“Twenty-first century people shouldn’t be governed by eighteenth-century laws,” was the slogan on one of the home-made placards I saw in Boston yesterday morning. The placard was carried by a high-schooler, one of the hundreds of thousands of young people who rallied for March For Our Lives across the country. She was invoking one eighteenth-century law, the First Amendment, in order to annul another, the Second Amendment.
Children are forced to attend school by the government, so their security is the government’s responsibility. It is bad enough to have to attend school, and worse to attend it in fear of your life. The high-schoolers who survived the shooting at the Parkland School in Florida are right to protest their state’s lax gun laws. And the other high-schoolers who have come out across the country are right to do so too. On gun laws as so so much else, the adults have failed them. Their civil response to barbaric acts and their surge of political engagement, from marches to voter enrollment drives, is hope for democracy.
So far, the adults’ response has been absurd. Locking children inside ‘secure’ schools will only direct a shooter to the school gates or the parking lot at pick-up time. Arming teachers will introduce a second weapon into the classroom, with no guarantee that it will be used accurately or, given the peaceable nature of all teachers bar football coaches, used at all. Recent guidelines instruct teachers to distract the shooter by throwing books at him while students run for cover. No wonder the students are in the streets calling for the government to throw the book at the Second Amendment.
The speed of the protests reflects more than the connected lives of the protesters. The political infrastructure already existed. Move On, Planned Parenthood, and the anti-Trump group Indivisible have all lent a hand. “Whenever people say, I was in the civil rights movement, I was in the movement that ended the war in Vietnam, here’s my 2 cents, we are happy to listen to them,” Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the Florida shooting and a March For Our Lives organizer, told NPR on Friday.
Asked what he would say to rural Americans who enjoy target shooting, Kasky demonstrated similar partisan zeal. “Well, I say we’re marching to protect you from other people like you who have guns,” he said. “And I say that target shooting, while it is a sport, we’ve become the targets. We’re the targets now. We are running away from people like you.”
People like him have been running away from people like them for decades. The result is a single country, two worlds apart. That, and not the Second Amendment, is why an effective bipartisan coalition has failed to coalesce. The American system was designed to protect the legislative process from the moods of the mob and the caprice of a tyrant. On gun control, as on healthcare and abortion, the system has produced not a balance, but a jam. It is working against its own interest, the will of the people, as surely as invoking the First Amendment in order to annul the Second.
Add the lobbying power of the NRA to partisan contempt, and nothing will ever change. Perhaps this president, a populist with only a passing relationship to his own party, is more likely to break the partisan jam. Perhaps he might be more disposed to do so if the Democrats, and especially groups like MoveOn and Indivisible, were not calling him an illegitimate president because of his (allegedly) squalid sex life.
In this schismatic and moralizing age, March For Our Lives is a children’s crusade. You recall the Children’s Crusade of 1212. According to the traditional account, thousands of children set off to free the Holy Land from the Turk, by converting Muslims to Christianity through the force of their convictions. Instead, the children were tricked by the merchants who organized their passage across the Mediterranean. Some starved or died of disease, and the rest were sold in slave markets. Recently, historians have queried the numbers, but they still agree that the Children’s Crusade happened, and that the children were restating some kind of metaphysical belief—the cult of the holy innocents, the cult of poverty—that reality had called into question.
You can see the parallel. To some people, the thought of Trump in the White House is as inadmissible as the reality of Saladin in Jerusalem—an offence against nature. The unnatural reality of school shootings has forced the children to reaffirm their parents’ values, and by doing so challenge their parents’ commitment. The merchants who arranged March For Our Lives’ passage into the public forum are the children’s ideological parents. But the parents’ reaffirmation of their values is exploiting the children.
Personally, I strongly favor every possible safeguard against the purchase of any weapons, including eighteenth-century fowling pieces. No sane government should permit the sale of weapons to those with known mental health problems or a criminal record, or permit the sale of assault rifles and the gadgetry to turn them into rapid-fire weapons. But I do not expect that fixing the law will cure the sickness. Indivisible claims that mass shootings are ‘uniquely American’. This is self-righteous, self-absorbed, and not even true. The shooters are the post-Christian equivalent of Islamists. The same people who told us that we cannot outlaw ‘terrorism’ because it is an idea are now insisting that we can outlaw nihilism.
We cannot. We can only make it harder for the nihilists. March For Our Lives, by following virtue’s short path to partisanship, will make it harder for the legislators. For it is Republican voters, and the larger number of independent voters, that March For Our Lives must engage if it wants legislative action at state or national levels. Almost overnight, a movement that began in speaking from the heart has ended up preaching to the choir. For that, as for much else, you have to pity the children.