Students — especially those from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — were front and center in the “March for Our Lives” against gun violence on Saturday. They gave the protests the aura of a children’s crusade that would not only focus the country on a campaign against guns but would succeed where other such efforts had always failed: at the ballot box.
The rhetoric from the students was strident. Calls for compromise were out as marchers demonized the National Rifle Association and all politicians it supports as child killers.
As David Hogg, perhaps the most prominent of the Parkland kids, put it in an interview, their “old ass” parents don’t know how to use a democracy any more than they do an iPhone and thus must get out of the way. More than one student speaker said the march spawned by the Parkland massacre was the start of a movement in which teenagers would change America forever.
Seen from the perspective of the huge crowds and the reverential coverage even the most foulmouthed and divisive of the teen speakers were given by the mainstream media, it’s hard to argue with such predictions.
But those who expect the kids to sweep backers of gun rights out of Washington need to take a deep breath. While the post-Parkland movement has put the NRA on the defensive, assumptions about its long-term impact are wildly exaggerated.
The gap between the predictions of revolution and reality is due to two factors. One is that it’s possibly a mistake to assume that all young voters agree with the anti-gun revolutionaries. The other is that even if gun-control advocates have all the passion on their side now, this wouldn’t be the first time liberals wrongly assumed that youthful protesters would reinvent the nation’s politics in their own picture.
Even if we agree that marching for your beliefs is praiseworthy and that the kids shouldn’t be trashed, those who jump to the conclusion that all millennials agree with the anti-gun crowd are wrong. While polls indicate young Americans are somewhat more likely to back gun control than older ones, a 2017 Pew Survey study showed that those aged 18-29 are far less supportive of such measures than they were a decade earlier.
The divide on guns isn’t so much a matter of age as it is regional. Those who live in rural areas where gun ownership is common tend to support gun rights. Those who live in cities or on the coasts are likely to prefer tougher gun control and ignore the fact that such measures — short of repealing the Second Amendment — wouldn’t prevent mass shootings.
This is the same red state/blue state culture war tearing the country apart on other problems and is reflected in the fact that for all of their passion, the march was produced by the organizational muscle and money of liberal organizations, not teen activists. When Hogg treats senators who tried to meet them halfway like Marco Rubio as if they were criminals, he only alienates red state America and boosts support for the NRA.
There’s also a precedent that argues against success for the anti-gun youth revolution.
Pop culture tells us young anti-Vietnam war protesters changed America in the 1960s and 1970s. But a more accurate reading of history says something very different.
Anti-war protesters also assumed that their passion would sweep men like President Richard Nixon out of office and herald the dawn of a new political Age of Aquarius. Faith in their certain success was fueled by the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1972.
But the revolution ran aground on the fact that — as is still the case today — most kids vote like their parents. Nixon was re-elected in a landslide as Republicans won four of the five presidential elections from 1972 through 1988.
This may be a big year for the Democrats. But if they are to win the House or avoid losing more ground in the Senate, it will be due to the victories of pro-gun Democrats like Conor Lamb, who recently won a special election in a red Pennsylvania district, not liberals who echo Hogg.
The odds are those angry kids are going to be even angrier if their revolution flops in November for the same reasons.