On Tuesday, the nation’s capital was bitterly cold as gun-control activists painstakingly laid out 7,000 pairs of sneakers in front of an empty House chamber – each representing one of the children who has been gunned down since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Then, on Wednesday, as 30 mph winds swirled around Washington, more than a thousand teenagers walked out of D.C. schools and marched from the White House to the Capitol demanding action from politicians. Sophia Hidalgo, a sophomore at Maryland’s Glenmont-Albert Einstein High School one of the organizers of the protest, barely had time to take in the scale of the turnout as she corralled Democratic politicians to address the throng of teenagers. “It’s been a work in progress for the last couple of weeks, figuring out who’s speaking when, who’s representing who,” Hidalgo told Rolling Stone. “Luckily there’s a lot of high status politicians that really want to help out with this issue, so a lot of people were happy to speak and happy to work with us.”
But Democrats don’t control the Capitol; Republicans do. So. as the teens stormed the Capitol, lawmakers inside debated a largely non-controversial bill that tosses some $50 million a year to school safety measures. The bill sailed through by a vote of 407-10, but left a number of Democrats frustrated that funding shooter response training was the best Congress could do. “Well, I don’t really call this gun control,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not a gun safety measure, really, but school safety. Keep in mind, we had mass murders in churches, in nightclubs, at concerts and McDonalds. I mean, I’ll go on and on and on.”
Over in the Senate, a bipartisan bill to fix some glaring holes in the nation’s background check system remains stalled. That bill is supported by the NRA, but the gun group convinced Republican leaders to combine it with a bill to allow concealed carry permits to be accepted across state lines.
So why are states moving on gun control while this Congress is focused on gun-rights? “I guess having thousands of kids in Tallahassee is a lot more overpowering than probably here,” Frankel says. She adds that if students could get the Florida legislature to act, than there’s still a chance to change the debate in the Capitol. “They didn’t do very much on gun safety, but they did buck the NRA, which is unheard of – absolutely unheard of – and those kids were responsible for that,” Frankel says of the Florida vote. “I was in awe of them, and there’s lots of them like that.”
While the school safety bill may be the only quasi-gun related bill lawmakers vote on for the rest of the year, Democrats are vowing not to give up. “This is not going to be a one-week only fight or one-month only fight,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “This is going to go into the elections.” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, tells Rolling Stone.
Van Hollen says that in the past having an “A” rating from the NRA was a badge of pride for many lawmakers. But that could become a thing of the past. In states like Nevada and Florida, he says, both sites of devastating mass shootings with competitive upcoming senate elections, the gun lobby could prove to be “much more of a liability than an asset.”
The school safety bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote in the Senate, but it’s expected to sail through that chamber too. Still, even the bill’s supporters say it’s merely a baby step in the broader debate – a debate that’s currently being blocked from even taking place in the marble chambers of the Capitol. “Alone it’s insufficient,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) tells Rolling Stone. “As with any movement, like civil rights, the momentum will build. And whether it’s before or after the election, and, I certainly hope it’s before, I think we’ll see a shift in votes, just as we’ve seen a shift in America.”