Within days of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, Stoneman Douglas students took to social media to express their shock, grief and anger at the tragedy that occurred and the inadequacy of gun control in America. Today, what began as a few tweets has morphed into a nationwide student-led movement. The Parkland teens have made guest appearances on “The Ellen Show”; March for our Lives rallies are being organized around the country; a slew of companies, including Delta and MetLife, have severed ties with the National Rifle Association for fear of boycotts. Perhaps most impressive and encouraging is how quickly the students’ protests gained mainstream and — dare I say — bipartisan acceptance, pressuring NRA-backed politicians like Marco Rubio and Donald Trump himself into apparently shifting their stances on forms of gun control.
While it’s refreshing to see the institutions and people in power taking young people’s concerns seriously for once, I can’t help but feel a bit unsettled. This most recent tragedy might be the straw to break the camel’s back, but it’s not as if gun violence and youth-led protests are new phenomena in modern America.
When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watchman in 2013, three black women launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement to protest his killer’s acquittal. A team of young activists called the Dream Defenders occupied the Florida State Capitol to demand repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free. Two years later, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was murdered in a park while chatting with friends, and Chicago teens wore orange in the streets to raise awareness of gun violence. Despite these persistent, concerted efforts to highlight the guns’ deadly impact in their communities, the protesters were ignored and dismissed as “divisive,” “disruptive,” and wearing “sagging pants that show their underwear.”
Young black kids like Trayvon and Hadiya had just as much of a right to life and a childhood free of gun violence — no matter what style of jeans they preferred. Yet, unlike the Stoneman Douglas students, their tragic, premature deaths could not meaningfully shift the mainstream conversation around gun violence. We didn’t see university admissions offices promising to accept applicants’ participation in peaceful protests, nor did corporations rush to denounce their affiliation with the NRA. Instead, the backlash to black organizing was swift and deadly: George Zimmerman received $250,000 for the auction of his gun, and “Blue Lives Matter” legislation even sought to classify police as a protected group.
So when I saw the Parkland teens capture the nation’s attention, I wondered: Why this? Why now?
To answer these questions, it’s useful to take a look back at the history of the gun control movement in the United States. The Founding Fathers were avid supporters of gun ownership; in fact, they explicitly mandated that every eligible man purchase and register a gun for use in citizen militias. Today, this Second Amendment defense is likely what we most associate with gun rights advocates. However, there was a brief time when mainstream conservatives departed from this philosophy and fiercely supported stricter gun control legislation. Republican icon Ronald Reagan even endorsed the Mulford Act in 1967, one of the strictest gun laws of its time. But what caused conservatives to shift their stance on gun rights so radically? Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to the question of race.
Some of the first legal restrictions on gun ownership were the post-Civil War Black Codes, which forbid freed slaves from owning arms as part of a racist effort to terrorize and disempower black Americans in the South. A century later, the revolutionary Black Panther Party began to gain steam, rapidly accruing membership and influence across the nation. Its leaders embraced gun ownership, stating that “the gun [was] the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” Although the Black Panthers drew from the same constitutional right to bear arms as the gun advocates of today, their militant activities frightened white institutions, and the backlash was swift. Conservative legislator Don Mulford pledged to end Black Panther initiatives by banning gun carrying in California; his proposal—the aforementioned Mulford Act — gained mass popular support, and was signed into law. Historically, it seems that Republican attitudes regarding guns reflect less a consistent constitutional stance and more a shifting tactic to repress black organizing.
Even mainstream responses to youth fighting for safer communities are largely determined by broader systems of race and class. When the Parkland teens are repeatedly praised for being “articulate,” or when people express shock that such a “safe city” could be impacted by such senseless violence, America’s unconscious biases rear their ugly head. After all, teenagers’ right to life cannot be conditioned on their ability to adhere to the respectability standards of white upper-class elites. Shootings in poor neighborhoods deserve at least the same urgency as those which affect the middle class. Yet, the Stoneman Douglas shooting sent shock waves and invited pearl-clutching in the way Trayvon and Hadiya’s deaths never could. It showed the white middle class that gun violence was something proximate — that not even the safety of the suburbs could guarantee immunity.
Now that Stoneman Douglas’s young activists have successfully turned up the heat on policymakers, I see potential pathways to justice for the black and brown youth who have historically suffered most from gun violence. But if we want change to spill over and help the most marginalized, we need more than universalized reforms, though they are a welcome first step. Instead, more than ever, we need attention to particularity, to intersectionality, to the inextricable connections between gun violence and policing and the way that white supremacy infects our youth. Until then, I’m not ready to declare victory: there’s still more work to be done.
Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu