Can high school students change gun laws? A UA researcher weighs in

High school students from City High in Tucson, Arizona organized and carried out a 17-minute walkout on March 14. The students want legislators to ban assault rifles. (Photo by: Michaela Webb/Arizona Sonora News)

 

High school students are finding their political muscle.

The March for Our Lives protest on March 24, the most recent in a string of similar actions organized by high school students since the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, may have been the biggest single-day protest in the history of our nation’s capital, with organizers estimating an 800,000-person turnout, according to USA Today.

Can a movement driven by high school students be a sustainable and effective long-term political force?

The answer is a strong maybe.

Jennifer Earl, a professor of Sociology and Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona whose research focuses on social movements, said the success of any social movement has more to do with the legislative environment than the age of the organizers.

There’s no reason why young people can’t build a successful social movement, Earl said.

“Often I think people underestimate the extent to which young people have been critical historically to social movements,” Earl said. “There is no history of the civil rights movement that doesn’t include young people.”

She said it’s difficult to predict when a social movement will be successful, regardless of who is organizing it.

“You do need high levels of mobilization, so you need lots of protests, walkouts, etcetera, but that tends to only be successful in a political environment that is more open to the demands that those protestors are making,” Earl said.

The current legislative environment surrounding gun rights and regulation might make it challenging, but not impossible, for the young organizers to force legislative change,” she said.

Tucson students join the movement

Jane Bendickson, a senior at City High School in Tucson, helped organize a 17-minute walkout on March 14. She’s getting involved in political activism now because “it’s important to stick together. As a nation, as a generation, as fellow students and kids who want to make a difference,” she said.

Sarah Bryan, another City High School student organizer, said the March 14 walkout was the second organized by students following the Florida shooting. The student body is beginning to understand the importance of speaking out and the power of their collective voices, she said.

“I think this time around, people realized what the bigger picture is,” Bryan said. “It wasn’t just an excuse to get out of school. This was something serious.”

The organizers also planned a debriefing, or “chalk talk,” the following day for students to discuss the event. Bendickson said the goal of the event was for “everyone to feel that their voice is heard and the people who didn’t want to or didn’t understand what the walkouts were can say things without fear.”

When asked whether they thought their actions could have real consequences, the City High organizers were hopeful.

“I have some doubt, but I try to stay hopeful about things,” Bryan said. “If children under 18 are having their voices brought up to politicians, I feel like something should be done.”

Young people might be the best agents for change because older generations tend to be more fixed in their thinking, she added.

Bendickson said City High organizers hoped their actions, in concert with actions by high school students across the country, would eventually result in a ban on assault rifles.

“Citizens shouldn’t be able to own military-grade guns,” Bendickson said. “They’re designed for killing.”

How do social movements create change?

The mechanism by which social movements create legislative change isn’t fully understood, and isn’t always direct, Earl said.

“These walkouts might not directly influence legislators, but could influence companies to change which then influences legislators,” Earl said. “It’s a snowball effect.”

The biggest piece of advice Earl has for young organizers is that their voices do matter and they should act like it.

She recommended an online resource called “Informing Activists.”  The site features a series of videos of social movement scholars answering young activist’s questions about how to organize based on social movement research.

“I think a lot of the skepticism that you have gotten by both the media and public officials is that a lot of people don’t realize how politically interested and politically minded young people are,” Earl said.

“They don’t give young people enough credit for the very hard work they are doing in figuring out what they think about the world we’re leaving them — and how are they going to change it.”

Michaela Webb is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at michaelawebb@email.arizona.edu

 

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