With an eye on November, students and well-funded groups are teaming up on gun regulation

March 06, 2018
  • By Michael Scherer, Tal Abbady
  • The Washington Post
Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post
Alan Ehrlich, left, thanks Charlie Eiglarsh after he registered to vote as Ronnie Heller, right, helps Benjamin Sachs with his registration in Weston, Fla., on Friday.

Young activists mobilized by the massacre of 17 students and faculty at a high school in Florida have begun to focus their fury on bringing change in November's midterm elections. 

As gun regulation efforts continue to face obstacles in Washington and state capitols, the students are appearing at candidate events, mounting voter registration drives and threatening to haunt politicians who stand in the way of their demands. And well-funded professional organizations that have long focused on curbing gun violence are rushing to find ways to harness their energy for the fall election. 

Dozens of high school students showed up Friday afternoon for a voter registration rally at a park 23 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of last month's deadly attack. They pointed to the student activists at Douglas, who had promoted the event, amid tweets with the hashtag #votethemout, as their inspiration. 

"I saw Emma González tweet and I came," said Veronica Carbonell, 17, a senior at nearby Cypress Bay High School, referring to one of the students who has emerged as a leader after the Parkland, Florida, shooting. The rally was organized by Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, who has refocused his own primary campaign on encouraging the student activism. 

"My generation gets a lot of flak for being lazy and being addicted to our phones," Carbonell said. "Well, social media is powerful." 

The groups that have long focused on curbing gun violence are finding ways to back the students' efforts. They have announced funds to encourage young voters' mobilization around guns, including a $1 million donation from Democratic financier Tom Steyer; bankrolls for student protest groups; and shifts in their own policy priorities around gun control to better align with the demands of the teenagers. 

"This is going to go from what would have been an important issue in the 2018 election cycle to what I think will be a defining issue in the 2018 election cycle," said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, the group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head during a 2011 mass shooting that killed six. 

Historical patterns suggest that the public outrage after school shootings tends to fade months later, and the political map in 2018 remains difficult for advocates of stricter gun control, with incumbent Senate Democrats playing defense in largely rural states and partisan redistricting protecting House Republicans. 

The National Rifle Association, which opposes most of the student demands, including bringing back a ban on assault weapons, restricting high-capacity magazines and raising the age to buy a long gun to 21, has reported significant enthusiasm among its own members. 

Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said members had been heartbroken by the events in Parkland and were supportive of student efforts to improve school safety. The group supports efforts to arm school employees and increase school security. 

"It's unfortunate that the gun-control lobby is so obsessed with banning guns that they blame and shame hundreds of millions of law-abiding Americans for the acts of a deranged lunatic," she said. "Second Amendment voters live in all 50 states, come from all walks of life, are members of all political parties and religions. They want their families to be safe and their constitutional rights respected. When they feel those rights are threatened they are energized to vote." 

Anti-NRA signs are passed out during a voter registration rally in Florida on Friday. Photo: Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post

But it is unmistakable that the uprising is having an early effect. Florida Republican leaders aim to pass a bill this week that would raise the minimum age to 21 for purchasing long guns, including the one used in the Douglas shooting; add a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases; and ban the possession of bump stocks. The bill also aims to authorize the arming of some school personnel after significant training by the county sheriff's office. 

And eight U.S. House Republicans, mostly from suburban swing districts in Florida or the Northeast, have signed on to a bill to expand background checks to private sales at gun shows. Several hold seats that are seen as ripe for Democratic pickup in November, including the exurban Philadelphia district of Rep. Ryan Costello and the central New Jersey district of Rep. Leonard Lance. 

"This is an issue that women in suburban areas especially care about," said Angela Kuefler, a pollster for Global Strategy Group who advises Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Entrenched political interests and student efforts are set to come together on March 24, when communities will hold marches to protest gun violence. Everytown for Gun Safety said Friday that it would provide $2.5 million in grants for these events. 

"There are going to be hundreds of marches around the country including the march in D.C.," said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown. 

In those and other activist events, students hope that politicians will feel pressure. High school students from 18 schools in the St. Louis area are planning a walkout April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. They want to protest at the office Missiouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a candidate in the Republican primary who hopes to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. 

"Our idea is that right now Josh Hawley is the Republican front-runner and that by doing this we may be able to help Claire McCaskill maintain her seat in the Senate," said Brian Wingbermuehle, 18, a senior at Rockwood Summit High in Fenton, Mo. "She's a lot better on guns." 

Like other groups around the country, the students are organizing themselves, connecting across school districts on massive iMessage chats or through the GroupMe app many students already use for school clubs. For those too young to vote, the focus is on persuading students who have hit 18 to register. "We want to mobilize seniors," said Sunny Lu, 15, a sophomore at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis. 

Democratic lawmakers are also trying to harness the energy. At a private meeting last week organized by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the Senate's most prominent advocate for gun regulation, lawmakers asked gun control groups to do a better job of coordinating on fall election campaigns. One idea raised was for the outside groups to create a type of "good housekeeping" seal for candidates on gun issues to counter the NRA rating system. 

The outside groups, which have long coordinated, are shifting their focus to better align with the demands of the Florida students. After years of declining to make it a priority, Giffords will start pushing for a new assault weapons sales ban, with the added request that any of the banned guns now in circulation be registered with the federal government. 

"The kids in Parkland challenged everyone to view this issue with an urgency that had been lost," said David Chipman, a senior policy adviser for the group. "We have to focus on a new approach." 

Tallahassee, Fla., Mayor Andrew Gillum speaks with Cypress Bay High School students during a voter registration rally at Weston Regional Park in Weston, Fla., on Friday. Photo: Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post

Everytown has also shifted to support the effort after the student protests in Florida. "We are in a sea change at the moment," said Feinblatt. "There are lots of proposals coming to the fore." 

While calls for tighter gun regulation usually fade after a mass shooting, it is also true that the bump in support for stricter gun laws has been sharper after Parkland than other recent mass shootings. A CNN poll taken after the Florida shooting found 70 percent of Americans supported stricter laws, 18 points higher than an October poll after the Las Vegas concert shooting. 

Wingbermuehle, the high school activist in Missouri, pointed to the "bystander effect," a phenomenon he learned about in psychology class. For decades, experiments have shown that individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people stand by doing nothing. 

But the activism of the students in Florida broke the social norm of inaction for young people, Wingbermuehle said. "It says we can be doing things as well," he explained. "We have good role models."