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Column: #NeverAgain offers first real hope of gun reform

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Column: #NeverAgain offers first real hope of gun reform

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By Ryan Wallis, guest columnist

The Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, marks the fifth school shooting of 2018 resulting in an injury and the third involving deaths.

Fourteen students and three adults were murdered in the attack, marking the deadliest mass shooting since the Nov. 5, 2017, attack at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which killed 25. It is also the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 assault on Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed 26.

Three of the nation’s 10 deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past five months. The students from Parkland have two words to say to that: Never. Again.

A group of students, including, but not limited to, Cameron Kasky, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, Emma González, Delaney Tarr and Sofie Whitney have harnessed the power of social media and  used their voices to create a movement to finally ending mass gun violence. They are doing so through the #NeverAgain movement, which  started on Feb. 16 with approximately 4.06 million impressions. It quickly burgeoned, peaking at more than 189.8 million impressions on Feb. 20 alone. In the last week, the tag had more than 1.5 million mentions from 109,000 different Twitter accounts.

This kind of reach was possible because of Twitter activity by student survivors in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Students bravely took to the platform to fight false media narratives and conservative talking points, using the media’s spotlight to amplify their voices.                                                                                                           

In response to President Donald J. Trump’s tweet following the shooting, in which he offered “prayers and condolences,” 16-year old Chadwick replied with a now-deleted tweet that received more than 170,000 retweets and 410,000 likes: “I don’t want your condolences,” the tweet read, “…my friends and teachers were shot. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this.”

A conservative media personality, Tomi Lahren, also took to Twitter that night to express the same old right-wing trope following a mass shooting: “Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda?”

This tweet, among others meant to both inflame the left and appease the right, did not go unanswered. Novell quoted Lahren’s tweet with another viral response: “I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt.” As of press time, that tweet garnered about 350,000 retweets and almost 900,000 likes.

And that wasn’t even close to the end of it. Within the first day, tweets from students including Morgan Williams, Sam Zeif and additional ones from both Chadwick and Novell went viral.

This is new ground for the gun control discussion. Never before have we seen such a powerful rebuttal to conservative talking points from the survivors of a mass shooting, and it is these pointed responses that have been missing for many years now. “I feel like they … poured gasoline on a fire that was already there,” Lyliah Taylor, a 16-year-old junior at Parkland, told me. “It only gives us more [of] a reason to be active because now we definitely know we’ll be heard.”

Students launched the #NeverAgain movement on Feb. 16, just two days after the shooting. Within 48 hours, the Washington, D.C.,  March For Our Lives was announced. The march, which will start at 10 a.m. on March 24 at the National Mall, has received international attention. A march in Boston on that date is already being planned with the help of Northeastern students who attended Stoneman Douglas High School.

George and Amal Clooney donated $500,000 to the Washington march. Oprah matched that donation, as did Steven Spielberg and wife Kate Capshaw, and Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg, The movement has also been recognized by numerous A-list celebrities including Lady Gaga, Halsey and members of Fifth Harmony.

Lady Gaga referred to the students as “true role models” and said that she was “speechless at their courage.” Halsey said they were “blowing [her] mind … speaking their truth and refusing to be silenced by fear.” Lauren Jauregui, a member of Fifth Harmony, is “so excited to be alive at this time when the young ones are leading things.”

The movement spawned a highly successful #BoycottNRA campaign on Twitter Friday, with the trend averaging 1.6 million mentions from approximately 111,000 unique accounts in the last week, according to data from talkwalker.com. Activity peaked between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday night with approximately 53,200 mentions in that hour. The movement caused major companies to sever their ties with the National Rifle Association, or NRA, including Avis, Delta Airlines, Enterprise, Hertz, MetLife, SimpliSafe and United Airlines.

Young people across the globe are invested in this movement: From teens aged 13 to 17, there were roughly 35,500 mentions of the hashtag from 2,500 accounts. From college-aged individuals, there were more than 241,200 mentions from 16,800 accounts.

While liberals have been largely supportive of the movement, most conservatives have been critical. Many have questioned why people should listen to teenagers, and others have rooted against them.

Conservative pundit and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked, “should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?” And after a bill that would have banned assault weapons was voted down in the Florida House, far-right political commentator Dinesh D’Souza responded with simple: “Adults – 1 Kids – 0.”

According to conservative logic, these teenagers can be armed with an AR-15, but not an opinion. “They don’t know anything about what my peers and I have gone through,” Taylor said. “for them to belittle us and doubt everything that we have experienced is disgusting.”

Behind crass tweets and partisan detractors, though, is a legitimate concern that the movement is spreading too quickly. These students, who less than a month ago were unknown to the nation, are now operating with thousands of followers. González has upwards of 1.1 million. To borrow an old expression, this great power comes with great responsibility.

Aidan Minoff, a 14-year-old freshman whose video of the shooting made national news, doesn’t want the student leaders of the movement to “get this confused for ‘fame,’” adding, “I don’t want us to give up hope on ending shootings, but this thing has grown too fast.”

In many ways, he is right; these students have built themselves a loyal liberal following in a politically polarized world. The unsuccessful Florida House of Representatives vote to ban assault rifles happened with Parkland students in attendance, yet was voted down by 71 people in the Republican-dominated chamber.

While it takes a loud voice to bring about awareness, it takes a nuanced voice to bring about change. The impact these students have had on the awareness of the gun-control issue is unparalleled and unquestionable; however, the long-term impact is yet to be seen.

Tweets indirectly comparing NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch to Cruella De Vil and intentionally referring to Tomi Lahren as “Telescope” or “Tomato Linguini”, while humorous, only further serve to alienate conservatives.

Despite Minoff’s concerns with the movement, he still believes that it has been “a great way for grieving students to come together and unify.”

Guns are one of the most polarizing political topics in our country, and long-term changes in gun laws cannot be accomplished without bipartisan cooperation. To not recognize that is to be ignorant of the issue.

While I’m completely supportive of the movement and everything it stands for, I fear these students are building echo chambers that will lead them to anger and disappointment when Republican-controlled legislatures inevitably fail to act on gun control measures. It is important to recognize differences of opinion on the issue and have meaningful discussions with those that don’t agree with them, rather than using ad-hominem insults to silence dissent.

That being said, it has only been about two weeks since the shooting took place, and their responses to detractors are understandable. As these students continue to build this movement and refine their message, the nuance of their voices will follow. I have hope that in the future, this country will follow behind these students and protect the lives of its people as vigorously as it protects its guns.                     

I believe conservatives are on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, just as they were throughout U.S. history when it came to issues such as slavery, desegregation, women’s rights and gay marriage. The slaves were freed, the country was desegregated, women can vote and gay couples can marry. Opposition to these truths are not part of mainstream conservative values anymore, and sensible gun reform will eventually join that list.

The current overarching viewpoint of conservative thinkers is to arm our teachers, plant full-time undercover cops or post armed deputies at every school in the United States. Is that really the best we can do? Despite the obvious practical problems with such proposals, they also completely discount mass shootings that happen outside of our schools. Even in the wake of this tragedy, it is important to remember that the two most deadly shootings in our country happened at a concert and in a nightclub.

How do we prevent mass gun violence outside of schools? Are we going to arm our ushers to prevent another movie theater shooting? Are we going to arm our bellboys to prevent another shooting from a hotel window? Are we going to arm our bartenders to prevent another shooting at a nightclub? No, no and no. That kind of thinking simply isn’t sustainable.

Having more guns is not the answer, and although a nation in which everyone has a gun to “defend” themselves may be a dream for the NRA, for many Americans it is nothing short of a nightmare.

In recent days, the president has announced support for more mainstream reforms such as banning bump stocks and raising the gun purchasing age to 21. Whether either of those will actually come to fruition remains to be seen.

While the people wait for government reform, the private sector doesn’t. In the wake of the movement, Walmart chose to raise the minimum purchasing age of a gun to 21 in its stores. That comes on the heels of Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision to stop selling assault-style rifles as well as raise the purchasing age of other firearms to 21.

Something is starting right now, and it’s being led by a group of determined high school students. Where it leads and how long it takes? Only time will tell, but their voices are loud, their message is clear, and they won’t stop until their voices are heard and change is made.

Ryan Wallis is a first-year undeclared major.

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Column: #NeverAgain offers first real hope of gun reform