Last week, students at over 2,500 schools walked out of class to protest gun violence. In Washington, D.C., the walkout ended up as a march and sit-in at the White House (which, predictably, ignored it). The kids’ TV channel Nickelodeon went off the air in solidarity.
“Some parents have felt that we’re not old enough to know about it,” said one student, Carter, 11, about school shootings. “They think because we’re fifth-graders we don’t know anything about what’s happening.” (source)
I feel a lump in my throat when I look at these photos. How magnificently brave these kids are, and how unflinchingly determined, that they’re ready and willing to ignite a movement all on their own. Most adults don’t have this much wisdom, maturity or political savvy. It’s also a sign of how utterly we’ve have failed them, that this is necessary: teenagers having to organize and protest for their own lives.
At a time in their lives when the highest concern should be passing finals or finding a prom date, we’re telling teenagers they have to live under the threat of slaughter, while politicians lie and evade and sit on their hands. We’re telling them that adults won’t protect them, that they can’t rely on us.
Instead of doing something meaningful, we as a society have looked everywhere but at the real problem, which is how absurdly easy it is for unstable, angry people to lay their hands on assault weapons made for killing human beings. We have school shooter drills where students are told to hide in closets or throw school supplies at a shooter. We market bulletproof backpacks to children. The NRA’s “national school shield” proposes turning schools into fortresses presided over by armed guards.
And then there’s the sick joke of a proposal that we should arm teachers – as if it’s reasonable to expect these civil servants, who spend hours every day doing grading and lesson plans and don’t even get paid enough for that, to be ready to snap into Rambo mode and coolly mow down a school shooter with a barrage of gunfire. Only a person unable to tell the difference between Hollywood action-fantasy and reality would think this was a good idea. (Even the military has to put enormous effort into training soldiers to actually fire their weapons in combat and not freeze at the thought of killing another human being.)
How did we get here?
I remember the Columbine shooting, which happened when I was in high school. It was the first major school shooting of the modern media age. Did we think it was such a shocking anomaly, the thought of something like it happening again so inconceivable, that we failed to do anything about it? Did every subsequent school shooting create a boiling-the-frog effect, where the horror fades into a grim familiarity, and we come to accept these mass murders as a kind of learned helplessness?
Of course, we have to put the lion’s share of the blame on the gun makers, who feed on slaughter, and the politicians – mostly Republicans, but not all – who take their blood money. (In Ohio, those coward Republicans fled in shame rather than face students.) Both of them have done their utmost to stoke rage and paranoia among conservative voters, motivating them to fight gun control tooth and nail because they fear an imaginary government conspiracy more than the actual and ongoing death toll of American children.
Can you imagine if we treated gun shops the way we do abortion clinics? What if gun buyers had to run a gauntlet of screaming protesters calling them murderers and then had to watch state-selected educational materials showing graphic photos of school shootings? What if gun shops, as a condition of opening, had to find hospitals within a ten-mile radius that would agree to treat the victims of any shooting committed with their guns?
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but one obvious thing we can do is to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that have contributed to the havoc. Another is to repeal the laws exempting gun companies from survivors’ lawsuits. Just the same way that utilities should bear the costs of the pollution they emit, gun makers and gun sellers should have to pay for the lives shattered by their products: the medical bills, the funeral costs, the grief counseling for the survivors. If this alters the economic calculus, such that some gun makers can’t turn a profit if they have to bear the cost of the innocent deaths their products cause, then maybe that ought to tell us something about the social utility of guns.
As long as paranoid and gun-sick Republicans are in power, I have little hope of any of these measures being passed, however common-sense they are. But seeing these kids organizing and marching in the streets does give me a glimmer of hope. That generation that clings so tightly to its guns is the same elderly, white, male Fox News demographic that’s been a regressive force in America for so long, and as they die off, they’re being replaced by a more liberal and diverse population. The kids marching today will grow up seeing guns as the tools of havoc they are, and as they move into the electorate, they’ll be the instruments of change. Maybe that’s what it will take to break the logjam – a new generation, rejecting their parents’ sense of futility, and refusing to accept that the violent world they grew up in has to be the way things will always be.