Students across the country are planning to walk out of their schools on Wednesday in a demonstration demanding action on gun violence.
The timing could not be better, because the renewed campaign for tougher gun laws now faces its biggest test ― whether, in the face of a major political setback, it can sustain the energy that has kept it going since February’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
That setback happened on Monday, when President Donald Trump released his proposal for fighting gun violence.
Less than two weeks ago, Trump presided over a televised, bipartisan meeting at the White House, where he boasted of standing up to the National Rifle Association and vowed to pass the kind of ambitious, meaningful gun legislation that his predecessor could not.
It doesn’t include expanding background checks so that they include all sales. It doesn’t include a ban on some or all assault-style weapons. He’s not even endorsing more anodyne proposals, like a higher minimum age for the purchase of assault weapons.
Trump's agenda is yet another example of big talk before tiny action.
Instead, Trump is calling to arm teachers, tweak the current background check system, and launch a blue-ribbon commission that will “investigate” options for further action.
The commission’s leader will be Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education ― yes, the person who keeps getting confused about her own department’s policies during public appearances and, during her confirmation hearings, said she supported guns in schools in case of grizzly bear attacks in places like Wyoming.
Trump did endorse one potentially important policy idea: passing laws that would give law enforcement power to take guns from people who threaten public safety. But that was an exhortation for states, not Congress, to act.
The pattern, alas, is familiar. After the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, then-President Barack Obama made new gun legislation the first priority of his second term. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, worked with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania to craft a bipartisan bill to expand background checks.
But every other Republican opposed it and a handful of Democrats did too. It was six votes short of the 60 it needed to clear the Senate.
The bill didn’t lack popular support. On the contrary, polls at the time showed that a large majority of Americans supported expanding background checks. But more rural, more conservative states have disproportionate power in the Senate, and their lawmakers tend to be more skeptical of gun legislation.
The ones who might have been wavering ― the ones who believe firmly in a right to bear arms but also consider background checks a reasonable way to manage ownership ― worried about political backlash.
They figured the polls didn’t capture the intensity gap on guns, which has historically favored the NRA and its allies. Come the next election, these lawmakers figured, the only voters who would care or remember about a background check bill would be the ones who oppose gun legislation.
The political landscape looks pretty similar right now. Universal background checks are extremely popular. So are bans on assault-style weapons. Support for these ideas has, if anything, grown since the Parkland shooting.
But Republicans are in charge of Congress, and many oppose new gun legislation on principle. The ones willing to consider aggressive gun legislation figure they have more to fear from angry supporters of gun rights than they do from angry supporters of gun control laws.
The student-led movement for new gun laws can change that.
Wednesday’s demonstrations are the first step. If students really walk out, all across the country, it will be a sign that the movement represents more than a fleeting reaction to the Parkland shooting.
The election is still more than seven months away.
Next comes the march on Washington, at the end of the month. If turnout looks anything like it did for the 2017 women’s march, it will capture national media attention and suggest that supporters can maintain their intensity, just as the NRA and its allies always have.
But the push for new gun laws can’t stop there, because the election is still more than seven months away. Advocates need to keep applying pressure in a visible way ― by, for example, showing up at public events for lawmakers who would oppose new gun laws.
That model worked pretty well for defenders of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Although many Republican lawmakers responded by canceling their public, town hall-style events, that strategy won’t work this time, because the Republicans will have to be out campaigning.
Advocates for new gun laws will also need to hone their arguments about what they want and why they think it will work. This should be easier than it was after Sandy Hook, because organizations like the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown For Gun Safety and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence have spent the intervening years gathering and analyzing research, and translating it for advocates who are trying to make arguments.
Choosing targets will also be a challenge. The primary focus of the campaign will inevitably be Republicans, because as long as the GOP is in charge of Congress, meaningful legislation has virtually no chance of passing. But there are Democrats who oppose gun legislation, and the new movement will have to single them out too.
That means pointing out Democrats like Conor Lamb, the candidate hoping to win Tuesday’s special election for a Republican House district in Pennsylvania. Lamb has said he opposes new gun laws.
Above all, though, the advocates for legislation have to keep calling b.s. when they see it. That very much includes Monday’s effort from the White House, which administration officials have tried desperately to portray as ambitious.
The Trump administration’s gambit here is clear. Officials want to make the vast majority of Americans who support meaningful gun laws believe the administration is on their side, while endorsing measures that either won’t make much difference or won’t pass anyway.
It’s easy to assume the gambit will succeed, because that’s how the gun debate has played out in the recent past. But there are reasons to think this time will be different.
One of them is the students leading the movement right now. They have the country’s sympathy, but they are also smart and savvy. They grasp intuitively how to make arguments and organize through social media. What they don’t know, they are learning quickly.
And they are not alone. They are part of a broader uprising against Trump, his allies and the policies they pursue. It started with the women’s march, carried on through the fight against Obamacare repeal, and has grown to include protests on behalf of Dreamers and West Virginia public school teachers.
That is the kind of movement that can produce legislation and, ultimately, save lives. They just have to keep at it. Wednesday is their first opportunity.