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A turning point on gun violence?

There have been 98 mass shootings in the United States since 1982. Alarmingly, the shootings are becoming more violent. The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, left 32 dead and 17 wounded, making it the deadliest mass shooting in US history at the time. In June 2016, the Pulse Nightclub shooter killed 49 and wounded dozens more in Orlando, Florida. A little more than a year later, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of festival goers from his Las Vegas hotel room, killing 58, and injuring 500. More recently, in February 2018, 19 year old Nikolas Cruz returned to his former school with a firearm in Parkland, Florida, killing 17. A majority of the perpetrators of these shootings purchased their guns legally, yet there continues to be little change to policy and legislation surrounding gun control. Not even the Sandy Hook shooting, which killed 20, many as young as five or six, led to any meaningful change in federal legislation

While previous mass shootings have followed a pattern of outrage and inaction, there are signs that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland may be signaling a shift in the debate on gun control. Led by many of the teenagers who survived the Parkland shooting, the March for Our Lives rallies have attracted large numbers of protesters in Washington DC and other cities across the US. Writing for Vox, German Lopez noted that the march was one of the biggest youth protests since the Vietnam War, with 1.2 million people protesting in an estimated 450 marches across the country. The marches have evolved into what is being called the Never Again Movement.

The protestors have vowed to remove lawmakers from state and federal office if they refuse to take action on the issue of gun control. Protestors on Pennsylvania Avenue broke into spontaneous chants of “vote them out” as they marched not only for a ban on assault weapons, but for universal background checks, restrictions on magazines, and waiting periods on purchases. The protestors have also directed their attacks towards the National Rifle Association (NRA), focusing on the influence the organisation has over politicians and the legislative process.

The March for our Lives in Washington DC on 24 March 2018. (Photo: Ted Eytan, Wikimedia Commons)

In a speech that has come to define the Never Again movement, Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez took to the stage in Washington DC for six minutes and 20 seconds, the amount of time that it took the Parkland shooter to kill 17 of her class mates. Speaking at a rally in Tallahassee, Florida, an 18 year old protestor noted “our entire lifetime has been the lifetime of school shootings in America”. Another protestor stated “we stared down the barrel of the AR-15 ourselves. We were there”.

The protests appear to be making an impact. Support for gun control has surged in recent polls, and Reuters has reported that thousands have registered to vote at gun control marches since the Parkland shooting. The Department of Justice has announced that it will seek to ban the use of bump stocks, which allow weapons to fire more bullets in a shorter period of time. A coalition of progressive states in the Northeast are working on a partnership to coordinate their policies towards gun ownership. At a recent CNN town hall event, Cameron Kasky, another Parkland survivor, was met with a standing ovation when he challenged 2016 presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, on his history of taking donations from the NRA.

The full impact of the March for Our Lives movement may not be known until the midterm elections in November this year. Gun control groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, have seen their memberships increase drastically since the Parkland shooting, and are seeking to harness their newfound momentum going into the midterms. With a “blue wave” of Democratic turnout already expected across the country in a backlash against the Trump Presidency, the political climate may provide a perfect storm for gun control advocates.

While mass shootings receive a large amount of media attention, they account for only 1.5 percent of the approximately 33,000 gun related deaths in the United States each year. The BBC reports that of the 33,594 gun related deaths in 2014, 11,008 were a result of homicide, while 21,386 were suicides. A study published in 2016 by the American Journal of Public Health found a correlation between levels of gun ownership and increased rates of firearm related suicides across all 50 states. Gun related killings accounted for 64% of all homicides in the US in 2016, compared to 30.5% in Canada, and 13% in Australia.

A Harvard study has shown that gun ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated, with  3% of American adults owning half of the guns in the country. A report by the Pew Research Center noted that Americans who live in rural areas are also more likely to own guns; 46% of rural Americans own firearms, compared to 19% in urban areas. The report also notes that 75% of rural gun owners own more than one gun, compared to 48% of urban Americans. Overall, 42% of Americans live in a household where a gun is owned.

Candles marking the vigil for the Mandalay Bay Hotel shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017

Some commentators are framing the issue as a culture war between a young, diverse generation, and an old, white, predominantly male group of gun supporters, who are unwilling to let go of their grasp on power. Writing for the Washington Post, Nathan Wuertenberg draws attention to relationship between white supremacy and gun violence by tracing the history of white male gun ownership in the US.

At this stage, it is difficult to assess the true significance of the March for Our Lives protests and the Never Again Movement. However, many of the Parkland survivors have vowed to stop at nothing until they have made real, lasting legislative change.

Timothy Parker

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