#NeverAgain and the power of youth

Young survivors of the latest US school shooting are reaching Americans of all ages who support them, and are sending a message to those who don’t, writes the University of Auckland's Jennifer Frost

Within hours after a school shooting in Florida left 14 students and three teachers dead, many wounded, and more terrified and traumatised, the survivors started a new movement, Never Again – and its aims have been set high.

Never again should American students face death at the hands of a gun-wielding assailant in their school classrooms and hallways. Never again should young people fear for their safety at school. Never again should they be robbed of their right to a secure environment for learning and growing. The #NeverAgain movement is calling upon US political leaders to fulfil their responsibility to protect all citizens, including the youngest.

The survivors of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida refuse to accept that school shootings are just the way of life in America. They have grown up in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, which claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher. They have had regular school shooter drills alongside fire drills, training for the violence that may come. They have seen too many shootings at other schools, such as Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 six- and seven-year old children and six of their teachers were killed in 2012. They want the killing to stop.

“We are the change!” The #NeverAgain movement wants comprehensive and effective gun control legislation. They have been holding demonstrations and communicating through the media. They are critical of the National Rifle Association and publicising the NRA’s donations to politicians. They have demanded action from their Senator Marco Rubio and met with Florida state legislators.

They are talking to US President Donald Trump and planning a nationwide protest in Washington, D.C.—A March for Our Lives on March 24. They want their voices to be heard—and listened to—on this issue. And they are supported by many, many Americans, young and old. In fact, 66 percent versus 31 percent in the latest US poll favoured stricter gun control.

Yet there are those adults who have responded to this movement by disparaging and ridiculing the views and actions of these student survivors. Whatever their motives, these critics argue that young people are not yet prepared to participate in political debate or take political action. It is an argument that we have heard before in US history. Indeed, every time a proposal arose to extend voting rights to young Americans 18 years and older, opponents answered with accusations that they lacked the emotional maturity, personal responsibility, and life experience to be trusted with the right to vote.

To counter these arguments, youth vote advocates pointed to rising levels of education among Americans and the hard fact that an 18-year-old was eligible for military service. “Old enough to fight and die, but not old enough to vote!” This slogan of the Vietnam War era echoed a call first heard with the War of 1812 and later during World War II and the Korean War. They also pointed out how the idealism of young people—the ability to envision a different future rather than accepting the status quo—fuelled movements for change throughout US history, such as the labour, civil rights, anti-war, environmental, and women’s movements.

To get the right to vote and to catalyse change, young people knew they needed older Americans on their side.

In 1971, a generational alliance achieved the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution enfranchising 18, 19, and 20-year-olds. The student survivors in the #NeverAgain movement know this too. They have found Americans of all ages who support them, and are sending a message to those who don’t: “We are sick of the Florida lawmakers choosing money from the NRA over our safety.” To reinforce that message, they will be able to vote soon enough.

Associate Professor Frost is co-authoring a book on the 26th Amendment and youth voting rights in the USA.

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