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You need two things for a successful anti-violence movement. Post-Parkland activism about guns has both.

- February 23, 2018

The Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school has produced a strong public reaction. Activist high school students are taking a stand against gun violence, holding anti-gun rallies in Tallahassee, Washington and beyond. The survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are being joined by a growing nationwide support network of sympathizers who are planning more protests.

In response, President Trump has ordered the Department of Justice to ban devices that “that turn legal weapons into machine guns.” Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) renewed efforts to improve the federal background check system for gun purchases. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) pledged to raise the required minimum age for gun possession and sale from 18 to 21.

Although it remains to be seen whether gun laws will be changed, the public’s response to this shooting seems unusually strong. Why? What’s different in this case than similar efforts after previous mass shootings? My research on anti-violence movements has identified two conditions.

The victim is identified

The first is the presence of an “identifiable victim” who becomes a visible symbol of resistance. This victim is part of a larger group of victims that I call a “kin group.” This kin group then acts to counter violence against its members.

Before the Parkland massacre, the victims of gun violence in the United States had not come from a single kin group that has identified itself as a victim. Mass killings have taken the lives of children, teenagers, concertgoers, church congregations, members of the LGBT community, government employees, service members and many other demographic groups. Any American’s family members, friends and co-workers could be shot dead at a school, church, movie theater, airport or shopping mall. Without knowing whom to protect, where and when to rally, and how to describe the perpetrator, activists have had trouble building a unified movement.

But now, American schoolchildren have arguably become the new kin group. They identify with each other in terms of their young age and the traumatic experience of seeing their classmates die. Just like members of other powerful anti-violence movements, they are articulate and determined.

Public sympathy

The second ingredient is the public sympathy with the victims of violence that is formed because of ongoing violence against the kin group. This public sympathy has certainly existed before, especially after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — which produced a concerted, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to change gun policy at the federal level.

But even if no federal laws were passed, the Sandy Hook shooting raised awareness and catalyzed a public conversation about violence against schoolchildren. When a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the students had already been socialized to the possibility of gun violence. Unlike other types of victims, schoolchildren are now taking part in active shooter drills.

Where have we seen this process before? A prime example is the Black Lives Matter movement. The shooting deaths of black teenagers Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 united advocates of racial justice and other Americans to denounce violence against a different group of victims — African Americans.

Similarly, in Mexico, the 2014 disappearance of 43 students produced a nationwide grassroots movement to challenge the government’s handling of violence by organized criminal groups and corrupt public officials.

And in India, the 2012 gang rape of a university student on a bus in New Delhi rallied feminist groups and the urban public to demand that the government improve public safety for women.

The same seems to be happening after the tragedy in Parkland. Although mass shootings in general and school shootings in particular are not new, the rise of schoolchildren as visible and sympathetic victims has produced a more powerful anti-violence movement. The question now is how will policymakers respond.

Erica Marat is an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University and author of “The Politics of Police Reform: Society Against the State in Post-Soviet Countries” (Oxford University Press 2018).