On the same day that a million young people walked out of school to protest gun violence and remember the 17 students and teachers killed in Parkland, Fla., the National Rifle Association tweeted a photo of an AR-15 assault rifle with the caption, “I’ll control my own guns, thank you.”
It was the same type of weapon used in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. And at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas last fall, in which 58 people were killed. And at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016, in which 49 people died. And at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, when 26 mostly small children were killed.
So it was particularly reprehensible that on a day of peaceful protests nationwide, the NRA would tweet an image of this weapon of war. It was designed in the late 1950s, and its purpose was to kill — not deer in the woods, but human beings. And not one at a time. The AR-15 was meant to fell large numbers of enemy combatants as rapidly as possible. That’s why it has become the weapon of choice of mass murders.
At the same time that it was a despicable act to tweet the image, it was also desperate. There is a wave of hope sweeping across this land — the hope that, perhaps, at long last, we might enact sensible gun-control legislation to protect public safety. That wave arrived March 14 in the form of more than 3,000 student walkouts, with thousands of students at dozens of schools participating in Nassau County, and a million more across the nation. The smartest thing that any school district could have done that day was to allow students to walk out of school, without analyzing and without preaching.
What is perhaps most surprising to many adults is how poised and articulate so many of our young people are. Most are still teenagers. Yet they speak cogently and eloquently, unafraid and undeterred. They are passionate, but in a controlled, adult-like manner. Their ability to remain focused when confronted with often vile vitriol is remarkable, given how young they are.
There is a terrible stereotype of millennials as vapid and vacuous, seemingly plugged into technology and tuned out of the larger world. These young protesters defied such stereotypes, however. In interviews with the Herald last Wednesday, the high school students with whom we spoke were as well-informed and thoughtful as any of the student leaders in Parkland.
Given all of this, school officials would have been wise to let the kids take the lead on this issue. Many districts did. Others, however, did not. A number of school officials attempted to guide the conversation with well-orchestrated events. One district even held a lockdown drill before the 10 a.m. protest time, and then asked students to return to their desks for 17 minutes and sit quietly, writing to reflect on what they had witnessed and learned.
We understand educators’ thinking here. They wanted to shelter their students inside a school auditorium or classrooms. And who could blame them? School officials act in loco parentis — in place of parents — while students are in school. It is an awesome responsibility these days. No doubt, many parents agreed with the decision to keep students inside on National Walkout Day.
The trouble with wrapping young people in the relatively safe cocoon of a school’s halls and guiding their thought processes on this issue, however, is that it denied them the opportunity to feel firsthand the power they possess when they unite and engage as citizens. An assembly where adults tell you about the importance of civic engagement is an anemic substitute for experiencing the surge of adrenaline and emotion that comes when you stand up and fight for a cause you believe in.
Tragically, today’s teenagers have witnessed one mass shooting after another on their TVs since they were children. They have heard all the rhetoric, good and bad. They have been told again and again that adults are there to keep them safe. Yet young people keep dying. After Parkland, they said, “Enough!” They decided they would take control of their destinies and act.
Democracy can be loud, rude and sometimes dangerous. But the one lesson these kids have learned so well from watching their elders is that silence can be even more deadly than disobedience.
So, to all of the adults in the room, we say, let the young people apply all the energy they can muster to stare down the NRA and pressure our do-nothing Congress. Lend them a hand, yes. But let them lead.