Trumpism and its Discontents

Marching for Our Lives Gun-Control Politics in the Age of Trump

The following is a chapter from Trumpism and its Discontents. Click to download a PDF of the book here.

By Denise Herd 

Cover of the trumpism bookAfter the massacre of twenty six- and seven-year-old children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and numerous other mass killings from gun violence failed to generate substantial changes in US gun policies, no one believed that there would ever be a large-scale anti–gun violence movement in America.  However, in February 2018, this pattern abruptly shifted. What could have been remembered as yet another unfortunate incident of school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, inspired a vibrant and powerful social movement against gun violence that led to swift and sweeping public policy changes across the United States. 

The catalyzing impact of this incident did not appear commensurate to the scale of other school shootings in terms of tragedy, lives lost, or the youthful age of the victims.  Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Virginia; and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, were sites of horrendous shootings of children ranging from elementary school to college age, and the numbers of people killed at both Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech were greater than the fourteen teenage students and three adults killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The killings at Virginia Tech, where a total of thirty-three people were shot, is regarded as the worst school massacre in the United States.  In fact, just six months prior to the school shooting in Parkland, Las Vegas was the scene of one of the most destructive mass shootings in America, in which one man killed fifty-eight people and wounded another 851 at an outdoor music concert.  Although there was significant public outcry and media attention devoted to all of these incidents, in most cases, public protests and news coverage surrounding the shootings quickly waned, and the resulting public policy changes to address the causes of these mass shootings were meager.

What changed with Parkland?  Why did these shootings lead to a substantial, highly successful anti–gun violence movement in a very short period of time when prior protests, even those such as the Million Mom March in 2000 that received notable public acclaim, had quickly faded from the public eye and achieved only modest success?  Commentators have pointed to a number of differences between Parkland and other anti–gun violence movements, emphasizing the unique qualities of the Parkland teen leaders as compared with leaders of prior movements (e.g., victim/survivor status, youthfulness), the differences in organizing tactics (use of social media, cultivation of politicians and reporters, the emphasis on grassroots organizing), the use of cultural and narrative strategies that matched those of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and directly confronted politicians, and the presence of large-scale financial support from celebrities and anti–gun violence organizations.1,2 These are critical features that no doubt contributed greatly to the swift launching of an appealing, high-profile movement that greatly prolonged the news cycle for the relevance of this school killing spree on television and in newspapers.

In addition, other scholarship points to the importance of the political context in shaping the outcome of reform-oriented social movements.  For example, Craig Reinarman argues that the deep cultural, legislative, and criminal justice shifts in perceptions and the punitive approaches implemented by another social movement—Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD)—had in part been driven by the “law and order” ethos of the 1980s Reagan era as well as by an individualistic framing of the problem that had not implicated the alcohol industry. In his view, these two factors contributed to the mushrooming success of a movement started by a grieving mother who had lost a twelve-year-old daughter to a drunk driver.3  From a parallel perspective, a major focus of the present analysis is on how the widespread resistance to the Trump presidency and Democratic politics in 2018 influenced the impact of the Parkland anti–gun violence movement. Specifically, this chapter explores how the alignment of the Parkland youth movement with the broader wave of Democratic Party protests and organizing helped fuel the extraordinary success of this social movement.  

Kristin Goss points to two other features of gun-protest politics that seemed crucial for mobilizing large-scale public responses to the Parkland shootings.  First, antigun protests have been largely fueled by women.  Goss argues not only that there is a huge gender gap between progun and antigun sentiment but also that traditionally women have spearheaded movements for social reforms and policy changes to benefit families and communities.  She notes that in the 1930s, the two million General Federation of Women’s Clubs spoke for ordinary citizens fed up with gang violence.4 In addition, protecting children from gun violence is one of the most effective frames for mobilizing Americans to protest against firearms.  In her study of almost fifty gun-control groups created in the 1990s, Goss found that 60 percent had been formed in response to a shooting involving youth.5 The Parkland shooter killed a large number of teens in a suburban school, an action that immediately commanded massive public attention and concern.  The fact that the killings occurred during the second year of the Trump presidency also tapped into the large wave of anti-Trump resistance created by thousands of American women who had been engaged in almost continuous protest against Trump since the 2016 election.

These ideas form the backdrop for the issues to be explored in this chapter that are believed to have helped fuel this protest movement and intensify its impact. They include the strong mobilization of women after the election of President Trump, the gender divide on gun-control politics and the prominence of women’s leadership in gun-control movements, and the deep partisan rift in support for gun rights and gun control.  In addition, the chapter explores how the strategies of the Parkland youth gun-control activists strongly aligned with key strategies of the Democratic Party (increasing voter registration and turnout) to win the 2018 midterm electoral races and regain control of Congress as well as capture state offices. Although the youth movement leaders were avowedly nonpartisan and did successfully influence some Republican lawmakers, the major supporters of the Parkland anti-gun violence movement were women, Democrats, ethnic minorities, and gun-control advocates who were mostly strongly opposed to the Trump administration.  In addition, the framing of the gun-violence problem by the Parkland youth (e.g., the need for restrictions on the availability of firearms and the regulation of gun ownership) was vehemently opposed by the NRA, President Trump, and most conservative Republicans. Finally, the strategic actions of the Parkland movement were extremely political and advocated for immediate legislative change and increases in voter registration and political participation that would affect the outcome of the midterm elections to promote more gun-control-friendly legislators.

Methods for this study included extensive reviews of newspaper, magazine, and other press coverage of the Parkland movement as well as analysis of the literature on gun-reform movements and relevant government reports and statistics.

Women, Trump, and Protest Politics

A large number of women were shocked and outraged by the election of Donald Trump for several key reasons.  First, many Democrats anticipated celebrating Hillary Clinton as the first female American president.  Following a projected Clinton victory, numerous American women experienced a strong sense of loss and anger at the election’s outcome.  This loss was compounded by the fact that Trump has a past history of demeaning women and expressing misogynist attitudes. In addition, women feared that the Trump administration posed threats to gains made to gender equality and reproductive rights.  In the views of scholars Rachel G. McKane and Holly J. McCammon, the combination of these factors created a “perfect storm” of feminist outrage, and the Trump presidency “heightened long-standing feminist grievances regarding patriarchy, misogyny, and gender inequality.”6

In the wake of high levels of discontent, massive numbers of women began to mobilize. On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of President Trump, women across the nation and globe came together in what is regarded as the largest single day protest in US history.  Women organized the March on Washington, with sibling marches occurring in every state in the country and with multiple marches in cities and towns in some states as well as protests in other countries.  Estimates of the numbers of participants ranged from three million to more than five million people in the United States and thousands more in other countries.7 After the marches, organizers reported that about 673 marches had taken place worldwide on all seven continents, with twenty-nine in Canada, twenty in Mexico8, and one in Antarctica.9

The goals of the first Women’s March included calling for legislative and policy reform to support gender and racial equity, immigration reform, access to health care, reproductive rights, workers’ rights, LGBTQ rights, and environmental health and related issues.10 Following this event, activism in American society remained at an all-time high.  According to Kenneth T. Andrews, Neal Caren, and Alyssa Browne, “In the subsequent year, more than two million people attended over 6,500 protest events in what might be the most remarkable 365 days of protest in US history.”11 Gun-control events garnered almost seven thousand participants in 105 events.12 

On the first anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March, women again took to the streets in record numbers.  Estimates were that between 1.8 million and 2.6 million people participated in the protests, attending about 407 marches.13 The 2018 Women’s March occurred only three weeks before the Parkland shootings, and, as will be described in subsequent sections, organizers of the Women’s March played instrumental roles in the major protest actions organized by the Parkland youth activists.  

Women and Anti–Gun Violence Politics: THE GENDER GAP AND ANTIGUN SENTIMENT

Prior to the Parkland shootings, gun violence had not been a major issue in the politics surrounding the Trump presidency. However, the deep gender divide in perceptions of gun-violence problems, coupled with rising feminist outrage and women’s mobilization, positioned women as a key audience and support base for the emerging popular movement on gun control.

There is a long-standing and persistent gender gap in public attitudes toward gun control, with women much more likely than men to favor restrictive policies and laws regarding firearms.14 For example, data from the National Opinion Research Center from 1976 to 2002 demonstrate that, although trends varied over time, in each year of the survey, women reported having more favorable attitudes toward laws requiring a permit before buying a gun than men did.15 According to data from a similar poll taken in 2001, 77 percent of women and 59 percent of men indicated that they favored stricter laws relating to the control of handguns.16 More recent data from the Quinnipiac University National Poll in 2016 reveal that 63 percent of women compared with 45 percent of men support stricter gun laws in the United States and that 71 percent of women compared with 46 percent of men support a nationwide ban on assault weapons.17 Women were also more likely than men to believe that expanding background checks would be effective in reducing gun violence and that it is too easy to buy guns, while men were more likely than women to believe that carrying guns would make the United States safer.18

Tom W. Smith (1999) argues that the gender divide in attitudes about gun control is driven in part by the fact that fewer women are gun owners and that there is a positive relationship between owning a gun and having more favorable attitudes toward gun owners’ rights.19 Other commentators have pointed to the following cultural and social reasons to explain why women are more likely than men to favor gun-control laws.20  First, women have been socialized to be more risk aversive and thus less likely to endorse the risky behavior and protector role associated with gun ownership.21 Second, women are at a much greater risk of experiencing domestic violence than men, and many perpetrators of mass shootings have had a history of domestic violence.  For example, the gun-safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety reported that “fifty women are shot by their intimate partners each month, and 4.5 million American women alive today have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.”22 Finally Goss’s work suggests that women are more likely to favor gun-control politics than men are because of what she refers to as “maternalist” motives such as fear for the safety of their children and a desire to protect their children’s safety at home or at school.23

Women and Anti-Gun Violence Movements

Women leaders and women’s organizations have played major roles in the anti–gun violence movement in the United States since it emerged in the 1980s. Sarah Brady, whose husband, James Brady, was seriously injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, was a central leader in the Brady Campaign (the group formerly known as the Handgun Control Initiative that was formed in the mid-1970s), one of the longest-running and most powerful gun-control organizations in the country.24  The Bradys have been involved in the organization since the mid-1980s, and Mrs. Brady became the organization’s chair in 1989. The Brady Campaign has been responsible for promoting most of the important federal legislation and policies enacted regarding gun control in the United States.  These laws include the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which makes it illegal to make, trade, sell, possess, or ship firearms that cannot be detected by walk-through metal detectors; the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993) that required federal background checks on guns purchased in the United States and that imposed a five-day waiting period on purchases until the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was implemented in 1998; and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994), which made it illegal to manufacture assault weapons and large-capacity magazines for civilian use for ten years.  The Brady Campaign continues to support advocacy efforts aimed at federal gun-control legislation and policies.  For example, the group opposed the Stand Your Ground laws enacted in Florida and other states that authorize individuals attacked in their homes and cars to use lethal force against attackers without retreating.  The group also helped with lawsuits to prohibit persons with permits from carrying concealed weapons in national parks and to make gun sellers responsible for deaths resulting from purchases of bullets, body armor, and magazines by the shooter in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in 2012.25

Women also organized the first mass rally devoted to gun control in the United States in recent times. In 2000, on Mother’s Day, May 14, more than 700,000 women marched on Washington and in sibling marches held in at least twenty cities across the country.26 Known as the Million Mom March, this protest was the outcome of a national grassroots organizing campaign developed by women who were outraged by the armed attacks on schoolchildren in several highly publicized shootings.  The march was initiated by Donna Dees, a mother and part-time publicist who had been horrified by the August 1999 Southern California Jewish Community Center day-care shooting on a playground. According to Lawrence Wallack, Liana Winett, and Linda Nettekoven, the purpose of the march was to “focus the national spotlight on ‘sensible gun laws,’ pose a formidable challenge to the National Rifle Association[,] . . . hold Congress accountable for legislative solutions to gun violence[,] and invoke the real and symbolic moral power of motherhood to further the goals of the gun control movement.”27  The march included thousands of “mothers and others,” some of whom had been directly impacted by gun violence and had lost children to violence. Others were women and families who were concerned about and appalled by threats to the safety of schoolchildren.  The policy goals of the marchers included registering handguns, requiring that gun owners be licensed, establishing product safety requirements for firearms, requiring background checks on gun sales at weekend shows, and enacting one handgun a month purchasing limits.28 In addition, a strong focus of the march was to underscore the urgency of protecting the lives of children as opposed to supporting the cultural prominence of progun beliefs.  Reflecting these sentiments, one of the mothers, a California Republican whose son had been shot and killed during a robbery, said to the marchers: “We love our children more than the NRA loves their damn guns!”  This statement became a major theme for the marchers.29 The Million Mom March attracted extensive media attention and was regarded as a key turning point that ushered in a popular movement for gun control. After the protest rally, the group reorganized as the Million Mom March Foundation, with the goal of having the same kind of impact on society that Mothers Against Drunk Driving had experienced.  The foundation garnered support from the US Conference of Mayors, the League of Women Voters, and the National  Parent Teacher Association (PTA).  Although the growth of the Million Mom March Foundation initially flourished, within months the membership had declined and chapters had closed.  A year later, unable to attract more than limited participation, the group was folded into the Brady Campaign.30  Although the march and the group saw some gains for the gun-control movement (such as passing referenda in Oregon and Colorado to close gun law loopholes and helping to defeat several pro–gun rights senators), the year 2000 was mostly remembered for the election of NRA ally George W. Bush as president.   In addition, some Democrats blamed the gun-control issue for Al Gore’s losses in three crucial states, and for their failure to gain a majority in the House of Representatives.31

A similar group for women’s advocacy regarding gun control formed the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012.  The organization was started by Shannon Watts in Indianapolis, Indiana and was initially created as a grassroots Facebook group page titled ‘One Million Moms for Gun Control”.  

Later renamed “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America,” the organization was supported as a prevention campaign for the Everytown for Gun Safety Action fund.  By the end of 2013, the group had expanded into chapters in all fifty states, with 130,000 members.  The advocacy group has endorsed congressional candidates, has lobbied members of Congress to support expanded background checks, has convinced Starbucks to ban guns in its coffee shops, and has sponsored ads for educational campaigns on banning assault weapons.  In 2013, the group merged with Mayors against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety.32

Republicans, Trump, Progun Politics, and the NRA

Although there are some gun-control issues that receive wide support from both Republicans and Democrats (e.g., in results from a 2017 poll, more than 80 percent of respondents identifying with each party favored laws preventing people who are mentally ill or on federal watch lists from purchasing guns), there are stark differences in support for other gun-control measures that fall along partisan lines.  For example, in 2017, 76 percent of Republicans as compared with 22 percent of Democrats agreed that it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership.33  Similar differences were found in the results of 2016 Quinnipiac polls showing that while 83 percent of Democrats support stricter gun laws, only 26 percent of Republicans do; 90 percent of Democrats support a nationwide ban on assault weapons compared with 40 percent of Republicans who do; 86 percent of Democrats believe that expanding background checks would be effective in reducing gun violence in the United States compared with 42 percent of Republicans who do; and 86 percent of Democrats think it is too easy for a person to buy a gun while only 28 percent of Republicans agree.34

In addition, historically, federal gun-control policies have enjoyed much more support during Democratic administrations.  The Brady Bill and the Federal Assault Ban were both passed into law during the Clinton presidency.  However, in 1994, Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years, with the Democrats’ loss attributed to the passage of the assault weapons ban.35 It was also widely believed that Al Gore had lost the presidency because gun-control opposition had become a crucial factor in the 2000 election.36 A commentator, Kara Voght, argued that the reason why gun control has stagnated at the federal level since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is the Republican leadership’s refusal to take up the issue.37

President Trump’s political stance toward gun-control politics mirrors the platform of conservative Republicans. He has been a vocal supporter of the rights of gun owners and has consistently opposed gun-control measures prior to and throughout his presidency. For example, in the sixth 2016 Republican presidential primary debate, Trump expressed strong support for the Second Amendment and made the case that more guns would increase the safety of Americans. He blamed shooters, not guns, for gun violence problems.38 Trump has also stated that he is “against gun control,” has asserted that guns save lives, and has maintained that gunfree zones should be eliminated in schools.39 In addition, Mr. Trump has extensive ties to the NRA. In May 2016, the NRA endorsed his candidacy for president. Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA, stated: “If Hillary Clinton gets the opportunity to replace Antonin Scalia with an antigun Supreme Court justice, we will lose the individual right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense[,] . . .  [s]o the choice for gun owners in this election is clear.  And that choice is Donald Trump.”40 

The NRA also made extremely large financial contributions to Trump’s presidential campaign that were controversial in part because they were coordinated with the NRA’s own ad promotion campaign.41 Twenty-five million dollars in ads for the Trump presidential campaign were placed with the same ad-buying executives who arranged slots for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action and the NRA Political Victory Fund.  A complaint brought by the Campaign Legal Center and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argued that “spending by both the NRA and the Trump campaign would be complementary and [would] advance a unified, coordinated election strategy,” an effort that would violate campaign donation regulations.42 

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in all, the NRA donated $31.2 million to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The group aired  dvertisements on behalf of Trump in the summer of 2016 that were shown in battleground states and that attacked Hillary Clinton’s stand on gun control and her role in the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.  In the first one hundred days of his presidency, Trump was the first sitting president to address the NRA’s Leadership Forum since Ronald Reagan did so in 1983.43

Under Trump’s presidency, gun-control laws have been either substantially weakened or opposed.  In February 2017, President Trump signed a measure into law that overturned the Obama administration’s law that had added people receiving Social Security benefits for mental illnesses and deemed unable to handle their own finances to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System in order to prevent them from obtaining firearms.  This law, which had been developed in response to the Sandy Hook shooting of elementary school students, was predicted by the Obama Administration to have the potential to add 75,000 people to this national database.  In addition, Trump’s Justice Department weakened the impact of federal background checks on gun purchases by not preventing individuals with outstanding arrest warrants from purchasing firearms unless they had also fled across state lines.  As a result, 500,000 people were dropped from the rolls of those deemed ineligible to own firearms, and there was a sharp decline in denials based on arrest records. In other actions, Republicans moved to loosen gun restrictions on federal lands, promoted a bill to make it easier to buy gun silencers, and passed a bill allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons across state lines.44

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, President Trump appeared to be more sympathetic to the viewpoints of gun-control advocates. He called out politicians for fearing the NRA, publicly supported raising the minimum age for purchasing long guns, and publicly supported intensifying background checks.45 However,  ommentators noted that his initial pro–gun control statements faded fairly quickly and that the actual policies coming out of the White House were much more in line with NRA perspectives on the issue.46,47 Although the White House plan on school safety supported a congressional bill to strengthen the background-check system and urged states to pass laws temporarily restricting gun ownership for people regarded as dangerous, it also emphasized President Trump’s plan to arm teachers and other school staff on a volunteer basis and had no provisions for raising the minimum age for owning long guns.48 Other sources point out that Trump had  scapegoated” other causes of the shootings such as mental health issues and video games rather than firearms.49 In addition, a little more than two months after his promise to stand up to the NRA, Trump spoke at the organization’s annual convention.50

The Parkland Student Gun-Control Movement in the Era of Trump

On a sunny Valentine’s Day in 2018, a gunman, former student Nikolas Cruz, took the lives of fourteen eleventh and twelfth graders and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) in Parkland, Florida. Like other school shootings and gun massacres that have recently occurred in American towns and cities, the event quickly attracted massive media attention and expressions of political and social concern.  However, unlike previous cases, in which media and policy attention spiked temporarily and then often faded, the Parkland shooting, as they have become known, sparked one of the most influential popular movements against gun control in modern American society.  Part of the success of this movement can be attributed to the highly charged social context in which it took place.  To be sure, the teen victims and survivors who led the movement were knowledgeable, tech savvy, and charismatic, factors that helped ensure the success of the movement.  However, the fact that their protests resonated both with the wave of resistance of women and with Democrats opposed to the Trump presidency and to the pro–gun rights stance of the Republican party and the NRA meant that the messages of the Parkland youth fell on fertile ground and quickly blossomed.

The teen movement was also aligned with the existing protest actions of groups opposing Trump and the NRA.  These included a similar framing of the problem, similar strategies (e.g., large-scale protest rallies, including Marching for Our Lives, a massive Washington-based protest rally similar to the 2000 Million Mom March that took place within approximately two months of the second annual Women’s March protesting the election of President Trump), and similar goals, such as  upporting gun-control measures at all levels and increasing voter education and voter turnout for the midterm elections in 2018.

POLITICAL FRAMING OF GUN VIOLENCE 

From their movement’s inception, teen survivors of the Parkland shooting framed the gun-violence problem in highly political terms that resonated with the existing gun-control movement by pressuring legislators to increase regulation of firearms and gun ownership.  Within forty-eight hours after the shootings, a trio of the teen survivors decided on focusing on background checks as a goal of the movement. Another student immediately began posting a strong gun-control message on  Instagram: “PLEASE contact your local and state representatives as we must have stricter gun laws IMMEDIATELY.”51 By that evening, the student had spoken with Democratic Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  In subsequent conversations with other state representatives, arrangements were made to bus one hundred MSDHS students and their chaperones to Tallahassee, Florida to address the state legislature.  

On Saturday, three days after the shooting, teen survivors joined the protest at a gun-control rally held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in front of hundreds of demonstrators. In a series of impassioned speeches, they urged lawmakers to enact stricter gun-control measures and criticized politicians who took money from the NRA.52 It was at this protest that Emma Gonzalez, one of the activist youth survivors, ended her first speech (which subsequently went viral) with the now-famous statement linking legislation, gun violence, and voting as a theme of the movement:  “They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. . . . We call [that notion] BS. 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.  If you agree, register to vote.”53 

Several days later, students from MSDHS congregated with thousands of protesters in Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, to demand that legislators enact commonsense gun-control laws.  Hundreds of students from Parkland, Tallahassee, Jackson, and other places marched from Florida State and Florida A&M Universities to the capitol.  The rally featured survivors from the Parkland massacre, Democratic lawmakers, gun-control activists, and others who criticized Governor Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature for their inaction in addressing previous mass shootings. The rally had been organized by the Florida League of Women Voters and the Florida Coalition to End Gun Violence and was noted as one of the largest and most spirited gatherings to occur in the Florida capital in years.54 

The Parkland massacre also helped spark two national school walkout days.  The idea for the walkout originated with Empower, the youth branch of the Annual Women’s March, and called for students to walk out of class for seventeen minutes of silence in honor of each person killed during the shooting at MSDHS.  The first walkout was held a month after the shooting.  On March 15, 2018, an estimated one million students marched out of more than 3,100 schools across the country.55, 56 Protests occurred in Washington, DC, and in school districts from Maine to Los Angeles.  In some areas, the events went on for hours and included songs, protest marches, and ritual and mourning ceremonies (e.g., arranging empty school desks to recognize those lost to the shootings and releasing seventeen doves from a box).57, 58 In addition, in some areas tables were set up for voter registration, for gathering signatures for petitions to require stricter gun laws, or for writing condolence notes to those who had lost family and friends to gun violence.59 

A second school walkout, held on April 20, 2018, grew out of a Change.org petition started by a high school sophomore in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  Lane Murdock reported feeling numb when she heard about the MSDHS shootings and decided to act for change by starting a petition to create a school walkout on the day that she received the news.60 The walkout was planned to mark the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre of 1999, when twelve students and one teacher had been killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.  Protesters planned to walk out of classrooms and observe thirteen seconds of silence to remember those killed in the Columbine shootings.  However, organizers also encouraged open-ended, day-long protests to include rallies, speeches, voter registration drives, and similar actions.  The movement was geared toward high school students, and more than two thousand groups registered to participate in the activities.61

The March for Our Lives

The signature event that defined the Parkland movement was one of the largest gun-protest rallies ever held in the United States.  The March for Our Lives included an estimated 800,000 protesters in Washington, DC, and thousands of other participants in sibling marches held across the country. The march was held on March 24, 2018, about two months after the second Women’s March, and in fact received volunteer logistical and organizational support from Deena Katz, a leader and major organizer of the Women’s March.62

The idea for the march was born during the first few days of the aftermath of the Parkland shootings. Its overall purpose was to signal the urgency of the need to adopt stricter gun-control measures and to spotlight the importance of prioritizing the safety and lives of young people over progun interests like the NRA.  Cameron Kasky, one of the organizers, stated in an early interview:  “We are going to be marching together as students begging for our lives.”63 

Mobilizing young voters was a cornerstone of the march and the overall movement.  In fact, the march was closely linked to “Vote for Our Lives” a key initiative of the youth activists.64  For example, Headcount, a voter registration group, planned to send five thousand volunteers to register voters at the marches.  Alter’s article in Time magazine on the march states:  “The Parkland kids say their goal is for four out of five young people to vote in November’s midterm [2018] elections.”65 The Parkland youth’s stance on politicians was to have them pass gun-control legislation or be voted out of office. March organizers also said that funds raised for the march would “be used to fight for gun safety legislation at the local, state, and federal level and will also include [spending on] voter education, ballot initiatives, and lobbying state legislatures and Congress to protect America’s kids.”66 

Support for the march poured in from small donors on a crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, (more than $4 million) as well as from large donations from established gun-control organizations, including Everytown for Gun Safety and the Brady Campaign.  Liberal Hollywood celebrities George and Amal Clooney, Stephen Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and many others contributed large sums to the fund. Billionaire Tom Steyer, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who spearheaded a campaign to impeach President Trump, pledged $1 million to support the group’s efforts to register more young voters.67, 68, 69

By all accounts, the March for Our Lives rally held on March 24 was immensely successful.  The rally featured a powerful lineup of youth-only speakers, including survivors of the Parkland school shooting, other students speaking on behalf of family members who had been killed, and other victims of shootings.  Yolanda Renee King, nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, also made an appearance.70 Commentators praised the event for being intersectional,71 inspiring, peaceful, and extremely well organized.

Although the march had been initiated, planned, and led by the teen survivors of Parkland and other mass shootings, the audiences participating were not limited to youth.  One observer, Dana R. Fisher, noted that in the Washington, DC rally, 70 percent of the 256 participants she had surveyed were women, and their average age was around 49, similar to the age of the average participant in the Million Moms March in 2000.  Fisher also pointed out that about a quarter of the group she had interviewed were new to social protest, with many of them not primarily motivated by gun-control issues but rather by the issues of peace and opposition to President Trump.  The group was decidedly liberal, with 79 percent identifying as “left leaning” and 89 percent indicating that they had voted for Hillary Clinton.72 Reports from a sibling march in Pennsylvania indicated similar patterns.  Marchers included members of Moms Demand Action for Common Sense Gun Control, Everytown for Gun Safety, Black Lives Matter, and the Conscious Elders network.  Women who had participated in the Women’s Marches were seen wearing their pink pussyhats, worn as a symbol of protest to the Trump presidency.  Jon Coburn pointed out that the concerns of the protesters were broader than just gun-control issues:  “The spectre of Donald Trump and all that the current presidency represents loomed over Philadelphia’s march.  Marchers Carole and Craig . . . told me they were seizing an opportunity to help galvanize a wider movement for the democratic change that they feel the country has needed for some time.”73 Countless volunteers encouraged people to register to vote and participate in the upcoming midterm elections.

Political engagement and support for the march varied significantly along partisan lines.  Many Democratic lawmakers who have made appeals for gun-control measures planned to attend.  Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader at the time, and almost a dozen Senate Democrats, including Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, planned to be at the march or to meet with students participating in the rally.  Roughly twenty other Democratic legislators confirmed that they would participate in sibling marches or meet with students in their home states.74 On the day of the march, numerous prominent Democrats, including former president Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi, issued statements and Twitter messages of support.  For example, Pelosi tweeted: “Congress has a duty to end the daily tragedy of gun violence in America. We must act. #NeverAgain#EndGunViolence.”  Similarly, Obama tweeted: “Michelle and I are so inspired by all the young people who made today’s marches happen.  Keep at it.  You’re leading us forward.  Nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”75 

Republicans were mostly conspicuous by their absence.  President Trump left Washington to spend time golfing at Mar-a-Lago, but the White House did issue a statement applauding the “courageous young Americans exercising their First Amendment rights[,] . . . and [maintained] that keeping safe is a top priority of the President.”76  Republican senator Marco Rubio also commended the students for peacefully exercising their rights of free speech, although not agreeing with all of their proposed solutions, and stated that reaching common ground requires finding common ground with people holding conflicting views.77 Also, Republican House Representative Carlos Curbello (Florida), who introduced a bill in March 2018 that would raise the age requirement for purchasing guns, rifles, and shotguns, announced that he was donating $2,500 to help defray transportation costs for Parkland students to travel to Washington.78 

However, the NRA and some conservative Republicans were highly critical of the march.  For example, Grant Stinchfield, an NRA television host, said that the “March for Our Lives is backed by radicals with a history of violent threats, language[,] and actions.”79 While the march was underway, the NRA posted a membership drive on its Facebook page asserting that the “protests aren’t spontaneous.  Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment.”80An NRA video dubbed the march “A March for Their Lies.”81 

And Minnesota Republican state representative Mary Franson appeared to compare the March for Our Lives to Hitler Youth.  Her Facebook page referred to the youth who demonstrated in this way:  “The anti-gunners, the high school students who speak for all, aren’t interested in an ‘inch.’ They want the mile.  They want your guns. Gone.”  On the day of the march, she posted a Hitler quotation on Nazi propaganda efforts to indoctrinate youth:  “These boys and girls enter our organization [at] ten years of age, and often for the first time get a little fresh air; after four years of the Young Folk, they go on to the Hitler Youth[,] where we have them for another four years.”82 Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a highly ranked member of the Republican party at the time, also issued critical comments about the student protesters who staged the March for Our Lives. He implied that the students were shirking their responsibilities for taking individual actions to deal with gun violence and instead were seeking changes in gun laws:  “How about[,] kids[,] instead of looking to someone else to solve [the] problem, do something about it[,] maybe [by] taking CPR classes[,] or [when] trying to deal with situations [in which] there is a violent shooter[,] . . . you can actually respond to that?”83 He went on to comment about the marchers:  “They took action to ask someone to pass a law. . . . They didn’t take action to say, ‘How do I[,] as an individual, deal with this problem?  How am I going to do something about stopping bullying within my own community?  What am I actually going to do to respond to a shooter?”84 

The Road to Change and Youth Voting

The Parkland youth’s next major action was to organize a bus tour to visit major cities to help promote voting in the midterm elections starting in June 2018, after the end of the school year.  The main purpose of the tour was to increase voter turnout in the November elections, with an emphasis on young voters.85 Cameron Kasky, one of the Parkland youth leaders, cited low voter turnout in past midterm elections as one of the primary reasons why the groups decided on the tour.  At the June 4 press conference during which the tour was announced, Kasky stated:  “At the end of the day, real change is brought from voting[,] and too often voting is shrugged off as nothing in our country. . . . I think a lot of politicians out there do not want a lot of young people voting. I think they want marginalized communities staying out of the polls because they know they will be voted out.”86 

Dubbed the “Road to Change,” the tour consisted of two buses that would take independent routes to cover more than ten thousand miles to visit twenty-eight states and fifty cities.  The Parkland teens felt that it was very important to talk with people on the other side of the debate in places known to be antagonistic to gun-control laws, such as the Farm Belt, the Mountain West, and the Deep South. One group focused on making stops in the twenty-seven Florida congressional districts and in southern battleground states, later called the “Southern Tour.”  The other bus traveled across the country and focused on cities that had experienced gun violence and school shootings.87

The Road to Change tour was launched on June 14, 2018, as part of the end of the annual Peace March in Chicago organized by activist Father Michael Fledger and St. Sabina Catholic Church.  Both busloads of the Parkland youth were in attendance.  Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland shooting survivor and spokesperson, received top billing at the event at which Jennifer Hudson and Chance the Rapper performed and which former congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords attended.88 The Peace March drew crowds of thousands of people that greatly exceeded past participation levels for the yearly event.89  From the Road to Change tour’s Chicago starting point, the buses branched out to travel to cities on their ambitious planned routes throughout the United States and through the southern states.  The Parkland youth kept up an arduous routine of speaking, advance organizing, and event planning. Their fast-paced traveling involved stopping at a new city every night interspersed with brief rest periods every two weeks.  The bus tours lasted the entire summer, ending one day before the start of the Parkland high school fall semester.  By the tour’s end, the group estimated that they had met with about fifty thousand people, based on a count of the RSVPs they had received.90 In addition to registering young voters, the Parkland youth used the tours to raise awareness about gun control, to influence legislative candidates to make it a campaign issue, and to support local organizers working on antiviolence initiatives. Visits by the Parkland youth to these areas increased local participation in marches and protests sponsored by these organizers and enhanced local and sometimes national media coverage for their events.  Typically, the Parkland youth spoke alongside local organizers on panels and at rallies and attended meals and sessions at which they networked with local activists.  Some of the activists joined them on the buses to visit other cities.  The tour allowed the Parkland youth to energize local efforts and to expand the influence of their movement far beyond specific highly publicized locales. In addition, visits to cities and towns that had experienced school shootings, such as Newtown, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, and Littleton, Colorado allowed them to learn from survivors of past tragedies about trauma, coping with living in the spotlight, strategies to affect changes, and recovery.91

Mayors for Our Lives and Youth Voting

After the conclusion of the bus tours, Parkland youth leaders announced another initiative to promote voter registration among youth and to keep gun control on the political agenda.  March for Our Lives developed a partnership with more than two hundred mayors in a campaign dubbed “Mayors for Our Lives.”  The partnership represented a collaboration of the youth organization, the US Conference of Mayors, and the African American Mayors Association that was focused on developing support for National Voter Registration Day, which occurred on September 25, 2018, just six weeks before the midterm elections in November.  The nonpartisan effort sought to increase the number of young people who registered to vote by making voter registration forms easily accessible for all students, developing get-out-the-vote campaigns, networking with other mayors, and encouraging youth participation during elections.  Mayors joined the effort by taking the March for Our Lives pledge, which stated, “We believe that leaders should make it easier for our country’s youth to register, vote, and participate in our democracy,” and by signing up with the organization.92 

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was a strong supporter of the initiative.  His administration launched a new website where students could sign up to be a DemocracyNYC leader to help register other students to vote and to encourage civic participation in their schools. To help launch this effort, March for Our Lives organizers David Hogg and Delaney Tarr visited a Manhattan high school to help register students to vote and to participate in a civic engagement discussion with them. The mayor’s administration also distributed a “Civics for All” toolkit to all public schools that included voter registration plans for teachers and information on how to access voter registration forms and other material on the DemocracyNYC website. Youth activists and state legislators were highly supportive of the efforts made by Mayor de Blasio to expand youth participation in the voting process.93  

Mayors for Our Lives was part of a massive national campaign to increase voter registration, and the overall results were impressive. More than 800,000 persons registered to vote or voted for the first time, exceeding the numbers for all previous registrations on National Voter Registration Day.

In early November, a coalition of youth groups organized a national high school “Walkout to Vote,” with five hundred schools expected to participate. Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland youth activists, urged students to vote in the November 6 election:  “Gun violence is on the ballot. Our lives are in the hands of the people we elect.  Vote in every election like it’s your last, because it very well could be.”94 

The Impact of Parkland

Within a year of the initiation of the activist campaigns by the Parkland youth, observers noted that there had been a “tectonic shift” in the gun-control movement as compared with efforts in earlier decades.95, 96 First, only a few weeks after the Parkland shootings, states began to enact new gun-control laws. For example, in March 2018 (after pressure from protests at the state capitol and other locales), the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, an ardent gun-rights supporter, signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act into law. It mandated very restrictive gun-control measures, including stipulations that raised the minimum age and extended waiting periods for purchasing guns; prohibited bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic rifles to fire much faster; established “red-flag” restrictions (e.g. state laws that authorize courts to issue protection orders to temporarily confiscate guns for people deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves and others); and earmarked $2 million in funding for urban gun-violence reduction programs.97, 98 In April 2018, the governor of Vermont signed the most extensive gun-control measures ever passed in that state, including a ban on guns in K–12 schools, a redflag law, and a law that expanded background checks and banned high-capacity magazines.99  By the end of 2018, a total of  twenty-six states and Washington, DC, had enacted sixty-seven new gun-control laws.  These included laws that expanded background checks for people buying guns, tightened concealed carry laws, prevented domestic abusers from owning guns, banned large-capacity magazines, and provided funding for urban gun-violence reduction programs.100 In addition to the new state laws, at the end of 2018, the Trump administration announced a ban on bump stocks. 

Although gun-rights advocates achieved some gains at the state level in 2018, these were overshadowed by the major expansion of gun-control laws post-Parkland that had not occurred after other well-publicized shootings such as the Sandy Hook killings, after which more states passed liberal gun laws.101  As one observer, German Lopez, notes, the Parkland movement not only increased the passage of gun-control legislation but also reduced the number of laws oriented toward gun rights.102

The other major impact of the Parkland movement was to shift the role of gun control in 2018 political campaigns.  Observers noted that for the first time in years, Democratic candidates had made gun control a central part of their platforms.  Gun-control scholar Robert Pitzer stated:  “There is a new sense, especially among Democrats, that the gun issue is worth talking about and pursuing. That’s significant because, for more than a decade, the Democratic Party was missing from the gun debate entirely.”103  In the 2018 midterm elections, a number of Democratic congressional candidates campaigned on gun-control messages and won their races.104 Brady Campaign leader Kris Brown reported that candidates supported by the group won 90 percent of their federal races. She also noted that the House of Representatives gained forty Democratic seats and that the winners had defeated candidates who were strong NRA supporters.105  Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, strongly supported making universal background checks a high priority in the new Congress.106 In addition, some Republican politicians who supported gun-control measures also won elections.  With the shifts in the House of Representatives, analysis of the legislation introduced by members of the 116th Congress indicates that this group introduced nearly three times as many gun-control laws during its first month in office than any other recent Congress had, with the exception of the 113th Congress, which convened a month after the Sandy Hook shootings.  The 116th Congress has introduced twenty-one bills calling for more gun control and four bills authorizing firearms buy-back programs or research into gun violence. By comparison, it has only voted to advance eight bills advocating protection of gun rights.107  However, the fate of this legislation is unsure given the significant hurdles of passing federal gun-control legislation in a divided Congress (i.e., with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate) and a conservative Supreme Court.  Nevertheless, in spite of these drawbacks, the success of candidates who campaigned on the gun-control issue and won is regarded as a major shift since 1994, when Democrats believed that their advocating for stricter gun laws had led to electoral losses.  Credit for this major shift is focused squarely on the movement stimulated by the Parkland youth and the March for Our Lives.108, 109, 110 

Explaining the Ascendance of the Parkland Gun-Control Movement 

Previous analyses of social movements have focused on the tension between the role of resources versus grievances or threats in creating mobilization and stimulating social change.111, 112 Scholars emphasizing the importance of resources (i.e., resource mobilization theory) have found support in empirical studies that failed to find a causal relationship between the presence of social problems or grievances alone and the willingness to engage in collective action. Although these theorists acknowledge the widespread prevalence of deprivation and grievances, they do not perceive these as sufficient conditions. Instead, they focus on the presence of practical resources (e.g., funding, trained personnel) and the application of strategic processes as the prime motivating factors for social change when grievances have existed in a population over an extended period of time.  Researchers emphasizing this framework view grievances as either structurally embedded or created through paid movement organizations.113

Although resource mobilization (RM) theory dominated thinking over several decades, it faced increasing criticism from scholars who argued for a synthesis of perspectives that includes the presence of both grievances or threats and resources as precursors to social action. David Snow and colleagues suggested that social groups may be more likely to mobilize based on social disruption and lack of resources than on the presence of specific resources, although a combination of both may be the strongest instigator.114 Steven Buechler called for a synthesis of RM and approaches emphasizing grievances, strain, or societal breakdown, advocating that they “tease out the conditions under which strain and breakdown will lead to collective action rather than social isolation, criminal activity, or antisocial behavior.”115 In sum, recent scholarship has affirmed that the presence of both grievances and resources may provide fertile conditions for the rise of social change efforts.

Other research points to additional factors that may be necessary to explain why a movement suddenly emerges and takes hold. Reinarman’s work suggests that the success of a social movement depends in part on the credibility of its claimants to foster recognition and legitimacy of problems and the alignment of the movement with the political and corporate contexts in which it arises.  He attributes the overwhelming success of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving movement to the “political culture of Reaganism” and the fact that “MADD’s claims were ideologically harmonious with the policy rhetoric of the Right.”116 Explaining the development of the Parkland March for Our Lives movement requires using this more complicated framework that includes the roles of grievances, resources, claims making, and political context to explain its sudden emergence and meteoric rise.

Mounting grievances related to gun violence probably contributed substantially to the ascendance of the Parkland gun-control movement.  School massacres and other mass shootings of children, families, and other groups have increased in frequency and have become common in American society. The shootings occur in schools, churches, movie theatres, outdoor concerts, and nightclubs where people gather to study, worship, or be entertained, leaving scores of people killed, injured, or traumatized.  In addition, Americans have suffered from injury and death due to gun violence in domestic violence conflicts, police shootings, and urban youth conflicts.117, 118 By the time the Parkland shootings occurred, there had been a number of high-profile school shootings that preceded them as well as the epidemic of other gun-related injuries and deaths that have become increasingly commonplace in this society.  The frequent and widespread occurrence of gun violence has created a very large base of people whose lives have been affected by the loss of family members and friends; the message of gun control promoted by the Parkland youth has resonated with these people.  Survivors and protesters from earlier school shootings and other violent incidents, mothers and others from the Million Mom March, Black Lives Matter activists, and other individuals all helped provide a broad-based constituency for this movement.

The Parkland youth movement also benefited from the widespread network of anti–gun violence organizations that had been engaged in policy work promoting gun control for several previous decades.  The Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America provided educational resources, lobbying for legislative change, and resources for gun violence victims that helped support the Parkland movement.  In addition, gun-control groups have received a massive influx of funding from former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and other wealthy donors in recent years.119 These networks were strong supporters of the Parkland youth efforts to put gun control on the political agenda for the midterm elections and also provided financial support for the youth protest efforts, including the March for Our Lives.

Despite serious and escalating episodes of gun violence and the presence of considerable resources that had been building for several decades in the United States, no viable popular movement for gun control had emerged on the scene until Parkland.  A stark example of the failure of these two  factors alone to promote sustained anti–gun violence protests is evident in the lack of long-term public interest or response to the October 2017 shooting in which 58 people were killed and more than 850 others were injured while attending a music concert in Las Vegas.120

For these reasons it seems clear that other factors aside from the presence of considerable resources and grievances led to the success of the Parkland movement.  As previously noted, Reinarman argues that the viability of claims depends in part on the legitimacy of those making them as well as on the historical context in which they are voiced.  His analysis of the rise of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers asserts that mothers who have lost children to crime (in this case to drunk drivers) are extremely credible and also have a great deal of appeal in the popular media.121 From a similar perspective, Goss states that protecting children from gun violence is one of the most effective frames for mobilizing Americans to protest against gun violence.112  To her point, gun violence targeting children has led to high levels of media publicity and some of the most highly visible protests regarding gun control prior to Parkland.  The woman behind the large-scale Million Mom March on Washington in 2000 was motivated to plan the event after watching news about the attack by a gunman who fired seventy rounds of ammunition at a group of children at a playground at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. The Million Mom March affirmed the importance of children and motherhood as victims of gun violence and opposed the NRA, with protesters declaring that they “loved their children more than guns.”123  

The shooting of twenty six- and seven-year-old children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 also provoked a strong political reaction.  President Obama established a White House Task Force on gun violence and released a plan including eighteen legislative proposals and twenty-three executive actions.124, 125, 126 The 113th Congress introduced twenty-six gun-control bills following this tragedy, but none of them were passed into law.127 As youth who were both survivors and victims of a school shooting in an American suburban school, the Parkland activists were well positioned to be highly credible claims makers for gun violence as a critical social problem.  The youth were legitimate commentators on the terror they experienced as they feared for their own lives and on the loss and suffering they felt for other children who were their friends, classmates and neighbors. These teens were particularly vocal on television, in the print media, and especially on social media, where they gave firsthand accounts of their experiences. As school-aged children, they also represented families of victims and survivors and could tap into networks established by mothers and families affected by gun violence. In the words of Alter: 

As teenagers who survived a school shooting, they’re politically hard to hit: if the NRA or the GOP fight back, they are attacking young victims of a tragedy. One GOP candidate for the Maine House of Representatives who called González a “skinhead lesbian” on Twitter faced so much online backlash that he dropped out of the race.128 

In addition, the Parkland youth broadened the relevance of gun violence to all youth as they declared themselves members of “the school-shooting generation” who have been terrorized not only by the threat of school shootings that could happen at any moment but also by the endless drills of preparing for shooter attacks in their schools since 1999, when the Columbine school massacre occurred. As commentators have indicated, this youth movement did not represent the countercultural stance of the youth protesters in the 1960s or 1970s but instead framed its arguments in terms of the desire to be safe and to live normal, uncomplicated lives as schoolkids without the constant threat of gun violence. The specter of children “fighting for their lives” and wanting to live like normal kids carried a powerful symbolic message. Their protests indicated that gun violence was not confined to urban streets, gangs, criminals, and adults but was harming the most vulnerable and innocent Americans in cherished institutions such as school and church.

The Parkland movement emerged during an extremely tumultuous social period during the second year of the Trump administration. As previously discussed, the level of mobilization was higher and more sustained, particularly among women, than it had been for decades.  Women’s protest activities such as the Women’s March had a spillover effect on the Parkland anti–gun violence actions.  The executive director of the Los Angeles Women’s March Foundation, Deena Katz, volunteered to be the organizational lead for March for Our Lives, and the youth branch of the Women’s March organization, Youth Empower, led the large-scale school walkout prior to the March for Our Lives. Attendees at the March for Our Lives were mostly women (70 percent) and overlapped with those from the Women’s March who indicated interest in larger issues in addition to gun violence, including “peace and Trump.”129

The 2016 election of President Trump and the presence of a Republican Congress also created a major crisis for Democrats, who responded with furious efforts to increase voter turnout and capture votes in the 2018 midterm elections in hopes of gaining more congressional seats and building a base for the election of a Democrat to the White House in 2020.  The Parkland youth framed the major goals of their movement in ways that dovetailed precisely with the heightened Democratic Party focus on increasing voter registration and participation. All of their major initiatives, including March for Our Lives, The Road to Change, Vote for Our Lives, and Mayors for Our Lives, had a strong focus on increasing the number of young people who were registered to vote and who would participate in the midterm elections.  These youth defined preventing gun violence in strictly legislative terms—the need to pass laws to increase regulations on gun ownership such as requiring more background checks and banning military-style firearms.  Reaching these goals meant successfully influencing legislators to change laws or electing new representatives who would favor gun-control legislation.  Although there are bipartisan gun-control advocates, the Trump administration and conservative Republicans have consistently championed the rights of gun owners and have been strongly opposed to almost all gun-control measures.  In practical terms, the Parkland movement became part of larger efforts fueled by Democrats to capture legislative races and replace Republican lawmakers by focusing on increasing voter registration and participation in the November 2018 elections.

Probably the unique contribution of the Parkland movement to the larger movement by Democrats to recapture legislative power was to put gun control on the political agenda after its decades-long absence.  Since the mid 1990s, gun control had been considered too risky to include as a campaign issue, and Al Gore’s loss in the 2000 election was attributed, in part, to his promotion of gun-control policies.  However, in the strong anti-Trump protest environment of 2018 that was fueled by Democrats and women who were favorable to the issue as well as by the specter of escalating threats of gun violence and the mounting resources to support gun control, the voices of the Parkland youth were able to make a strong impression on new candidates running for office and incumbents up for reelection.

A counterexample is useful to make the point about the relevance of the historical context and of the political and corporate politics associated with reform protest movements in order to understand the impact of the Parkland movement in 2018.  In earlier periods, gun-control advocates, particularly women, had looked to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving movement as a model for gun-control reform organizing and political involvement.  MADD was started by a suburban mother who had lost her daughter because of a driver who had been drinking and had several prior convictions for drunk driving.  Almost single-handedly, this mother became the catalyst for changing the landscape of drunk driving in America through testimonies, legislative appeals, and the creation of nationwide chapters of the organization. Within several years, MADD “had over 600,000 members and donors, 360 chapters in all fifty states, and a budget approaching $10 million administered by a full-time professional staff of at least twenty.”130 In addition, the group’s activities led to major public-policy initiatives such as a federal mandate that raised the minimum drinking age to twenty-one and the passage of 230 new anti–drunk driving laws at the local level.

Although women gun-control advocates viewed MADD as a model for change, attempts to replicate the strategy, such as the Million Mom March, failed.  Reinarman’s analysis of why MADD succeeded indicates that its strategic focus— exacting legislative and criminal penalties against drinking and driving—was highly compatible with the Bush administration’s focus on law and order and increasing criminal penalties and with the alcohol industry’s model of viewing alcohol problems as stemming from the individual drinker and not from alcohol as a substance.  

As demonstrated by the previous repeated failures of the gun-control movement to get off the ground, anti–gun violence politics had been extremely incompatible with the response of Republican lawmakers like George W. Bush or the Republican-dominated Congress during the Obama administration and now are similarly  incompatible with the views of President Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate, which have been heavily influenced by the National Rifle Association. The NRA has resisted virtually any measure that would restrict the rights of gun owners or companies that manufacture, distribute, or sell firearms.  The organization frames gun-violence problems in terms of the mental illness of aberrant shooters or the influence of external factors like lack of school security, violent video games, or the excessive prescribing of Ritalin.131 The NRA’s solutions to combat school shootings include arming and training teachers so that they can confront potential assailants and prevent mass casualties.132 Republican lawmakers insured that NRA principles would not be questioned when they restricted federally funded research from analyzing the impact of firearms on injury and when they passed the Dickey Amendment in 1996, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding research that might promote gun-control measures to prevent or control injuries. These policies have had a chilling effect on public health research and social science scholarship on the causes of and solutions to gun violence that could provide science-based answers to these questions.133  

The Trump presidency has roused the ire of millions of American women and Democrats who are major proponents of gun-control reform. In addition, this administration’s policies led to a major political backlash, resulting in massive efforts to destabilize the Republican control of Congress in 2018.  It was under these conditions (and not during the previous periods of stable Republican leadership in the White House or Congress), fueled also by the growing number of supportive gun-control resources, that the threat of children once again being collectively murdered while attending school was able to serve as a catalyst for a popular movement that has had enduring legislative impacts. The Parkland youth tragedy, unlike previous school shootings, became more than a crisis media moment, in part because of its youthful leaders’ unwavering and vocal pleas for legislative reform and youth participation in the voting process. These goals mirrored the strategic focus of a large segment of Democrats and American women who were mobilizing en masse for social and political change in the post-2016 election period.