By Sandro Galea | Boston University School of Public Health
The February 14 shooting in the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reminded us once again about the horrific toll of gun violence on the United States. This was the 18th school shooting in the US this year; in Parkland, 17 students were killed and about as many were injured. The shooter used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the same weapon used in many other high-profile mass shootings, including Sandy Hook. These guns have been widely available in the United States ever since Congress allowed the federal assault weapons ban to expire in 2004.
In many ways, this shooting felt like so many other shootings before it. After all, we have seen the outpouring of interest that followed the horrific Newtown school shootings, Orlando Pulse shootings, and the Las Vegas shooting, and about any number of the mass shootings that happen in the US on average 9 out of every 10 days of the year. We know that mass shootings are only a very small fraction, less than 2 percent of the problem of all firearm deaths. If even these events cannot galvanize action, what can?
And yet, something unexpected seems to be happening after the Parkland shootings. The students from the Stoneman Douglas High School, Generation Z members who are native to digital media, have taken hold of the national stage, aiming to hold the political system accountable on guns. Despite some deeply cynical attempts to stop these students, they have persisted. A galvanizing town hall event, broadcast on CNN, brought to the fore truly remarkable scenes of high school students standing tall in the face of deeply seated opposition by elected officials and the National Rifle Association (NRA). At core the students recognize what the science has long told us: that we will not make any dent on the firearm epidemic in this country unless we address the extraordinary number of guns available in the country, and that other efforts to distract attention from this issue are simply smokescreens from the core need to limit the widespread availability of weapons that can be used readily by anyone with harmful intent.
The students’ show of force has been, in and of itself, extraordinary. But even more so has been that slowly, we are seeing changes that are, simply put, unprecedented. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two of the largest gun sellers in the country, have announced that they are going to limit gun sales to those over 21. Dick’s Sporting Goods also announced that it would limit sales of assault-style weapons like the AR-15. And, perhaps in the most surprising move of all, President Trump, who received about $40 million from the NRA during his campaign, met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and expressed support for a “comprehensive” gun bill — though recent history teaches us that it is unlikely the President will follow through on his statements.
This deeply heartening turn of events brings up a central question to my mind: is this truly a tipping point in efforts to promote gun safety in this country?
Ultimately, of course, only time will tell. But what is promising here is the confluence of circumstances that suggest that it is possible that an incident can lead to change where other incidents have not. Recent efforts such as Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement have shown that decades of work and effort can capitalize on high-profile events to bring about discontinuities in our national conversation. The #metoo movement has brought to the fore the issue of sexual misconduct that we have long known existed, long known was unacceptable, and long known should have been part of the national conversation. It would have been hard to predict that the misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein would lead to a global reckoning with the issue. Ultimately these movements show that the path to change and progress is complex, and that it takes decades of laying the foundations, of science producing the evidence, and of careful observers translating this evidence, in order for the right moment to truly galvanize public opinion and action, leading to change.
The firearm epidemic has been acceptable to the country (and indeed the number of deaths from firearms have hardly budged since 2000, with an uptick in the past year), despite decades of evidence about the consequences of guns. Now Parkland offers hope that these data become unacceptable, and a glimpse into how social movements emerge, informed by scholarship, educated by effective translational work, and shaped by smart activism responsive to contemporary issues that present opportunities for action.