One year ago, a teenage gunman armed with an semiautomatic rifle attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and injuring more than a dozen students and staff. In the days that followed, student survivors demanded action rather than thoughts and prayers, vowing that no one else should live through what they had experienced. They promoted a hashtag, #NeverAgain; began a political campaign; and launched a social movement.
One year later, the Parkland young people have proved savvy and effective organizers. They haven’t stopped mass shootings: There have been more than 300 in the past year, leaving more than 300 people dead and more than 1,300 wounded. And the policies they’ve promoted and the less dangerous world they imagined are still distant.
That doesn’t mean they’ve failed. Successful social movements grow from years of investment in organizing and education. By looking at where the #NeverAgain movement has invested, we can best assess its potential.
1. Success rarely comes overnight
U.S. history is filled with stories of successful movements, beginning with the American Revolution and continuing through abolition, suffrage, civil rights, peace and the environment. But we circulate highly edited social movement stories, drawing short lines between, say, the 1963 March on Washington and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.
But effective social movements take much longer. These high-profile moments emerge only by building on the work and organizations of earlier campaigns. Rosa Parks spent a dozen years in the civil rights movement before she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 — backed by allies just as experienced and committed who were prepared to organize a boycott to support her. A. Philip Randolph first proposed the March on Washington in 1941 and, along with many others, spent decades organizing toward it. Activists built organizations, identified grievances and opponents, and framed goals.
2. Timing and coalition-building matter
Successful movements tend to be opportunistic, inclusive and persistent — seizing the moment when events get people to notice that something is wrong. For example, antinuclear activists seized upon the reactor accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, staging a national demonstration and grass-roots activism, and stopped the licensing of new plants for nearly 40 years.
Movements must engage people with a range of commitments and concerns, over a long time. Organizers must convince people that an issue is important, but they must also give recruits something to do and link street protests with political campaigns and legislation.
3. Institutional barriers often thwart social movements
Federalism complicates the path to change. That’s because different levels of government (cities, states and national governments) respond to activist concerns differently, sometimes shifting responsibility elsewhere. Activists face a kind of shell game when looking for meaningful targets. Securing stricter gun laws in Chicago, for example, doesn’t stop weapons from coming from a neighboring state.
Our electoral system also slows social change. Movements must sustain themselves through staggered electoral cycles to win majorities needed to change policy — and in the face of opposition, as with the abortion movement. Stalemate is sometimes the best outcome — and to advocates, it may not feel like victory.
Challenges for the anti-gun violence movement
The battle between opposing movements on guns is particularly unbalanced. The National Rifle Association dominates the gun rights side of the debate, and is far larger and better financed than all the other groups on the issue. With generous support from manufacturers, hobbyists and the politically committed, its budget is typically 10 times that of all gun-control groups put together.
In contrast, support for regulating weapons typically peaks after a dramatic shooting, fading out over time. When politicians ask for quiet after a tragedy, they are attempting to silence gun-control advocates at the only time they have a ready audience. Reformers face the challenge of maintaining attention, activism and resources in between tragedies.
How does #NeverAgain stack up on these three measures?
So far, the Parkland student activists have been tackling all three challenges. First, they took immediate advantage of the spotlight and staged familiar actions: local and national demonstrations, lobbying trips to Tallahassee and Washington, a televised town hall meeting, appearances on television and the covers of major magazines.
But they’ve also kept up their work as the spotlight shifted. They published a book, orchestrated boycotts and school walkouts, and staged a national road trip to promote voter registration among young Americans.
Second, they’ve built broad coalitions, sharing their spotlight with young people from very different backgrounds, defining the problem of gun violence to include crime, suicide and police violence. Their organization, March for Our Lives, joined a coalition of other gun-control organizations that formed in the wake of other shootings, including Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety and Courage to Fight Gun Violence.
Third, they’re strategizing for the long term, not only looking at immediate gains. They’ve offered an agenda and identified an opponent: the NRA. They’ve put unusual pressure on companies that do business with it by threatening boycotts.
By keeping gun violence in the news and staging repeated events, the Parkland students helped recruit thousands of new young activists and voters, helping to put new voices in Congress.
For instance, in suburban Atlanta, young activists buoyed the congressional campaign of Democrat Lucy McBath, who had become an activist after her teenage son was shot and killed at a gas station. Aided by unusually high voter turnout, McBath won by just over 3,000 votes in a district that had voted Republican for decades. Since taking office a few weeks ago, she has co-sponsored bills that would mandate universal background checks for gun purchasers and fund research on gun violence.
It’s a good start, but many challenges remain. The new Democratic-led House may pass the bills McBath supports, but the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to follow, given that GOP lawmakers tend to be proud of “A” grades from the NRA. Nor does President Trump seem likely to cross the NRA by signing such bills into law. Substantial reforms at the federal level are at least an election away.
The revived gun-control movement needs to find ways to continue with a sense of urgency, claim partial victories and navigate a long road forward.
David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America” (Oxford University Press, 2014).