I don’t know quite how it happened, but something seems to have finally shifted in our national conversation about guns.
Just a few years ago, the idea that hundreds of thousands of Americans would take to the streets to demand gun control would have been unimaginable. In 2012, twenty children – twenty first graders – were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and even then, nothing happened.
In April 2013, mere months after Sandy Hook, the Senate failed to pass bipartisan compromises on expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines. As Newtown families, along with other victims of American mass shootings, watched from the Senate gallery, the majority of Republican Senators voted down even the most modest attempts to regulate gun ownership in the United States. President Obama, speaking at the White House after the vote, called it “pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Twenty slaughtered first-graders, and the nation slept. Some of us were momentarily disgusted – but the national life moved on, as it always does, and always must.
And yet, yesterday afternoon – after Orlando, and Las Vegas, and San Bernardino, and Sutherland Springs, and finally, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – I found myself walking through New York City streets, surrounded by thousands of fellow marchers, calling for gun control. The Stoneman kids, the kids who made it all happen, dubbed the worldwide event a March for Our Lives.
The clearest difference of this moment, as compared with the wake of other mass shootings, is that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students themselves – articulate, knowledgeable students, in positions of relative privilege – have been the most outspoken advocates for this cause. They were talking about our society’s toxic relationship to weaponry within hours of the bullets flying through the hallways of their school, and they haven’t stopped. And just as importantly, they’ve brought other kids, most notably black and brown kids from inner cities, into the conversation, using their privilege to amplify voices that too often go unheard.
I suspect that this moment, and the circumstances that gave rise to it, will become clearer to us in time. I also suspect that this upwelling of activism is directly connected to the current occupant of the White House, and the violent spirit that animated his campaign and has followed him well into his administration. Something had to give, and something has.
Whatever the causes of this moment, I made my way across the park to the Upper West Side to join the gathering throngs of marchers. I’d decided to attend at the urging of a friend who, in this Trump era, makes a point of putting her body where her politics are, whenever possible. (Her sign called for greater accountability for police shootings.)
A few minutes before meeting her, I stood outside a coffee shop and watched as a Trump supporter – red hat and all – held a “Keep America Great” sign above his head as he taunted the passing gun control marchers. A true vision of human happiness, he was.
Sarah arrived, and we joined the procession of sign-wielding marchers – a diverse cross-section of race, gender, and left-wing political affiliation. I saw signs calling for dismantling “the system.” I saw other signs calling the National Rifle Association a terrorist organization. I saw other signs about the need to vote gun-loving politicians out of office. I saw signs indicating the presence of teachers, students, military veterans, “real men,” feminist women, Black Lives Matter supporters, and so on. One woman held a sign to indicate that she was a “Sandy Hook Mother.”
I am not above having sentimental feelings about political protests, even if I’ve never personally made a sign, and only occasionally, and with some hesitation, join in chanting. There were many points during the March for Our Lives that I felt genuinely moved. I felt, however fleetingly, that anything was possible.
But I was also struck by the sheer number of perspectives represented – from classic liberalism to revolutionary Marxism, from “common sense gun control” to “repeal the Second Amendment” – and the difficulty I had of discerning anything like a unifying message. When a friend texted me asking what, exactly, we marchers were demanding, I couldn’t give her a simple answer, which reflects the reality that the issue of guns in America is anything but simple, and defies easy description or perfect solutions. And so, even surrounded by thousands of my fellow Americans calling for change, it was tempting to shrug, treat the occasion as just a nice day for a long walk, and resign myself to the reality of carnage on a mass scale.
In better, more lucid moments, I also understood that such feelings of resignation are wrong. I remembered that one of the many lessons of the tragedy of the 2016 election is that we don’t live in a world of perfect solutions, that the perfect should never be made the enemy of the vastly preferable, and that desires for personal purity are a luxury we can’t afford in the messy work of democracy. There are steps we could take to dramatically reduce the number of gun deaths in the country. Even if we only took some of them, lives would be saved.
So I embraced the march in all its complexity, and was grateful to be there, recognizing that you never know which action, which act of citizenship, which march, which protest, which vote, will finally tip the scales toward a safer, more humane world. So the first thing you need to do is: Show up. If a group of kids who just buried their friends can do it, then surely the rest of us can try.
When we were done marching, Sarah and I went to grab a quick bite, and found ourselves in conversation with a guy who’d also been at the march.
“My best friend had schizophrenia,” he told us. “He bought a gun and took his own life. If the gun hadn’t been there, he might still be here.”