decades ago. In 1996, Wendy Kaminer wrote about Second Amendment supporters arguing that “gun-control laws affect only law-abiding gun owners, and the best defense against armed criminals is armed victims; the remedy for the bad use of guns in violent crime is the good use of guns in self-defense.”

  • Since Sandy Hook, in 2012, dozens of states have expanded the right to carry guns in places like churches and schools. Gun restrictions actually loosen after mass shootings, wrote David Frum last year. Wisconsin, for example, removed its 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases one week after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

  • High school students have had little legislative power in the past. A case study: In 2015, Kentucky teenagers attempted to help pass legislation that would allow student representatives on local school boards. They wrote op-eds and testified before lawmakers. But their work was met with resistance in the state Capitol. What blocked them, Amanda Ripley explained that year, was a view, intrinsic to American culture, that adolescent voices “are [not] completely valid until they are 18.” Similar attitudes are being expressed about the Stoneman Douglas students.

  • Today’s generation gap recalls the damaging period around Vietnam. Writing for The Atlantic in 1968, Richard Poirier argued that the older generation he belonged to misunderstood and repressed the younger generation. The students and other young people protesting against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights were among, he wrote, “the best of our natural resources—youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope.”  

  • The Parkland students may already understand that change won’t come easy. What sets Parkland apart, wrote Robinson Meyer last week, is how its teenagers are familiar with the reality of “a school for children [becoming] a charnel house.” They’ve grown up observing a lack of change. They were born after Columbine shocked their parents’ generation. “So when that hideous transformation struck their school,” wrote Meyer, “they already knew what they wanted to do.” And their perspective is recasting an “otherwise clichéd national debate.”

Today’s Wrap Up

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