Hundreds of students gathered on Capitol Hill Friday to argue for gun control ahead of a Saturday march expected to bring hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C.
Flanked by a handful of Democratic lawmakers, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), the young advocates accused Congress of bowing to the wishes of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) at the expense of school safety.
“Students are stepping up to the NRA because our elected officials are afraid to,” Antiqua Flint, a 15-year-old high school student from North Minneapolis, Minn., said during a press briefing in front of the Capitol.
“The solution to violence is not more guns. We need to pass sensible laws to keep guns out of dangerous hands.”
The briefing marked an introduction of sorts to Saturday’s March for Our Lives demonstration. The student-driven event was sparked by last month’s mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people.
Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchIt's time for Biden to keep his promises on Israel and the UN Florida Democrats call on DeSantis to accept federal help to expand COVID-19 testing Last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor deserves Congressional Gold Medal MORE, a Democrat who represents Parkland, said the student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School “have energized the nation,” launching a new movement that could mark a “sea change” in the decades-old debate over gun reform.
“We knew that it would be different,” he said. "Students decided that they weren’t going to simply allow this tragedy to become another statistic in a long line of horrific tragedies or horrific acts of gun violence.”
Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Biden celebrates 'right to repair' wins Advocacy groups urge Congress to tackle tech giants' auto industry focus Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (D-Minn.) offered another explanation for why the student protests could represent a tipping point in the debate.
“When kids ask,” she said, “it’s harder to say no.”
Congress this week passed a massive government spending bill that includes several provisions designed to tackle the nation’s gun-violence epidemic, particularly school shootings. One aims to strengthen — but not expand — the federal background check system for gun purchases. Another provides grants to school districts to help identify and counsel students with behavioral problems that might accelerate into violence. A third empowers federal researchers to study gun violence as a public health issue.
All told, the reforms mark the most drastic changes to the nation’s gun laws since 2007, when Congress stepped in to bolster background checks after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech the same year.
The provisions do nothing, however, to restrict gun sales or ownership.
“There’s a long way to go,” said Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonJames Webb telescope reaches final destination a million miles from Earth Overnight Energy & Environment — Earth records its hottest years ever Global temperatures in past seven years hottest ever observed, new data show MORE (D-Fla.). “That’s what these students are here for.”
Among a host of additional measures, the Democrats are pushing hard for votes on bills to expand background checks to all gun sales, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, raise the gun-buying age to 21, and prohibit the sale of bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire at an drastically increased rate.
“Congress did more yesterday than they’ve done in recent memory, and they did it because of these students,” said Deutch, referring to the omnibus funding bill. “But if the Speaker and the majority leader really want to honor the memories and the lives tragically lost at Stoneman Douglas … they will do what is necessary to stand up to the gun lobby and stand up for the families and for these kids.”
GOP leaders have shown no appetite to consider legislation that would put new limits on guns. Following the Parkland shooting, they warned against eroding Second Amendment rights, focusing instead on strengthening the mental health-care system.
“We shouldn’t be banning guns from law-abiding citizens,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) said after the tragedy.
Saturday’s march is designed to challenge that sentiment head on. And the students are vowing that their grass-roots movement — fueled by social media and the unique prowess of a younger generation to tap its organizing powers — is just getting started.
“To you, the politicians in Washington, for not hearing our cries for justice, enough is enough,” said Demitri Hoth, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, said Friday at the Capitol. “We are your future. Why won’t you protect us?”
Giffords, who launched her own gun control group after she was nearly killed in a mass shooting at a constituent event in Tucson in 2011, did not speak at Friday’s briefing. But her husband, Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, predicted that the groundswell of support for tougher gun laws, fueled by the student activists, is poised to alter the electoral landscape in ways that will make reforms inevitable.
“They’re not going to be students very long, they’re going to be voters. … And that is what is going to really make the difference,” he said.
“This election in November could turn out to be a referendum on what Congress, collectively, has not done on this issue for so many years,” Kelly added. “And when that happens, you’re going to see some real change.”