US gun control
‘We can’t let fear consume us’: why
Parkland activists won’t give up
Almost a year after March for Our Lives, gun control has faded
from the spotlight. But these student survivors aren’t done
Mon 11 Feb 2019 01.00 EST
David Hogg and other Parkland activists are focusing on the quiet, unglamorous work of grassroots organizing. Photograph:
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for March For Our Lives
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‘They have no voice’:
why a Parkland
father took on Louis
Guns v grief: inside
on five ways to fight
gun violence in 2019
David Hogg grew an inch over the past year. He notices it when he squeezes
his lanky, now 6ft 1in frame into another airplane seat and struggles to fall
asleep. Hogg is often on the road now.
A year ago, at age 17, he was interviewing and filming his classmates as they
hid in a closet from the gunshots they had just heard on their Parkland,
Florida campus. Now, the 18-year-old and a small group of his friends have
become internationally recognized gun violence prevention activists. For
nine months after a shooting at their school left 17 students and teachers
dead, the founders of March for Our Lives fought nonstop to vote out
National Rifle Association-backed lawmakers, criss-crossing the country to
hold rallies and voter registration events, as well as to build connections
with veteran gun violence prevention activists in cities like New York and
Today, Hogg and the other students who first spoke out
after the Parkland shooting are focusing on the quiet,
unglamorous work of grassroots organizing. The group is
training eight regional directors to help build out their
March for Our Lives local chapters. They want to prepare
for the 2020 presidential election by expanding the
national reach of their youth voter registration and
Yes, some of the teenagers are making plans to go to college next year. Yes,
they are dealing with grief and exhaustion and backlash. They have had to
learn to set some boundaries for the work they are doing, as well as learn
how to weather brutal political losses. November’s election saw longtime
allies of the National Rifle Association win tight races for governor and US
senate in Florida, the Parkland students’ home state. By early January, a
Republican legislator in Florida had filed a bill attempting to repeal the few
compromise gun control measures the state had passed after the Parkland
But the students who inspired national school walkouts last spring
to protest government inaction on gun violence have seen enough
progress that they want to keep fighting. Youth voter turnout
nationwide spiked ten percentage points to an estimated 31% in
2018: still low, but the highest midterm election rate in decades. At
least some of that increase is likely due to March for Our Lives’
months of protests and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“One of my goals in the next two years is to get 71% youth voter
turnout in 2020,” Hogg told the Guardian in a recent phone
interview. Just under 50% of voters 18-29 voted in the 2016
Why choose 71% as a goal?
“I like the way the number looks,” he said. “I think it’s a good goal that’s
going to be hard.”
On the other hand, he said: “I think there’s a lot of people that, quite frankly,
really, really, really hate our president.”
There’s no big election to organize around in 2019, but that does not mean
there isn’t urgent work to do, the group’s new director of outreach said.
“I think this is the year of building,” Jackie Corin, an 18-year-old senior at
Marjory Stoneman Douglas and one of the group’s founders, said. “We’re not
stopping, we’re not looking at it as an off-year.”
Mobilizing young people
March for Our Lives currently has nearly 200 local chapters across
the country. By 2020, the group is hoping to “double that, or even
more”, Corin said.
When Hogg has asked politicians for advice on how “to get change
as quickly as possible,” he has been advised that it’s necessary to
work both inside and outside the system. He is already talking
about running for Congress as soon as he turns 25. If there are still
politicians touting endorsements from the NRA after 2025, Hogg
said, he would like to campaign against one of them.
“If there was a Democrat that had an A rating from the NRA, I
would totally try to primary them out.”
He’s only one of the young activists who is now considering a career in
politics. Corin, who has been organizing logistics for the group’s nationwide
bus tours and local partnerships while also trying to finish high school, is
also thinking about elected office.
National media interest in the Parkland movement peaked and then faded
last spring after the students organized their first major event, the March for
Our Lives in Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters in
the nation’s capital, and at least 1 million protesters at 800-plus sister
marches worldwide. By then, the Parkland activists were already making a
conscious effort to convert their viral social media presence into the only
kind of currency that can truly challenge the power of the National Rifle
Association: not money, or media attention, but turnout.
Working with young gun violence prevention
activists from across the country, the Parkland
made a bet this past spring that local organizing –
and more local news coverage – could make a
difference in the 2018 midterm elections. Over
the summer, the March for Our Lives activists
traveled on a bus tour to dozens of states to host
rallies and voter registration drives, all with the
goal of increasing youth voter turnout in the midterm elections. They also
sent a separate delegation of activists touring across Florida, which saw an
even higher spike in youth voter turnout in November. Statewide, 37% of
young Florida voters participated in the election, a 15-percentage-point
increase the Associated Press reported, with especially high youth turnout in
cities with large populations of college students.
While March for Our Lives cannot take sole credit for the 10 percentage point
jump in youth voter turnout in the 2018 midterms nationwide, the students
certainly deserve some of the credit for a “really impressive” achievement,
said Jessica Morales Rocketto, the political director of the National Domestic
Workers Alliance, and a former digital organizing expert for the Clinton and
Obama presidential campaigns.
“If that’s in your first [election] cycle, what can happen in your
second, third, four, fifth cycles?” she asked.
Political activists have been trying to solve the problem of low
youth voter turnout for years, and except for Barack Obama, she
said, there haven’t been many successes.
If the March for Our Lives is “even moderately successful” in
continuing to increase youth voter turnout in the next five or 10
years, that will have a big political impact, she said. If they can
replicate the kind of success they saw this midterm cycle, she said,
the students could become a political force that would rival the
influence of the labor movement or outside groups like MoveOn.
The next chapter
There were no guarantees that the March for Our Lives would be able to
sustain their movement even this long. It’s true that the Parkland activists
started with advantages most youth activists have not given: name
recognition, media attention, “the moral high ground” of being survivors,
the immediate financial support of powerful backers like Oprah and George
Clooney, who were among the celebrities who pleged $500,000 to support
the nascent movement.
But “none of those things guarantee success, in any way, shape or form”,
Morale Rocketto said.
“A lot of times in political and movement spaces, there’s an emphasis on
whatever is the hot thing,” she said. “That’s where they could have begun
and ended, as the hot thing.”
When they began to speak out after the shooting at their school,
Parkland students wanted to make sure that their murdered
friends were not forgotten in the endless series of American school
shootings, that the news cycle did not simply move on after the
latest series of “thoughts and prayers”. They have achieved that
goal. Today, Democratic 2020 presidential candidates are courting
the approval of the Parkland movement. California senator Kamala
Harris mentioned the students as an inspiration in her campaign
memoir. In December, the students traveled to South Africa to
accept the International Children’s Peace Prize.
But teenagers also said they wanted to make
Parkland the last mass shooting in America. On that goal,
they aren’t even close. In the months they have been
mourning their own lost friends and teachers, the
Parkland survivors have had to watch more school
shootings, more domestic violence murders, shootings
at a yoga studio, a bank, a synagogue, a video game
tournament, a country music bar. A death count of five
or six people lost in a mass shooting now barely makes a ripple in the Trump
administration news cycle.
The strange celebrity the Parkland students have been given is often painful.
In the students’ memoir of their movement, published this fall, Emma
González, the most famous of the March for Our Lives activists, described
how uncomfortable it feels to be recognized on the street. “All of us know
what it feels like to be Harry Potter now,” she wrote – the boy who became
famous for living when the people he loved died, the boy constantly
reminded of the worst day of his life.
The students’ ability to make a political impact has sparked constant
harassment, including from conspiracy theorists who labeled the teenagers
“crisis actors”, as well as pushback from gun rights activists who show up to
the students’ events fully armed. Hogg, in particular, has sparked the ire of
right-wing pundits, who have publicly mocked and dissected his grades, SAT
scores, and college rejections and acceptances. (He took a gap year after
graduating last spring, and announced in December that he would be
attending Harvard in the fall.)
“Even when people come up to us quietly to say thank you, you never know
if they’re someone who’s going to support you if they’re just trying to shiv
you or punch you or shoot you at close range, disguised by a friendly face,”
The hostility some of their political opponents show can be frightening,
Corin said, but “there’s nothing we can do. We can’t let that fear consume
What’s been achieved?
March for Our Lives is still focused on gun policy. The group is
hoping to play a stronger lobbying role to pass gun control bills in
state houses this year, as well as pressuring the senate, which is
still controlled by Republican allies of the National Rifle
Association, to pass a historic bill expanding background checks
on gun sales. They have an 18-year-old as their lobbyist in DC.
It’s possible to measure the influence of March for Our Lives so far
by tallying up their year of wins and losses. Dozens of gun control
laws passed at the state level in 20 states. Eight states, including
Florida, passed extreme risk protection order laws, which give
family members and law enforcement a way to petition a court to
temporarily remove firearms from a person at risk of hurting others or
These laws are already being used to prevent shootings, Hogg said. “The
thing that I’m most proud of is the stories that were not reported on because
they didn’t happen.”
Nationally, Democratic candidates, including
many running on gun control platforms, swept
the House of Representatives. One of the first
priorities of the new Democratic House majority
was introducing a new, stronger bill to expand
background checks on gun sales. At the same
time, Republican gun-rights supporters
consolidated control of the senate, which will likely block the passage of any
gun control legislation until at least 2020. And with the confirmation of Brett
Kavanaugh, Trump gave the NRA what it spent more than $30 million to
secure in the 2016 elections: a lasting majority of pro-gun justices on the
If the sole bar is “passing Congressional gun control laws,” then it looks like
the March for Our Lives has not done much to disrupt the status quo of
America’s broken gun debate.
But the attempt to measure the Parkland students’ impact in terms of bills
passed or not passed may miss the broader point. March for Our Lives has a
more ambitious outlook than just policy. They are mirroring what the NRA
and the Republican Party have done so well for decades: using the gun
debate as a wedge issue, and aiming to take and hold power for a generation.
The central framing of the March for Our Lives – young people rising up
against corrupt politicians so beholden to special interests that they will risk
kids’ lives rather than change – is a resonant one. And it would be easy to
extend that same framing to a broader set of issues, from racism to criminal
justice reform to climate change, not just gun violence or school shootings.
A national movement
While the media spotlight still focuses most often on a handful of
the most famous Parkland students, the teenage survivors a have
spent the past year connecting with young activists who have long
advocated for gun violence prevention in New York, Chicago, Los
Angeles, and Washington DC. Their goal is to build a truly national
movement, and they’ve already developed a deep bench of young
leaders across the country – activists who are organizing on the
local level, as well as with the national movement.
In Arizona, Jordan Harb, a high school student who led a walkout
protest after the Parkland shooting, went on to run a statewide
youth voter registration campaign, in which high school students
too young to vote worked to register their 18 and 19-year-old friends. In
Wisconsin, Bria Smith, a charismatic 17-year-old local activist who joined the
March for Our Lives’ voter outreach bus tour this summer, has been deeply
influenced by the political training of her summer activism. She’s still
working with March for Our Lives, as well as traveling across the country to
speak with other young activists on racial justice. She also recently became
the president of her local youth council in Milwaukee.
Even if March for Our Lives disbands in a few months or
years, the group will still have been instrumental in
training a generation of young organizers across the
country. If they can stick together, it’s hard to
overestimate the political benefits of having a national
network of media-tested, donor-connected, eloquent 25-
year-olds who have been organizing campaigns together
since their late teens.
If you ask different members of March for Our Lives whether they
organization will still exist in five or 10 years, they will give roughly the same
answer. (They have always demonstrated impressive message discipline.)
They don’t want the organization to exist forever. Within ten years – even by
early 2021 – they hope the US will have already passed a set of stricter gun
laws, invested in local violence prevention programs, and significantly
reduced gun violence. But might the group still exist in some form, focused
on youth voter engagement? Yes.
This was the answer that Hogg, among others, gave , in a phone interview
that had been scheduled for 9pm. He was very tired, but he gamely
answered questions for about an hour. Finally, before answering that last
question, he paused. There was some noise in the background. “Does March
for Our Lives still exist in four years? Yeah – one second. I’m brushing my
A candlelight vigil for the shooting victims in Parkland. Photograph: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
I think there’s a
lot of people that,
quite frankly, really,
really, really hate
The March for Our Lives rally in Washington. Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images
Parkland students during the March for Our Lives. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
stopping, we’re not
looking at it as an
A memorial at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. Photograph: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images
US gun control
Activism /Parkland, Florida school shooting / Gun crime / US politics / US school shootings / features
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