Parkland Sparked A Movement — But Will It Get Young People To The Polls?
The midterms are upon us, and many young people are fired up to vote for candidates who will actually do something about school shootings. The problem: Even the teens disagree on gun reform.
“One month ago, 17 people were killed. Seventeen people were brutally murdered in a place where they spent seven hours every day,” yelled Kirk, 18, who wore a baggy sweatshirt and ripped skinny jeans. The bullhorn she was supposed to use stopped working at the last minute, so she raised her voice so that her classmates, many of them holding signs with the names of the victims, could hear her. “They should have felt safe, and they did feel safe until shots rang out through their school. Today we’re here to honor those 17 people and to demand a change.” The crowd of a few hundred stood in complete silence as she paused for 17 seconds between each name.
Words not heard in Kirk’s speech: “NRA,” “second amendment,” or even “guns.” That’s because pushback from both parents and students and last-minute changes transformed the event into a neutered tribute to the lives lost. As moving as it was, it was not exactly the demand for change Kirk had originally intended.
The dynamic within Walter Williams epitomizes how complicated advocating for gun reform can be in schools, especially in states where gun culture thrives. Burlington is a town of about 50,000 that sits mostly in central North Carolina’s Alamance County. Some have affectionately called the county “purplish” because it’s nestled in-between liberal college towns like Durham, Chapel Hill, and Guilford, but overall it’s red as a MAGA hat: 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared to 42% for Clinton. It’s a place where Sayer’s street, full of signs proclaiming “We believe Black lives matter, no human is illegal, love is love…” is a 30-second drive from another street where yellow “Thank you Jesus” signs dominate front lawns.
The conversation about gun reform here regularly runs into a rhetorical dead end: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” is something you hear over and over, and not just at the many gun shops that dot the area, or up in the rural hills, but in the halls of Walter Williams, too.
The anti-gun reform faction at Walter Williams is probably best represented by Sam Galey, a 16-year-old sophomore, who stayed inside the day of the walkout along with at least half the school. “[The march] should not have been held during school hours,” Galey says. “We do not go to school to be filled with propaganda. We go to school to learn. This took time out of our day to push an anti-second amendment agenda.”
This is what Kirk was up against when she decided to start planning a walkout. She knew many would be unhappy, but, amidst the wave of youth activism that began after Parkland, Kirk, who jokingly describes herself as the “token activist” at Walter Williams, felt empowered by a movement that was being led by her peers.
Until that moment, she hadn’t been involved in much anti-gun violence work, but soon she was attending March for Our Lives rallies and reading up on the NRA. As a member of the student council and the founder of a local nonprofit called the Queer Fish Center, a group for LGBTQ students to find support and resources, she’s a natural organizer. She’s also president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and is looking to start a Young Democrats chapter. (She's so ubiquitous on the extracurriculars scene that the school paper has stopped writing about her “so it doesn’t become the Sayer Kirk paper,” she says.) When she heard about the National School Walkout, she found her next mission. She talked to her Latin teacher and “second mom” Robin Farber, and began hosting sign-making events, promoting the event on Instagram, and doing everything else she could to get other students involved.
Since Parkland, I have been terrified. No student should feel that level of fear, no student should be scared to go to school. And yet, here we are.
Sayer Kirk, 18
Then, she brought the idea to the administration for the required permission. Contrary to the confrontational quality of the term “walkout,” this is what most young organizers around the country did: Generation Z kids are not the rebellious boomers of the ‘60s. Kirk, who wants to go to Agnes Scott College in Georgia to study political science and eventually run for office, wanted to stay in good standing with her school administration. Initially, Principal Stephanie Hunt was supportive, and felt students needed an outlet for their anger.
But when Ashley Bowers, the special-ed teacher who runs the school’s social media feeds, posted the announcements to Instagram and Facebook, both accounts were flooded with a deluge of negative comments and DMs. The messages, some with unprintable, racist slurs, came from both parents and students opposing the event because it was “anti-2A,” Kirk says.
“There was a lot of interesting feedback from the community, let’s put it that way,” Bowers says. After about three hours, Bowers was forced to take down the posts.
At that point, the administration told Kirk that if there was to be an event at all, it would have to be apolitical. She could host a “march” to honor the lives lost but not a “walkout.” They could talk about solidarity with the Parkland students, but they could not reference gun policy reform. Many of the schools around the country hosting their own events threatened students with suspensions, while others supported students in their activism. Walter Williams settled on a compromise.
“We decided that we wanted it to be strictly in honor of those that passed in Florida,” Principal Hunt says. “We didn’t want anything else to cloud the issue. If we had allowed just anything to be represented out there, we would have had a large part of our community telling us that as a public school, we were pushing our views on their child. And we had that anyway.”
On the morning of the march, Kirk was required to rewrite her speech. Administrators also forbid any signs mentioning the second amendment or guns. “MSD Strong” was fine, but “We want education, not annihilation” was not.
The fact is, Burlington is “a gun-loving community,” Farber explains. “I think that we were pretty clear it wasn’t against the second amendment. It was against kids getting shot at school. I’m very proud of how Sayer handled it. She did a lot of the online organizing in a place that was not that friendly toward it.”
The Parkland massacre birthed a popular, inspiring narrative that the teens are going to save us. And there might be some truth to that: Since February, young people like Kirk, inspired by the activism of the Parkland survivors, have been registering thousands of voters at hundreds of marches around the country, studying up on policy and the NRA, and meeting with politicians and regular citizens to call for gun reform.
This year’s huge wave in state-level gun reform legislation is a testament to the impact these young people are already making. Since the Parkland tragedy, both blue and red states have enacted nearly 50 gun-reform laws, from bump stocks bans to “red-flag” laws, which allow judges to issue orders to temporarily remove guns from a person who is a danger to themselves or others. Even Florida, with its tremendous NRA influence, expanded background checks and passed a bump stocks ban and a red-flag law in March in response to Parkland and the activism that followed.
Yet on the federal level, the stalemate continues. Despite multiple attempts at basic reforms like closing the gun-show loophole that allows people to bypass background checks, nothing has passed since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004 — not even after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Now, in the wake of yet another mass shooting — this time a hate crime at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people — with just days left before the midterm elections, the question of whether Gen Z has actually lead a year of fundamental, meaningful change is at its most urgent.
But Walter Williams indicates that Gen Z is more complicated than that. In fact, they are as divided as the rest of us: It wasn’t just parents who felt a walkout was inappropriate, but many students, too.
Galey, whose Twitter bio proclaims, “leftists beware, facts don’t care about your feelings,” is starting a Young Americans for Freedom chapter at the school this year, and is part of the national March 4 Our Rights movement, which he says is about “young conservatives taking a stand and voicing what we believe about gun control and our other constitutional rights.”
“I don’t know Sayer at all, really,” Galey says. “I’ve heard she’s a very nice person, but from what I can tell we simply have fundamentally different views of the world.”
Galey had actually been preparing to lead a group of about 15 students in a counter-action to the march, but he called it off that morning when he learned that it would be an apolitical event. Still, he stayed inside out of protest of the, well, protest.
It thus remains unclear how many among Gen Z are actually compelled by the messages of this newly formed movement. Naturally, because this will be the first election for many of these voters, Gen Z is still a wild card voting-wise. So far, it seems they are less driven by partisanship. In North Carolina (and elsewhere), this age group is leading the growing unaffiliated-voter trend: 46% in the state are registered as unaffiliated, compared to 31% of the state overall. This may be due to youth; they just haven’t had a chance to form their political identities yet.
Nonetheless, many groups associated with supporting Democrats are counting on them. Groups like NextGen have invested in hiring teams of organizers on college campuses around the country, including “gun-loving” states like North Carolina. The result: a promising increase in voter registration among the youngest of potential voters. Political analyst Michael Bitzer, a political science professor and provost at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, told the Greensboro News & Record that Gen Z (ages 18 to 21; the youngest Gen Z members are still in elementary school) is responsible for 24% of all new voter registrations in the state this year. Millennials (ages 22 to 37) are the only ones who signed up in larger numbers, with a third of all new voter registrations.
Even when they are registered, however, young people have an abysmal record when it comes to actually turning out on Election Day. And the “march” at Walter Williams exemplifies the uphill battle young activists still face.
In many ways, Kirk and Galey (who believes arming veterans, officers, or teachers in schools is the way to go) couldn’t be further from agreeing on the gun reform debate. In their discord, they echo the highly polarized climate of the gun discussion nationwide. At times, like with so many other issues, it feels as though each side is living in a different country, which is underscored by how reliably gun ownership is a predictor of political identity.
But while the conversation around guns often seems stuck in an inexorable deadlock, Americans actually agree on more policy points than one would think. Like nine out of 10 Americans, including the vast majority of gun owners, Galey would like to see stronger laws around background checks. “I think just about everybody on both sides of the aisle agrees on background checks,” Galey says. “We all agree that weapons should be kept out of the hands of those who would do harm to others.” According to a recent NPR poll, a majority of Americans also support banning assault-style weapons, raising the legal age to buy a gun from 18 to 21, and adding those with mental illnesses to the federal background check system.
Plus, a full 81% of Americans agree that more guns are not the solution: Only 19% (7% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans), support arming teachers in schools — which both Latin teacher Farber and Principal Hunt say they strongly oppose.
Ultimately the problem remains: Elected officials must agree to actually make changes. None of the 50 laws passed since Parkland have been in North Carolina. There have been no major changes in gun-reform law in the state this year, which isn’t for lack of Democrats trying — and trying, and trying. When in May, Democratic state Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham proposed a red-flag law, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore sent the proposal to the House Rules Committee, “a place where bills often go to die,” without any discussion.
This refusal, on both the federal and state levels, to even bring up proposals for debate is what convinces Kirk that there’s a need for new leaders. On the state level, Kirk plans to vote for Erica McAdoo, who is running for State Rep. in District 63, or eastern Alamance County. McAdoo grew up on a farm in rural North Carolina, in a gun-owning family, and is running on a promise to support sensible gun laws, affordable healthcare, and more funding for education. "She's strong and well-liked even among conservative people. She's reached common ground," Kirk says.
But in order for federal gun reform to even be a possibility in the next two years, Democrats will have to take back the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. An even bigger question: Even if all of the enthusiasm, activism, and increases in voter registration and engagement pay off in electoral terms with the Democrats taking control of Congress, will they actually prioritize gun reform?
If they want to continue to count on the support of the newly activated coalition of Gen Z voters, they must, according to Kirk. For her, gun violence is the defining issue. Her commitment to gun reform is why she registered to vote as soon as she could, and why she spent her summer volunteering for Ryan Watts, a 28-year-old Democratic Congressional hopeful who has made gun-reform policies like closing the gun-show loophole central to his platform.
It’s also why she’s been hard at work on voter registration drives at her school at the same time as some — too many, she says — of her classmates are apathetic. While she couldn’t vote in North Carolina’s primary elections because of a “mistake” (which she characterizes as part of “systematic voter suppression”) at the DMV, she says she’s absolutely voting next Tuesday.
Despite the school’s restrictions on her “march” and the opposition she faces from her community, including some of her fellow students, Kirk says that she and the like-minded teens in her audience aren’t going to stop until they get what they want: Universal background checks. An assault-weapons ban. A ban on high-capacity magazines, which have the ability to inflict devastating harm in a short time. Extreme risk protection orders, such as red-flag laws. Funding for gun-violence research. Policies they hope will bring an end to decades of carnage in American schools, full stop.
“Since Parkland, I have been terrified,” Kirk says. “No student should feel that level of fear, no student should be scared to go to school. And yet, here we are,” she says with a look of gut-wrenching disappointment in her eyes. Whatever happens next week, something tells me she won't be deterred.