Have the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School changed the game? In the wake of the Parkland massacre that killed 17 children and educators, there’s no question the students have changed the national conversation. Survivors of this mass shooting have called “B.S.” on empty Republican pieties – rejecting “thoughts and prayers” and demanding that lawmakers take action to protect children’s lives from guns, instead of protecting their political futures from the wrath of the National Rifle Association.
Students like Emma González and David Hogg and Cameron Kasky are speaking unvarnished truth to power. They’ve flouted conservative messaging – insisting this raw moment of mourning is the time to discuss politics. They’ve commanded our mass media, using a CNN town hall to rebuke Marco Rubio for taking millions from the NRA, and owning Bill O’Reilly on Twitter for questioning their grief as catalyst for change. The students are raising millions for a March 24 #NeverAgain “March for Our Lives” on Washington. They’ve captured the hearts of a nation – and the support of celebrities from George Clooney to Oprah.
But Republican lawmakers have so far acted as if nothing has changed. As Parkland survivors looked on in tears, the Florida House this week voted against even debating legislation to curb assault rifles – and then had the audacity to vote to declare porn a threat to public health. President Trump, meanwhile, has decided to champion NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre’s reckless proposal to arm teachers at school.
The NRA is the most powerful and entrenched lobby in America; its power comes not only from the ability to raise millions, but to deliver votes. The true test of whether the brilliant teenagers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas are winning a news cycle or bringing durable change will come at the ballot box in November. And the biggest proof will come from Florida itself – where a 2018 senate election expected to pit a Republican who earns an “A+” from the NRA against a Democrat who earns an “F.”
Almost exactly five years ago, in the wake of the Newtown shooting that left 20 elementary school students slaughered, Rolling Stone published an expose of the NRA. I ended that piece with a warning: “The NRA wins because Americans lose focus. Because our outrage fades after each new heartbreak. Because by November 2014, most of us won’t be thinking about the victims of Newtown. Most of us won’t be thinking about guns at all – while millions of activists, riled by Wayne LaPierre and the NRA, will be thinking of nothing else. If this time is going to be different, Americans have to act different, give different, vote different.”
It wasn’t different. Following Newtown, Republicans in congress, voting with the NRA, blocked a modest bill to stiffen background checks for gun buyers. But GOP lawmakers faced no backlash at the ballot box. In fact, pro-gun voters rewarded them. Republicans seized control of the Senate in 2014, and the GOP expanded control of the House, building its biggest majority since 1928. The experience reinforced for lawmakers that the NRA can protect its loyalists. And the NRA proved that once again in working to elect Donald Trump in 2016; if gun owners had sat out the election, Hillary Clinton would have won in 48 states.
This year in Florida, term-limited Republican Governor Rick Scott is expected to be the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate. Scott has earned an A+ from the NRA for his “unmatched record.” Scott has signed more than a dozen NRA-backed bills. The laundry list includes a law that punishes jurisdictions for imposing local gun laws; a “Docs vs. Glocks” law that prevented even mental-health doctors from asking patients about gun ownership (the law was largely voided by an appeals court in 2017 for violating the first amendment); laws that protect Floridians who brandish weapons in self defense and those who fire warning shots; a law that allows kids to play with simulated guns in school; a law that prohibits insurers from charging more for Floridians with guns in their homes; laws that fast track and keep secret concealed-carry permit applications; and a law that expands Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” rights to give people who fire deadly weapons the legal presumption that they acted in self-defense.
Scott would be challenging the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, who has received an “F” from the NRA. Among other sins, Nelson supported an assault weapons ban and voted against the George W. Bush-era law that shields gunmakers from liability for misuse of their deadly products. This is the law that denied Newtown families their day in court.
In the wake of the Parkland massacre, Scott has been keeping a low profile, accused by student survivors of running “scared.” Nelson, in sharp contrast, has renewed calls for an assault weapons ban and rigorous background checks. At the CNN town hall where Rubio was roughed up, Nelson won cheers by telling the crowd: “I grew up on a ranch. I’ve always had guns. I’ve hunted all my life” but “an AR-15 is not for hunting; it’s for killing.”
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas are leading the way and creating the political opening for change. But the burden is not the students’ alone. It is incumbent upon all Americans who seek saner gun laws to make this an issue that is more than a flash of heat and instead a meaningful litmus test for their vote and their campaign donations.
The true test of this moment will not bet the success of a march on Washington. The test will be whether gun-control advocates can keep the NRA from sending Rick Scott to the Senate.