The passage of Florida’s new gun law provides a roadmap for activists nationwide.
On Wednesday, after a lengthy, intense debate that lasted nearly eight hours and got emotional for some representatives, Florida’s House of Representatives passed SB 7026, the state’s first new gun legislation in thirty years. After taking a couple of days to ruminate, Florida Gov. Rick Scott – whom the NRA has long supported – signed the bill, also known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, on Friday. While it’s undoubtedly a big deal (how can we tell? because the NRA filed a lawsuit the day after Scott signed it), the bill is nowhere near perfect from anybody’s perspective, and in fact lost much of its Democratic support when a ban on assault weapons was not included.
But, look: no law is perfect (particularly in a democracy), and this bill’s passage marks a clear turning point in the long-running debate over how we manage our guns, which of course connects to a much bigger and thornier debate about who we are as Americans. Its passage, too, may just provide a roadmap to a US Congress that’s stalled on new gun legislation yet again, despite widespread approval among the American public for getting something done.
So what’s in it, and how did it pass?
Under the new rules, the buying age for guns purchased from a licensed dealer is raised from 18 to 21, and there’s a three-day waiting period. Bump stocks, the mechanism that allowed a gunman to murder 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas last October, are banned, and about $400 million is appropriated for various things: arming and training select teachers under a school guardian program, razing and rebuilding the facility on the Stoneman Douglas campus where the shootings took place, and offering mental health resources to traumatized students. And finally, police are given expanded powers to seize weapons from people who’ve been “adjudicated mentally defective or been committed to a mental institution.”
You may be wondering why Republicans have been so keen on raising the purchasing age to 21. Well, of the 16 mass shooting incidents that have occurred in schools in the past thirty years, seven were carried out by people under 21. Mother Jones has the analysis.
The bill, which squeaked through the Florida Senate on a 20-18 vote, passed in the House 67-50, with 57 of the 76 House Republicans voting for, and just 10 of the 41 House Democrats voting in favor (more on the Democratic resistance in a bit).
In a state that’s got a reputation as a bastion of gun rights, with a Republican governor and both legislative bodies firmly in Republican control, the passage of SB 7026 would have been unthinkable without the brilliant organizing efforts of the Parkland teens and parents, who effectively created a movement, #NeverAgain, that’s sustained its pressure on lawmakers for nearly a month now. That pressure has been strong enough (so far) to withstand and overcome the counter-pressure applied by the NRA, which is among the most powerful lobbying groups in the country’s history.
Among the #NeverAgain movement’s efforts are:
- The savvy use of social media, and in particular Twitter, to amplify the message (this despite the fact that, as the New York Times reports, some of the Parkland teens hadn’t much used Twitter before the attack);
- Multiple trips to Tallahassee and Washington DC to protest en masse and meet with lawmakers and members of the executive branch, among them President Trump;
- Appearances on national TV, most notably a contentious CNN town hall event, in which survivors and victims’ parents pressed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to evolve his views on gun regulation and blasted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch for the group’s role in poisoning the national conversation surrounding guns.
Another major factor that’s received some but not much play, is the fact that, with the notable exception of Emma González, all of the Parkland teens who’ve functioned as the faces and voices of the movement have been white. And also thin and attractive, and just frankly remarkably poised and well-spoken. Jaclyn Corin, Sarah Chadwick, Cameron Kasky, Delaney Tarr, David Hogg – they’ve hijacked the politico-celebrity apparatus (very much like President Trump, in fact), and reminded us that white privilege is still the most powerful political tool a person can wield in this country.
In writing about the violence in Charlottesville last summer, our culture editor nailed this idea to the hard steel door of the American experiment: “When both sides of a conflict are white,” he wrote, “suddenly, magically, the ideas at stake matter to a larger segment of the population.” Which is why, of course, mass shootings, which represent just a tiny fraction of all of the gun violence in the US, receive so much attention, while the epidemic of gun violence in many low-income black communities is ignored – and has been, for decades.
“I feel as if I’ve been screaming loud – but silent,” said Florida Rep. Bobby DuBose, a black Democrat who represents Fort Lauderdale (my hometown, full disclosure). “We’ve been screaming for decades: ‘This is a real issue.’ And no one has listened.”
Oscar Braynon, the Senate Minority Leader who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, was more blunt: “For many of the Republicans, when they saw [Stoneman Douglas victims] getting shot, they saw themselves in those people,” he said. “It’s hard for them to see themselves in the people in my community.”
In fact, much of the Democratic resistance to the Florida bill came from black and Latino members of the caucus, who worried that arming school staff would ratchet up the stakes in schools where minority students are already treated differently, thanks to the implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias that goes along with institutional racism. Some members worried that black students or even black personnel could be misidentified in an active shooter situation.
The bill, however, was passed despite these objections, and with bipartisan support. Only time will prove its success or not, but the strategies utilized by the Parkland teens to push it across the finish line: protests, face-to-face meetings with legislators, publicly challenging politicians via legacy and social medias, cannily co-opting talking points, and, most of all, having public spokespeople who are young, white, and nonpartisan, will provide the bulk of the roadmap for activists agitating for change for years to come.
As one of the Parkland teens wrote:
header image: lorie shaull / flickr