The invoking of children, or the idea of children, has been a rhetorical device in political speeches and campaigns for much of recent American history. US politicians of every stripe speak for them, or in their name, and claim the lofty goal of “leaving a better world” for the next generation. That young people have been forced to speak up, forcefully, for their own safety and the natural right to life is a consequence of a system that has failed them. But equally, their articulation of what they feel is a manifest injustice has placed them at the heart of the debate on arguably the most polarising issue in US politics — gun control.
Last week’s mass shooting, using a military-grade automatic rifle and ammunition cost 17 lives in a high school in Parkland, Florida. It was at least the 19th shooting to take place in a US school in 2018. Last year, 65 shootings were reported from school campuses across the country. After every incident, there are the usual condolences, the hope that there are legislative measures to control the sale of assault weapons and greater background checks. The National Rifle Association (NRA), however, is a major political donor, and its alleged influence, as well as a strict interpretation of the US’s constitutional right to bear arms by some conservative lawmakers, has scuppered most attempts at meaningful gun control. The students from Parkland, many of them survivors of the shooting, and others from across the country have now stood up to say enough is enough.
The protest began with chants of “vote them out” by survivors of the shooting, and a march to the state legislature. Students across the US staged walk-outs from classrooms in solidarity and demanded a ban on assault weapons like the one used in the shooting. Barack and Michelle Obama have come out in support of the students’ demands. In the US, where an apathy towards politics has been a complaint against the young, the aftermath of Florida could be a defining moment. That future voters, and perhaps leaders, are saying that they refuse to be subject to laws that endanger them in silence, could deepen democracy in its modern birthplace. Pro-gun legislators like Marco Rubio, and representatives of the NRA, are trying to win back the perception battle. President Donald Trump has suggested arming teachers to combat shooters — a surfeit of weapons, however, will lead to mutually assured destruction, not peace. But in the battle between the right to life and the right to bear arms, the children may be finally giving themselves a fighting chance.