Two of the deadliest school shootings in American history were, the Columbine High School massacre which happened on April 20, 1999, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting which occurred on December 14, 2012. While these events promoted a discourse about gun control, they led to no significant changes to gun control (Merritt 2018:168). However, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting prompted students to take it upon themselves to create a social movement known as March for Our Lives. This essay will analyze how March for Our Lives advocacy challenges the political and legal sphere through a focus on implementing Extreme Risk Protection Orders and its effectiveness and limitations of it such as dismissing the root causes for urban violence and street gangs which perpetuate violence (Vigil 2003:226).
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March for Our Lives began on March 24, 2018, in response to the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. Organized by students, the movement has over 1.2 million participants around the world (Lopez 2018). This movement is not composed only of students, but also includes family members, community leaders, and survivors of gun violence. It is built on local and state grassroots power, and its students lobby Congress to pass “commonsense gun reforms,” including universal background checks. Divided into “chapters,” this movement draws awareness across many states in America and, led by students who advocate for change at the local level. They do this by organizing walkouts in school lobbying, writing legislation, or showing up in school board meetings and city council meetings to pursue change (“Mission & Story” 2019). Two critical aspects of their advocacies are implementing a universal background check upon purchasing firearms as well as to create innovative policies into law that aims to reduce gun violence.
Alongside with March for Our Lives, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) is a non-profit organization, advocating for policy development, strategic engagement and effective advocacy. In terms of strategic engagement, CSGV comprises 48 organizations, among them, are religious, child welfare advocacy groups, public health professionals, social justice, and political action organizations – all of which are used to leverage discourse by producing information, statistical data and academic resources.
Before examining the movement’s advocacy, it is vital to consider the social, cultural and political context of which the movement is situated. In brief, gun ownership is rooted in America’s Constitution, politics and culture. The Second Amendment states that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” (Strasser 2008). The Constitution bears so much weight because it is “fixed deeply in a complex fabric of American liberty” (Kocsis 2015:163). Guns are an “instrument and a symbol of personal and political liberty” (Kocsis 2015:163). In political terms, this polarizing discourse occurs at the highest level of politics, in which significant interests, such as the NRA are involved. As suggested by Michael Kocsis, “major interests are represented by large and well-funded political action groups, and also in the sense that gun control is the perennial electoral issue in American politics” (2015:159). To bolster the advocacy for universal background checks, and to leverage discourse with politicians at the political level, prominent political figures such as former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton expressed support for the March for Our Lives rallies, protests and movement (CNN 2018). Lastly, at a cultural level, some argue that current practices of bearing arms should continue and that it has become a personal identification, shaped people’s lives and has become a central feature of their identification (Kocsis 2015:168). Infused with culture, are these mythological images that flare up in the minds of many Americans such as the Minuteman – pictured in the minds as this “militiamen who rose up out of farming stock and small villages and fired the first shots in our noble revolution” (2018:169). Secondly, the image of the cowboy, the “lonely, gun-toting individuals who fought off beats and savages to take the Wild West” (Merritt 2018:168). In conclusion, with the legal, political and cultural practices set in the minds of many Americans, it is understandable why many are so opposed to any gun control discourse.
In terms of advocacy, a strategy and its effectiveness, March for Our Lives took it to the streets of Washington, D.C. to protest for stricter gun control policies, such as a universal background check system. According to a pamphlet produced by Everytown for Gun Safety, background checks are easy and convenient, reduces homicide rates by 40% and a 15% reduction in the gun suicide rate. On a political level, there is 91% support from the Democratic Party and 79% from the Republican. On a social level, 85% of American are in favour of background checks for all guns. With all this information, known to be effective and to have worked in states such as Connecticut, the greatest opposing actor is the National Rifles Association. They argue that background checks do not stop criminals from getting firearms and oppose firearm registration. According to John Donohue, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, the NRA opposes it because they “do not want anything that interferes with total gun sales and profits” (2013:1). As John Donohue states, by implementing a strict background check, it will cut sales from criminals and mentally ill people by which it will reduce crime and reduce the public’s demand for purchasing firearms (Donohue:2013:1).
In terms of the advocacy, March for Our Lives is led by students and seen as a “grassroots” organization composed of students, family members, survivors of gun violence, community leaders and victims of gun violence to lobby against Congress to pass stricter gun control measures because many lives are being killed by senseless gun violence across America. Specifically, survivors and youth play the most integral part of gun control movements. As Shannon Frattaroli suggests, survivors bring “passion and an authentic voice to the issue” (2003:336). The media and Americans want to hear their stories, engage with them and their experiences, and use their lived experiences to push for political and legal change. Secondly, youth participation is an integral and vital because often, youth is labelled to be the problem for gun violence and not those that seek preventative measures for gun violence (Frattaroli 2003:336). However, youth perspectives, ideas and initiatives are useful, and the youth know how to get the message out, whether be it in person or using social media. Social media plays an important role, not only a tool to raise awareness and spread information but to energize and inspire other people and Americans to join the cause. March for Our Lives grew to a massive mass movement because they engaged with the media and created hashtags “#MarchForOurLives” “#NeverAgain” to raise a keen awareness on Twitter and to get many to join the movement and march with them (“March for Our Lives Was Born on Social Media” 2018).
Other ways March for Our Lives advocate for change is by organizing walkouts, lobbying for better safety measures on campus, writing statewide legislation or showing up at board meetings and city council meetings to enact local change. What makes March for Our Lives, unique and robust is the “power to capture the attention of and influence elected officials by demonstrating popular support” (Frattaroli 2003:337). The ways the movement goes about this is by public demonstrations, rallies and using their power to vote. This being said, because of voters, 46 NRA-backed candidates lost their elections. In fact, because of March for Our Lives and its advocacy and strong political will, Governor Rick Scott breaks ties with the NRA to sign for new gun regulations (Scherer 2018).
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In terms of strategic engagement and leveraging political discourse, CSGV has specific individuals targeting different aspects of the political and legal sphere by producing policies such as Extreme Risk Laws (known as Extreme Protection Order) and Microstamping. First, to produce innovative policies, Kelly Roskam is the leading person for drafting and analyzing legislation; legal research and writing to ensure there is compliance with federal and state laws. As a result, two policies were enacted which are the Extreme Risk Laws which allows family members to petition to the court to remove firearms from individuals that are a threat to public safety and microstamping, which is a ballistic identification mechanism that allows police to trace a gun without recovering it (“Creating Innovative Policies” 2019). In terms of its effectiveness, the first state to implement Extreme Risk Laws was California, after the tragic shooting that occurred in May 2014. Following this, Washington D.C. and Oregon followed the footsteps of California, with bipartisan support. Today, there are over twenty-six states that have introduced this law, and with an increase of bipartisan support and local support from the Americans, this law can be introduced in all fifty states.
Besides the Extreme Risk Laws, microstamping has been an innovative technology to identify the specific firearm used in a shooting. It uses laser technology to engrave onto the cartridge. Microstamping is innovative and valuable because it enables the police to trace the weapon to the purchaser, that can be a suspect or a source in the investigation. In terms of its implementation, California was the first state to sign this bill into law, followed by the District of Columbia (“Creating Innovative Policies” 2019). The greatest opposing actor for the development and implementation of this is the NRA and other powerful gun lobby groups.
Aside from advocacy, strategic engagement and effectiveness, there is one weakness that this advocacy does not address and that is the social structural problems to violence. According to James Diego Vigil, there are many factors to consider, such as socioeconomic, sociocultural and sociopsychological experiences that contribute to urban violence and street gangs. On an ecological level, young populations do not live in comfortable areas of the cities, but rather the cities they do live in are “rundown, dilapidated, work-out residence where a criminal lifestyle was already in vogue” (Vigil 2003:233). On a socioeconomic level, the source for aggression and violence is from “the marginality of their status” (Vigil 2003:233). Factors such as limited jobs, harsh and unfair treatment from law authorities and often blamed for their problems are often the causes of aggressive behaviour and violence (Vigil 2003:234). In conclusion, while gun control movements such as March for Our Lives and CSGV address the gun problem and offers legislative solutions, they are merely offering a band-aid solution to a more significant problem which is social structural issues that cause aggressive behaviour and violence.
- “Background Checks Save Lives.” 2019. EverytownResearch.Org. January 2, 2019. https://everytownresearch.org/background-checks-save-lives/.
- CNN, Clare Foran. 2018. “Lawmakers Weigh in on March for Our Lives.” CNN. 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/24/politics/march-for-our-lives-democrats-republicans-congress/index.html.
- “Creating Innovative Policies.” 2019. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. 2019. https://www.csgv.org/issues/creating-evidence-based-policies/.
- Donohue, John J. n.d. “Why the NRA Fights Background Checks,” 4.
- Frattaroli, Shannon. 2003. “Grassroots Advocacy for Gun Violence Prevention: A Status Report on Mobilizing a Movement.” Journal of Public Health Policy 24 (3/4): 332–54. https://doi.org/10.2307/3343381.
- Kocsis, Michael. 2015. “Gun Ownership and Gun Culture in the United States of America.” Essays in Philosophy 16 (2): 154–179.
- Lopez, German. 2018. “It’s Official: March for Our Lives Was One of the Biggest Youth Protests since the Vietnam War.” Vox. March 26, 2018. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/26/17160646/march-for-our-lives-crowd-size-count.
- “March for Our Lives Was Born on Social Media.” 2018. Brandwatch. March 30, 2018. https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/march-for-our-lives-social-media/.
- Merritt, Dennis L. 2018. “Guns and the American Psyche.” Anthropology of Consciousness 29 (2): 168–74. https://doi.org/10.1111/anoc.12098.
- “Mission & Story.” 2019. March For Our Lives. 2019. https://marchforourlives.com/mission-story/.
- Scherer, Michael. 2018. “Florida Gov. Rick Scott Breaks with NRA to Sign New Gun Regulations.” Washington Post, March 9, 2018, sec. PowerPost. https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/florida-gov-rick-scott-breaks-with-nra-to-sign-new-gun-regulation/2018/03/09/e5d1f02e-23b2-11e8-86f6-54bfff693d2b_story.html.
- Strasser, Mr Ryan. 2008. “Second Amendment.” LII / Legal Information Institute. July 1, 2008. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/second_amendment.
- Vigil, James Diego. 2003. “Urban Violence and Street Gangs.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32 (1): 225–42. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.061002.093426.
(“Background Checks Save Lives” 2019)