On March 24, hundreds of thousands of students and other activists against gun violence participated in the March for Our Lives, an event meant to spur action to put an end to mass shootings in the United States. Ten days earlier, many of the same people participated in a school walkout with the same purpose. All of this has been spearheaded by several survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, who have courageously expressed their anger at the numerous failures by adults that made the tragedy at their school possible. The young people behind this movement have spoken clearly, with a largely unified message put powerfully by one speaker: “The adults have failed us. This is in our hands now.”
What have these activists chosen to do, now that they have taken this issue into their own hands? Rather than taking direct action, they have largely chosen to make appeals to the body of adults known as the United States Congress. This seems an underwhelming response to an issue that has understandably inspired such sound and fury.
When I consider my life in imminent danger, I rarely think of my Congressman as one of the first people to contact. I know that I am probably not going to get an answer, and whatever answer I might get is going to come slowly. We are frequently told that thoughts and prayers, while nice, are not enough; that we must do something. And that something almost invariably involves calling Congresspeople, voting, and demanding legislative action. But calls to Congresspeople are nothing but prayers for the civically religious – cries to some far-off, largely unaccountable power for relief. Calling your Congressman is not doing something, it’s almost exactly the opposite – it is demanding that somebody else do something. Likewise, we typically cast our ballots with just as much hope as one who lights a candle in prayer. Though both, by some miracle, occasionally seem to work, we know from experience that most prayers go unanswered and most votes end up wasted.
I say all this without even getting into the content of the legislation many of these advocates would like to see passed, much of which is horrifying. If “common sense gun control” includes things like compromising the medical privacy of the mentally ill by sharing their information with law enforcement and further entrenching the already-excessive presence of the police in schools, as has been suggested in editorials by several prominent survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, then I have no interest in it, and neither should you. It is incredibly ironic that people who claim a reduction in gun violence in schools as one of their goals have suggested using the police as a means to that end. In fact, it is these very police who are the primary purveyors of violence in schools, who assault thousands of students every year, and who, despite the supposedly “gun-free” nature of schools, regularly walk through school-halls with guns at their sides.
It is disappointing (though not at all surprising) that the privacy of the mentally ill is treated as so disposable that March for Our Lives participants can talk about essentially revoking it without even blinking. The proposals endorsed by the average activist within this movement almost exactly mirror the sort of things proposed by Republicans in the aftermath of 9/11; both engage in a sort of reckless security culture that further empowers some of our most violent institutions while simultaneously endangering vulnerable minority groups, all in the name of “safety.”
I expect many of you are frustrated with me by now – I have spent most of this article tearing down the work of other activists, without proposing any real alternative. Criticism is easy, but solutions are hard – if I don’t like what the March for Our Lives protesters are doing right now, then what do I think they should do instead?
It’s a good question that I only have partial answers to. It might be hard for me to think of solutions to gun violence besides appeals to Congress, but that in and of itself should be concerning – it demonstrates a creative atrophy that isn’t befitting of what we’re told democracy is supposed to do for us. If you think democracy looks like begging legislators to do something, anything, to protect your life, then I’m not sure how democracy is particularly empowering. One inkling I do have about what should be done is that it ought to target in-school violence in its most common forms, rather than its most exceptional ones – maybe the police and various school administrators should be the target of more of our ire than more obviously villainous figures like the NRA or corrupt politicians.
What does addressing their violence look like? Though I only have a vague idea of what does work, I know for sure that demands addressed to legislatures almost never do, and if we have any interest in addressing violence in schools, we must also consider the forms it takes that are much more pervasive than, and often just as insidious as, mass shootings.