What’s Different This Time?

It’s been a little over a month since a gunman murdered 17 people inside Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida.  With most of the other spectacular mass shootings of recent years, the publicity is wearing off, the media coverage is waning, and people have moved on.  You’d think that walking into a small church and ending the lives of more than half the congregation would have been a catalyst for something, especially since it hadn’t been that long before that the same thing happened in a small church in Tennessee.  Surely taking the lives of elementary school children and teachers would have led to a longer lasting effect, or the murder of eight Amish female students in their schoolhouse.  What is it about the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School that has created the firestorm that has followed?

Have we finally had enough?  Why has this event generated what no other mass shooting has started?


Florida is a state with lax gun laws, and a high level of gun-related crime and violence.  There was a lot of publicity focused on the Trayvon Martin case, and following that, the Pulse nightclub shooting shocked the Orlando community, and cast a shadow on the tourist business.  That was a prime example of a mass shooting that could have been prevented with an in-depth background check law.  But the people in that nightclub were mostly gay and lesbian, and didn’t get a lot of public sympathy.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is a large, suburban high school, mostly Caucasian, in a wealthy suburb of Ft. Lauderdale.  In most measurements, it is probably not different from very many other mostly white, affluent suburban high schools across the country.  But things forever changed when the shooter started pulling the trigger, and murdered 17 people on the campus, teachers and students.  Perhaps those scenes of students running out of buildings with their hands over their heads was the thing that led to the conclusion that enough is enough.  Perhaps Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School looks like too many other suburban, upper middle class, mostly white high schools and what happened there frightened a large segment of the population who could identify with similar scenes.

Florida is somewhat of a microcosm of the rest of the country, particularly South Florida, where a majority of the population has roots elsewhere, and migrated from many other locations.  While there is a “gun culture” that exists in places, the urban and suburban areas of the cities clustered along its southeastern coastline is not one of them.  Much like the Sandy Hook shooting in suburban Connecticut, this was a shocking event that most people never thought could happen in their community.

The Students

Not all high school students eat tide pods for fun, and certainly some of those from MSDHS who had been through this traumatic experience aren’t part of that crowd.  They are intelligent, and they are reacting based on their own experience, which is something that cannot be taken away from them.  It’s their constitutional right, and they are exercising it.

It’s not that the students at MSDHS are more intelligent, or more politically active, than those at other similar schools.  But among the students who we saw in the video footage exiting the building with hands over their heads, tearfully reuniting with family members, were those whose experience led to action.  Students in schools across the country have been exposed to active shooter drills, evacuation drills and learning procedures to protect themselves in the event someone gets inside their school building with a weapon, intent on doing harm.  The consistent reminder of what could happen is frightening.  Many students, capable of reason, have given a lot of consideration to the whole discussion of preventing these kinds of incidents from occurring, and have already been involved in the debate over curbing gun violence, among other issues.

The reaction from students of any school attacked in this manner these days would have been similar.  The other factors that developed in the wake of this shooting combined with the active involvement of students from this particular high school to become the vehicle of change.

The Political Climate

The Trump Administration has created a political climate that is making it possible for many issues considered “progressive,” or “from the left,” for lack of a better way of describing them, to gain traction.  Since his inauguration in January of 2017, the Democrats have gained significant favor in political polls, enabling them to pull off a string of election wins that would have been considered impossible a year ago.  The special elections for Congressional seats in Montana, Kansas and Georgia to replace representatives serving in the Trump Administration, demonstrated that Democrats could make major inroads in elections in heavily Republican districts and states if they put some resources in place.  Since Jon Ossoff’s remarkable performance, gathering 49% of the total vote, and 15% higher vote totals than the number of registered Democrats in his district, Democrats have picked up a string of state legislative seats, flipped a governor’s race, gained more seats in a state legislature than ever before in its history, and won a deep red congressional district in Pennsylvania, and a senate seat in Alabama, one of the most Republican states in the country.  Their fund raising for the 2018 mid-terms sits at historic record highs while their opponents have had to go into debt to finance their part of these elections.

That’s made it possible for the gun control message picked up by the students at MSDHS to make some major progress in getting the issue addressed.  After the Sandy Hook shooting, the parents of the victims gained a lot of ground in this regard.  They succeeded in getting the state government in Connecticut to pass comprehensive gun control legislation.  Those laws were debated, weighted against second amendment rights for their constitutionality, and successfully passed both the legislature, and court rulings about their constitutionality.  I’d argue that state-based regulation is more effective than federal legislation, and easier to enforce.  Looking at the data, Connecticut has certainly achieved its purpose, leaving the rights of law abiding gun owners intact while the rates of gun violence, gun-related crime, and the overall crime rate have dropped significantly.

The threat of “voting out” politicians because of their lack of action on gun control legislation has had limited effect in the past.  But a lot of conservative legislators have seen quite a shift in support away from the Republican party due to the chaos and confusion the Trump presidency has stirred up among voters.  That’s made many of them more than willing to re-evaluate their position on gun control legislation.  And while it was pointed out that many of the students involved in the activism generated by the students at MSDHS aren’t old enough to vote, those who are already 18, or will be that old by the time most registration deadlines for the 2018 mid-terms roll around, make up about half of the movement’s total number.  They registered more than a million new voters across the country during their rally last week.  In one day.  And most of these students have convinced their parents to vote with them.  If you aren’t inclined to believe “news media” reports and numbers, just look at the way politicians are reacting to them.  They’ve seen the internal poll numbers, and that has clearly frightened most of those who take NRA money.

The Experience

There’s been a movement like this brewing ever since we first saw the images coming out of Columbine High School.  There’s been a frustration developing over what seems to be almost helplessness of law enforcement, community services, and government, to keep kids safe at school.  People have grown weary over hearing politicians give out their “thoughts and prayers” to victims’ families, and turn around and act like they don’t care when it comes to using the power of their office to do something about it.

Solutions to problems come from open discussion.  That’s probably the most important thing created by this movement and the students who are leading it.  Many of those who have responded don’t share the same opinion or position, but they’re stepping up to talk about a solution.  Those who are finding fault, and making personal criticisms of the students (like Laura Ingraham) without bothering to verify the truth of their statements are excluding themselves from the discussion, and sacrificing their credibility.

This is why we study history.  Education makes it possible for people to understand that having a second amendment right does not necessitate living with mass murder in schools and entertainment venues.  Nor does it validate rhetoric that separates a gun from the person using it to commit mass murder.  The argument that this is simply an effort to ban private gun ownership and take away guns from law abiding citizens is an ignorant, uniformed, inaccurate straw man.  There is plenty of evidence to indicate that this is not the case.  And I think people have caught on, and a gradual realization of this is helping the students, and the gun control advocates, gain traction and favor with voters.