The students who are heading the march today have ushered in a major development in the battle over gun rights. They are bringing a level of energy and optimism to the gun-control debate, and putting front and center the faces of the school communities that have been victimized.
But gun-control advocates have a great deal of work ahead of them. The students need to transform this mobilization into a full-blown movement, if they are to succeed. That will require making alliances with more established organizations, including those that are not only about gun control, and nurturing emerging leaders who will be willing to focus on this issue over time. They also don’t yet have the kind support from elected officials who, as LBJ liked to say, were prepared to fight with hammer and tong for victory.
Republicans have been steadfast in opposing gun control while President Trump has done nothing other than to offer some lip service when the television cameras are on. Democrats have been more receptive to gun control, though the party has also backed down in the past. Many Democrats are also influenced by the NRA and by their pro-gun constituents, while others are scared to take on the fight. By building pressure in the upcoming months, gun-control advocates could help elect leaders in the midterm elections who would be willing to champion their cause. And it will be a challenge for them to keep the national media, with its short attention span, from moving on too quickly after the 24-hour frenzy ends and Trump sends off his next provocative tweet.
The student activists also have to overcome a conservative media echo chamber, which did not exist in the early 1960s in this scale and scope, that continually pumps out stories rebutting anyone who insists that our Wild West approach to guns is dangerous.
After the Parkland shooting, the instinct of Fox News host Greg Gutfeld was to complain on The Five about “emotional” news coverage about guns. “You have to be rational about it,” he said, “which means hardening soft targets through drills and training, learning combat, learning hand-to-hand combat.” Pontificating on Trump’s favorite source of intelligence, the morning news show Fox & Friends, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said, “We are not going to confiscate guns on the scale to make us a disarmed country.” He explained that the “only long-term solution, depending on the size of the school, is a minimum of six to eight teachers and administrators who are trained in the use of firearms and have conceal carry permits and are prepared to defend kids.” Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson warned of the gun-control activists who are allegedly using the “traumatized children of Parkland as a human shield.”
When African American students conducted a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960 to protest segregation, civil-rights activists were still in the early stages of movement-building. But their efforts were ultimately successful, and culminated in a law that transformed Southern race relations. The forces of reaction then were met with a force more powerful. And this time it is possible that the forces of reaction today, led by the Republicans and the NRA, will similarly be defeated. But if today's activists on gun control wish to replicate the successes of the civil-rights movement, there remains a long road ahead of them. The march this weekend will have to be just the beginning for these student activists, if they hope to achieve their dream of curbing gun violence in American schools and streets.