Estimates of the number of people – most of them teens and young adults – who rallied in Washington, D.C., last Saturday range from 500,000 to 800,000. They called for sensible gun control legislation and mourned lives lost to gun violence, mobilized particularly by the memory of the mass murder of 17 in a Parkland, Fla., school Feb. 14. Many more rallied across the country and even in Canada. A small group gathered in solidarity at Vancouver’s Jack Poole Plaza.
Despite the horrors that inspired the marchers, the day was uplifting and inspiring. Survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting – who have become the faces and voices of the movement – proved youthfulness was not a barrier to eloquence or to courage. In fact, they may have proved it was a prerequisite.
After nothing changed when 20 children, 6 and 7 years old, plus six adults, were killed at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut, in 2012, many of us concluded that nothing would ever be done to confront gun violence and the monetary and grassroots power of lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association. What the Stoneman Douglas students determined was that, if the adults of the world were not going to protect them, they would take matters into their own hands. The movement they have launched – and the dialogue they are fomenting – is being compared with the anti-Vietnam War movement that mobilized their grandparents’ generation.
It will take time to see if the power they seem to have unleashed develops into something long-lasting. Voters aged 18 to 29 consistently have the poorest turnout record among American (and Canadian) voters.
While it is encouraging to see the political waves being made by the movement, it is a cause of additional naches to witness the role of Jewish young people. Synagogues and JCCs became makeshift hostels for Jewish students piling into D.C. last weekend.
Zoe Terner, a Florida leader in the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth, spoke at a Shabbat event the night before the march. “This is how we grieve,” she told JTA. “Tomorrow I will pray with my feet and, with every step, I will think of those few hours a month ago when I didn’t know if my friends were alive or dead.”
Students from Minnesota, who traveled 21 hours to the capital, wore T-shirts reading “Dayenu,” repurposing the Passover refrain to echo the anti-gun movement’s chant “Enough!”
We can’t help noting with a bit of disappointment the appropriation of the term #NeverAgain, which the movement adopted in good faith. Perhaps they were unaware that it has been the rallying cry for Holocaust remembrance and education for decades. It is one oversight in what has largely been a seamlessly orchestrated affair. Of course, groups cannot claim monopoly on sentiments like “Never Again,” but we wonder if it loses some resonance when used for other purposes. Perhaps parents and teachers have not sufficiently educated successive generations on the lessons of the Shoah. Or, just as likely, it may be that a familiar refrain expressed the urgency of the moment: the Jewish population of Stoneman Douglas high school is estimated at about 40%. (Several of the murder victims were and a number of the vocal activists are Jewish.)
The movement for sensible gun legislation in the United States faces hurdles. While last weekend’s rallies were an important start, and this fall’s midterm elections a crucial testing ground, it is difficult to foresee the trajectory of the cause.
A commentator on CNN over the weekend noted that the issue of marriage equality reached a tipping point, from where opposition to same-sex marriage reversed to majority support in a remarkably short time. By contrast, the debate over reproductive freedom has seen two sides dig in their heels for decades, with little middle ground.
Moreover, gun control is a more complex matter than the comparative yes-or-no approach one can take to gay marriage or abortion. There are dozens if not hundreds of permutations that gun regulation and control legislation could take.
But, for whatever challenges the youth movement for sensible gun policies faces in future, last weekend was the sound of millions of feet marching in the right direction.