Could the nascent post-Parkland movement against gun violence — led by teenage survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — change the American relationship with guns? Parkland students have organized a March for Our Lives for March 24 and are hoping 500,000 people will attend. Their hope is that this will launch a movement to counter the influence of gun-rights supporters and the National Rifle Association.
Will they have a lasting effect? Possibly. It’s true that in the past such efforts have collapsed. But here’s what will make the difference, according to my research. Social movements can form in response to a series of traumatic episodes — if and when they build grass-roots coalitions among groups and organizations that represent a variety of minority communities and others affected by the events. That can happen when the groups construct a collective identity based on two elements: common opponents and a shared traumatic past.
Here’s how I did my research
I looked into what makes movements successful by examining two local movements, one in Arizona and one in the state of Washington. In Arizona, various communities worked together on immigrant rights between 2000 and 2016, ending with the successful campaign to unseat Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In Washington, communities worked together on marriage equality, successfully legalizing same-sex marriage through a statewide referendum in 2012.
I used these two states in part because they had such different political dynamics. Washington has historically leaned liberal in national elections and has passed some of the most supportive minority rights laws in the country. Arizona, meanwhile, has leaned conservative in national elections and has historically passed laws designed to curtail minority rights.
To understand how these very different movements united and succeeded, I conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 core organizers in the two states; attended organization meetings; observed events and protests; volunteered with the groups involved; and dug into organizational archives. I then analyzed the data I collected to determine whether there were any similarities in how each state’s coalitions formed.
Arizona, between 2000 and 2016: confronting anti-immigrant fervor
In Arizona, immigrant and migrant justice organizations, civil rights groups and groups that represented the LGBT migrant community united in response to the passage of anti-immigrant laws that targeted their communities. These laws included the anti-immigrant SB 1070, the “show me your papers” law that allowed law enforcement officers to stop and question people they reasonably believed to be undocumented immigrants.
Those I interviewed said these laws traumatized their communities, as friends were deported, families were torn apart and Latinos of any immigration status were targeted by law enforcement. Building from this shared experience, they united as one movement struggling against the state’s anti-immigrant fervor. They also identified specific opponents, including state and national conservative leaders and politicians who helped pass and enforce these laws. These two elements enabled groups to unite in a movement coalition. Ultimately, they helped Paul Penzone win the Maricopa County sheriff’s race in 2016, unseating the 24-year incumbent, Arpaio.
Washington, between 1994 and 2016: allying for LGBT rights
In the late 1990s, the Washington legislature passed a statewide Defense of Marriage Act that banned the recognition of same-sex marriage, and voters passed a statewide initiative that banned affirmative action based on race and gender.
Members of several minority communities, including LGBT organizations, immigrant justice organizations and civil rights groups, told me they felt targeted and attacked by these laws. Throughout the 2000s, these organizations slowly began working together, recognizing their shared traumatic past and realizing that the same local legislators and conservative activists were working against them all. They began a series of campaigns to pass pro-LGBT laws and pro-immigrant rights laws in the state, like an LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination law and in-state tuition for undocumented students.
The groups began seeing themselves not just as allies but also as the same movement, with a collective identity based in a shared past and common opponents. As a coalition, they ran a ballot initiative that resulted in legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012.
What do these case studies have in common with the response to the Parkland shooting?
We cannot know yet whether the passionate teenagers crusading for gun regulation will have an effect. But some elements appear similar to these case studies. Black teens have long advocated for gun reform, as their communities have borne the brunt of gun violence in the United States. Black Lives Matter advocates and the Parkland students have repeatedly identified the NRA as a common opponent — something essential to forming movement coalitions. Early in March, Parkland student activists met with high school students from Chicago to discuss what they have in common and how they might work together.
Parkland students have also met with the survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting, building ties with the LGBT community and LGBT people of color.
A national gun regulation movement faces federal barriers — but can start off working state by state
Of course, the movements I studied had the advantage of being confined within individual states — while those advocating gun regulations have been stymied by federalism, according to political scientist Kristin Goss. In particular, Second Amendment advocates tend to dominate rural states that hold outsize power in the Senate, where they can block proposed gun regulations, like broader background checks.
But the federal approach isn’t the only way to regulate guns. LGBT advocates worked state by state on such particular issues as repealing anti-sodomy laws, passing anti-discrimination laws, and winning domestic partnership and second-parent adoption; only after decades of such local efforts did they take the marriage equality movement national.
The Parkland students have bombarded legislators in meetings and held protests at the state Capitol. They have disseminated their message through the media. Busloads of students descended on the Florida legislature both to protest and to engage with legislators. In response, Florida passed a law that raise the minimum age to purchase any firearm in the state from 18 to 21, imposes a three-day waiting period for most long gun purchases and bans the possession of bump stocks, all in defiance of the NRA. These local efforts could be a model for other states’ advocates.
Of course, previous efforts at regulating guns and limiting gun violence have collapsed as the news media have moved on, as individual groups atomized without consolidating into a mass movement. This one may, too.
Or the young people who appear to be defining themselves as “mass shooting survivors” at a critical moment in the development of adult and political identities may reach find ways to bring together communities that have survived similar traumas — and come together to fight their common enemies.
Erin Mayo-Adam is an assistant professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY. She is writing a book based on her research on grassroots coalition formation across the LGBT, immigrant, and labor rights movements.