Social movements rise and fall on the backs of their leaders. For USC students taking part in the ongoing gun control movement, that might be grounds for pessimism.
There is evidence to suggest the current student-led gun control movement will not lead to significant policy change or the election of more anti-gun politicians because its leaders demonize the opposition and lack clear direction.
David Hogg, one of the #NeverAgain movement’s most vocal leaders, has repeatedly attacked the National Rifle Association and politicians who don’t adhere to his agenda. He’s referred to the NRA and the politicians it supports as “child murderers,” called NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch “disgusting” while accusing her of not caring about children’s lives, charged Senator Marco Rubio with trading campaign donations for students’ lives and claimed Florida Gov. Rick Scott “does not give a f-ck about [the Parkland] kids’ lives.”
This rhetoric is self-destructive. Since Hogg began his verbal assaults, Google searches for “NRA membership” have skyrocketed by 4,900 percent and donations to the NRA have tripled. TIME Magazine also reported large membership increases in the National Association for Gun Rights and other pro-Second Amendment groups.
At USC and college campuses nationwide, many students feel the need to hop on the political bandwagon and to participate in the recent wave of demands for gun control; and yet, like Hogg, they seem to lack focus. It’s easy to play the blame game, but it’s hard to turn that anger into action. If anything, the small turnout at the recent March for Our Lives event hosted by University student groups seemed to expose students’ apathy.
On the national scale, the vitriolic approach of liberal activists has had the unintended effect of galvanizing the other side. The general trend of accusing the NRA of having blood on its hands mobilized many Second Amendment supporters in defense of their rights, demonstrating Americans’ willingness to stand up for organizations they feel represent them. This poses a major obstacle to the movement’s legislative agenda: Had the accusations and rhetoric not been so extreme, the responses likely would not have been either. Now groups like the NRA have more members and more funds, precisely because law-abiding gun owners believe they and their Second Amendment rights are under siege.
Additionally, one of the primary goals of the gun control movement is to vote out Second Amendment-supporting Republicans. At the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., Hogg told the crowd, “We’re going to make this the voting issue. We’re going to take this to every election, to every state and every city. To those politicians supported by the NRA that allow the continued slaughter of our children and our future, I say get your resumes ready.”
This seems to have had the opposite effect than what was intended. A major shift in the generic congressional ballot polls occurred this past month. In February, Democrats led by 16 points. By the end of March, that lead shrank to six. When Republicans hear the demagoguery and read op-eds like former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ call to repeal the Second Amendment, they are motivated to turn out and protect their rights.
Here is where the student-led movement fails: Its leaders do not make affirmative cases with affirmative tactics. The March for Our Lives website lists five policies they wish to see enacted, yet the majority of their interviews and speeches give minimal arguments for why they would be effective. Instead, they spend their time on-screen lambasting politicians and the NRA.
The disconnect between their goals on paper and their goals in reality brings uncertainty to the movement and casts doubt on whether it can be successful. The Civil Rights movement had clear goals. The push for women’s suffrage did too. Those leaders clearly stated what they wanted and why they ought to get it but they never spoke the way Hogg and his supporters do. Anger is an effective mobilizer, but anger without hope is a destructive force.
Contrast this response with that of Hogg’s fellow Parkland survivor Kyle Kashuv. Kashuv has met with U.S. Senators from both parties and spoke with the president and first lady about finding middle ground. Kashuv was not invited to speak at the March for Our Lives with Hogg. He was not included on the cover of TIME Magazine like his peers. The media doesn’t want to talk to him and his peers don’t want to debate him. It’s no coincidence that Kashkuv is a conservative who supports the Second Amendment.
But Kashuv’s approach has worked. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make emotional appeals. He didn’t castigate politicians or the NRA. He didn’t demonize those who opposed him. Equipped with facts, he went to Washington and lobbied for the STOP School Violence Act, which passed the House 407-10 and is currently in the Senate. He had a clear direction.
Students everywhere, including here at USC, have the choice of which model to follow. Movements can be reformed, and if this one wants any chance at success, it has to be.