Finding a new normal

THERE are many differences between Europe and the US but none is starker than in attitudes to guns. In Europe we don’t even have the concept of “gun culture,” a phrase that is bandied around every time there is a mass shooting in America.

The shocking thing about these shootings (apart from the appalling death count) is the increasing speed with which each massacre is forgotten, becomes yesterday’s news. Mass killings have become the norm. We still remember Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook in Connecticut, but can you recall the name of the Orlando night club where 49 people were killed (it was Pulse), or the Las Vegas event where 58 died and 851 were injured (the Route 91 Harvest Festival).

Will the killing of 17 students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland, Florida, change anything? Will the mass shooting by a teenager who apparently had connections to a right wing supremacist group be any different from all the other shootings this year, last year and the years before?

Should we … DARE we (particularly those of us who have family and friends in the States) begin to hope that this one is different, that this time the survivors and their families are not going to go away, that they are not going to be quiet, that the venal, feeble Washington politicians who take the NRA’s dollar are going to be forced to recognise their share of guilt for the bloodshed.

Why is there even the slightest reason to hope? Why will it be different, when the same politicians can obfuscate as they have for years, citing the Second Amendment, and even claiming that what is needed is MORE guns (so that the good guys can kill the bad guys). How can one think there is any possibility of change when Donald Trump thinks the answer is to blame the FBI (because, apparently, they were too busy with the Russia inquiry)?

Heaven knows, it is easy to deflect attention from the real issue, particularly for a man whose fans and supporters claimed that “she [Hillary Clinton] is going to take our guns.” Even people well-known to my daughter and son-in-law in liberal California trotted out this mantra, often regretfully, indicating that they would have to vote against the Democratic candidate in the presidential election. It is a mind-set that we Europeans cannot comprehend.

The Valentines Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may be the biggest (so far) this year (less than two months in) but it was not comparable in size with Las Vegas or Orlando – the former in the most conservative libertarian state of all, the latter in a state with a constant undercurrent of danger, from gangs to ‘gators.

What makes the Parkland killing different is the reaction of the students, young people who were already well-practised on their response to “an active shooter situation” – the school had lockdown drills, security systems and restricted entrances. The healthy and encouraging response of the students is that being ready for the worst may be sensible training, but ACCEPTING it is not. They have loudly rejected the idea that this is “normal”– and across the country they are being joined by thousands of teenagers and students, many of whom are not old enough to vote, but who are now making their voices heard.

And guess what? Young people’s obsession with social media, which we so often criticise, is part of the story in a good way. Social media is a tool that these young campaigners are using to reach the students and anybody sympathetic to their case. Young people are not “consumers” of news media (online, on screen or in print) like people of our generation. They “share” their ideas and campaigns on Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and Twitter, and they are sharing this. Gunning down people (of any age) going about their lives, studying, dancing, listening to music, shopping … is not acceptable, it is not the “new normal.”

One student, among the dozens who hid from the shooter, told the BBC: “We are going to be the change.” He and some friends have set up the Never Again campaign. They have been talking to US and international news media, and their message is simple – the school’s survivors will not back down. They point out that a 19 year old in some states cannot legally buy a beer but can walk into a gun shop off the streets and buy an AR-15 (a semi-automatic weapon of the type used by the Parkland killer).

Another Parkland student told the BBC that there should be more guns and that if the brave school guard had been armed, he would have killed the intruder. This is the argument that the National Rifle Association expects from its political poodles, and it must have been music to their ears to hear it from a 17 year old. But the Never Again campaigners are in the majority at Marjory Stoneham Douglas School, and they are taking their campaign to Washington.

The most powerful voice in the campaign is student Emma Gonzalez who challenged the “BS” (bullshit) of the gun lobby, calling “Shame on you” on the politicians who take campaign donations from the NRA. She told a crowd: “Politicians who sit in their gilded house and senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS! They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS”.

Emma Gonzalez is one of the organisers of the March for Our Lives, which will take place on 24th March, in conjunction with the Everytown for Gun Safety campaign. They want marches across the nation, to raise awareness, to make the safety of children and students a priority, not the “rights” of gun-owners, and their aim is to “create a new normal where there’s a badge of shame” on politicians accepting donations from gun lobbyists.

One school, far from Florida in Michigan, started a petition, “Students Fighting Guns Since Adults Won’t”  which gathered around 50,000 signatures in the first four days.

The networks are growing hourly, and the teenage organisers are using their social media skills to spread the campaign. They may not have the vote but they are sending a message that is loud and clear. They should take as their anthem a song written and recorded by a great Florida-born rock star of my generation, the late and much-missed Tom Petty – “we won’t back down.”

Fanny Charles