Elizabeth Loder: Gun violence in the US—the kids (and Miss America) will fix it for us

Will the Parkland students and the #NeverAgain movement be able to keep up the momentum?

elizabeth_loderAs I write this, tens of thousands of US students are walking out of class in a peaceful protest against gun violence in America. The scale of the protest is an amazing feat for a children’s campaign that began just over a month ago. Their words and signs are powerful: “The adults have failed us. This is in our hands now, and if any elected official gets in our way, we will vote them out.” “Fix this before I text my mom from under a desk.”

One of the most memorable things about the horrible aftermath of the Parkland, Florida school massacre was the way in which surviving students took on the mantle of the hitherto not-so-successful gun control lobby. They used their celebrity to channel the pent-up outrage of a generation of students who have grown up with school shootings. It was their answer to the question of why this keeps happening. The answer came in the form of a hashtag and a movement: #NeverAgain.

All of a sudden it was the Parkland students morning, noon, and night. Even Donald Trump, that quintessential populist, seemed to sense the alteration in public opinion. Although he later backtracked, Trump briefly showed signs of a shift in his position on gun control legislation. He knows which way the wind is blowing.

For the past month the students have kept it up, gaining allies and defenders. They presented opponents with a damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma: pick on children, especially those who’ve survived a massacre, and you look mean and petty. Stay silent, and you’ve ceded them the stage. The NRA still hasn’t found a way to counter their compelling narrative.

Will the Parkland students and the #NeverAgain movement be able to keep up the momentum? I think so. Whether noticing that protests are occurring in places where they never would have even a year ago, or seeing the revitalized turnout at gun control meetings across the country, the message is inescapable. It will take many more years of hard work, and change will come slowly, but this is the tipping point.

And here’s how I know that: students in my very conservative home state of North Dakota walked out of school today. And who defended their right to do that? None other than the current Miss America, Cara Mund, who hails from Bismarck, North Dakota. It’s one thing to participate in the school walkout if you live in Berkeley, California; Boston, Massachusetts; or Brooklyn, New York. Public sentiment in those places is strongly in favor of gun control. It’s another thing entirely to walk out of school in a conservative place like North Dakota. It was also courageous of Miss Mund to endorse the right of North Dakota students to take a stand. She did not have to do this, but she bravely did.

It’s not only the movement itself that deserves our respect; it’s also the individuals who are making it happen. As the present campaign makes clear, sometimes the standard bearers can be as significant as the message. The intractable problem of gun violence in the US has many uniquely American causes. It makes sense that the solution would also come in uniquely American form. The #NeverAgain movement blends potent biblical symbolism (“..and a little child shall lead them”) and big-name celebrities. What could be more American than that?

Does the idea that the NRA is invincible still hold in post-Parkland America? Not anymore, and for that we have children and Miss America to thank. It will be a long haul, but they’ll prevail in the end.

Elizabeth Loder is head of research, The BMJ.