I was 10 years old when, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students at Columbine High School, in what was then the most-deadly school shooting in American history. What I can recall most from my childhood mind from the time aren’t the gruesome details in the news reports or even the sense of dread that gripped students and teachers across the country, but the feeling that something central about the country had changed. Something about America had shifted, and it was significant enough that even a child’s understanding could grasp it.
Almost two decades later, after multiple mass shootings and dozens of slain children, it’s clear that what changed wasn’t the mobilization of a country to stop events like Columbine, but the beginning of the normalization of those events. Now, even the fervor of post-massacre gun debates has been fraught with fatalism. Every debate is the same, without any denouement. Advocates cry out for common-sense reforms, NRA-backed politicians decry those measures, donor lists are released, and people complain about the politicization of tragedy. But nothing ever really happens. The gun debate has become a moribund ritual.
But a CNN town hall Wednesday night might have shown that things are changing. The event, hosted in Sunrise, Florida, featured survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, along with their parents and a large local crowd. They debated Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, along with Representative Ted Deutch, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch. The town hall, which featured an emotionally charged and often-contentious debate, was remarkable for how different it was from countless previous debates. Perhaps it showed a way forward.