Will high school activists make a difference in gun debate?

ATLANTA -- The wave of high school students walking out of class to protest gun violence and honor the victims of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting is nothing short of inspirational.

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Gracie Bonds Staples
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The wave of high school students walking out of class to protest gun violence and honor the victims of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting is nothing short of inspirational.

If you're prone to historical flashbacks as I am, you couldn't help remembering the student led sit-ins of the 1960s and feeling proud that once again our kids are taking the lead and, in this case, standing against violence, against the NRA, and for more gun control when those in power and charged to protect them can't seem to find it in themselves to do so.

The massacre at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead on Valentine's Day. The alleged gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, used an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which shooting survivors have pushed lawmakers to ban.

We saw these same kinds of student-led protests after the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri and racially charged incidents on college campuses like Mizzou where someone smeared a swastika on a wall with feces, and cotton balls were strewn around the Black Culture Center.

Those actions touched off a hunger strike by an African-American graduate student and then protests over racial slurs and other slights that came to a head when protesters blocked the university president's car and he refused to get out and talk to them. Black members of the football team joined the outcry, threatening to boycott an upcoming football game.

Closer to home, a group of 25 students in Atlanta held a silent protest two years ago at a Georgia Board of Regents meeting, challenging the state's enrollment policies for immigrants. Other events have included "die-ins," involving students at Emory University, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University protesting police killings of unarmed black men. Students at the University of Georgia hosted candlelight vigils. Those at Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University led solidarity marches.

This, though, is different. Not only are recent protests the first sign of resistance to gun violence, they may well be the first mass protests we've seen from our nation's high school students, said Karyn Amira, assistant professor of political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Not only are students rallying for more gun control, they are calling for safer schools and access to mental health services. Lie-ins, walkouts and protests in front of the White House were held over the past week.

Students have endured some criticism. Several school districts have threatened participants with suspension should they join in the protests.

But they are unbowed, and there is more to come.

Nationwide protests, including the March 24 March For Our Lives march on Washington and national school walkouts on March 14 and April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, have been planned.

"When it comes to partisan, polarized politics, we might think about activism on college campuses, but we don't usually think of high schoolers," Amira said. "High schoolers haven't typically crystallized their issue positions or partisan identities. Due to their age, their first-hand experience with this violence, and perhaps even the fact that they are from a swing state, it will be more difficult for the mass public to assume purely partisan or ideological motivations behind their efforts. And think about it. Regardless of whether high school students understand constitutional protections, it would be irrational to do nothing when your life is in physical danger."

What's unfortunate, she said, is the similarity between these protests and those of the 1960s. Both groups of students are fighting for their immediate physical safety, rather than championing a cause they found voluntarily and developed a passion for. Students of the 1960s Vietnam era were randomly selected for the draft and students of the mass shooting era are randomly selected for massacre.

"Perhaps the biggest difference is that today's students can harness the power of an instantaneous information environment and social media in order to organize and exert pressure on elected officials," Amira said in an email exchange.

Like a lot of us, she's hopeful.

"This is the first time in a decade that I've sensed a turning point in the gun control debate," Amira said. "It feels like a boiling point has been reached. We have already seen corporations sever their relationships with the NRA and a greater willingness to make policy changes by some lawmakers."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for instance, has announced plans to change the age limits for guns, keeping them out of the hands of the mentally ill and banning the sale of bump stocks. Delta Airlines, Hertz, Best Western and nearly a dozen other companies have announced they'll stop offering special deals and discounts to NRA members. And even President Trump suggested support for raising the age to 21 from 18 when someone can legally purchase a weapon.

The National Rifle Association has fired back, slamming the growing list of companies that have severed business ties with the gun lobby group. The NRA called the boycotts an effort to "punish NRA membership in a shameful display of political and civic cowardice."

The question is how far the changes will go (especially in other states) and whether lawmakers will continue to enact stricter measures if these changes prove insufficient.

"I suspect that if mass shootings continue there will be more demonstrations and pushback from both students and their parents," Amira said. "But I also sense that truly comprehensive gun control laws such as banning an entire class or type of gun will only happen if the mass public votes for candidates who are not afraid to champion the issue."

Or if this new wave of activism has its intended results. We have to hope that at least this time, somebody's listening and will act.

Gracie Bonds Staples writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gstaples(at)ajc.com.

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