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  • Max Stearns

Taking the Parkland Students Seriously, not Literally

Perhaps the most insightful statement about presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was Salena Zito’s assertion that whereas the press took him literally, but not seriously, his supporters took him seriously, but not literally. In the aftermath of the tragic Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the reaction to the sudden fame and influence of the Parkland high school students—including Jaclyn Corin, Emma González, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Alex Wind, pictured on the April 2, 2018 Time Magazine cover—who have emerged at the forefront of our gun debates, demands invoking, once more, the seriously-not-literally admonition.

We have witnessed high level verbal assaults on some of these young women and men. I’ve personally seen other criticism on my social media feed. To be sure, some of the criticism is fair: These are, after all, high school students, and their arguments, demands, and complaints sometimes appear naïve and partially informed. Some public statements, for example, at Jake Tapper’s town hall—not only by the students, but also by some adults—were less than artfully constructed. And other times, the students’ statements have appeared sharp and forceful, and to many observers, inspiring. All told, the resulting mix resembles what one should roughly expect from the collection of talent one might find at virtually any high school in the United States, but with heightened persistence and dedication.

Here is a sampling of comments I’ve personally seen on my FB feed: First, some have commented that victims of, or witnesses to, tragedy do not thereby gain special insight into the inevitable complexities associated with the cause of the tragedy or the appropriate solutions. Second, some have complained that the students fail to appreciate that there is a lower probability of experiencing gun violence in school than being killed in a car accident or by drowning in a swimming pool, and one commenter even suggested that it was unfortunate that the shooting has not been used as a teaching moment on statistical inference. And third, some commentators are particularly galled by David Hogg’s initial call for boycotts of Laura Ingraham’s show, following her demeaning comments after Hogg complained about some college rejections (and, I should add, UC Irvine, which accepted Hogg, is a terrific school on a gorgeous campus), which some claim backfired as Ingraham’s viewership has apparently since risen.

The first critique is the most serious. And the observation might matter if these students were, or claimed to be, social scientists, for example, on faculties or in think tanks, issuing white papers with statistical analyses on the causes and effects of gun crime, or perhaps law review articles, discussing the contested meaning and history of the Second Amendment. Of course, they are not, which is the point. Failing to recognize who they are has, for their critics, resulted in also failing to take them seriously, rather than literally. Compare these young women and men with the boys and girls in Newtown, Connecticut. That shooting took the lives of twenty children, six to seven years old, and six adults. The students’ classmates, by virtue of their age, were in no position to step onto the public stage and to capture the imagination of so many people throughout the US and the world. The Parkland students were. The timing was tragically precise. Parkland was a tipping point, something that is almost always unpredictable and unplanned. Many had long been seeking a way to change a seemingly relentless dynamic: a tragic school shooting, days of outrage and sorrow, superficial promises to do something, NRA counter-pressure, reframing to blame mental health or even video games, lapsing into complaisance. It’s like the inane instruction on the back of a shampoo bottle: Lather, rinse, repeat.

The boycott criticism might be fair, but it is unclear why those advocating free markets oppose private activity that affects firm behavior, such as pulling ads from a television show. And if criticism is appropriate, shouldn’t it be leveled against the advertisers who succumbed to the pressure of a high school student and who pulled their ads, rather than against the student who prodded them to do so?

The teaching moment critique is particularly special. Like those who claim an unlimited right to virtually any kind of gun, this claim overlooks, well, guns. And in doing so, it mischaracterizes a category mistake as, instead, a problem of statistical inference. No one is denying that daily activities like driving, biking, swimming, or even walking, can lead to tragic deaths, undoubtedly some with a greater probability than dying in a school shooting. But these other activities and the equipment used to undertake them are not specifically designed to kill people, especially with rapid firing capable of doing so on a massive scale. Sometimes deaths sadly result from activities that generally contribute to happy and productive lives in a civilized society. And yet, around the world, many people lead happy and productive lives—including driving, biking, swimming, and walking—without ever being subject to routine incidents of senseless school shootings, or frankly other common gun crimes.

So how do we take these students seriously even if we acknowledge that they are not highly trained specialists? Imagine what we might call a “gun safety index,” taking the form of a U-shaped curve. The vertical axis represents increasing increments of safety, from unsafe at the bottom to increasingly safe as one ascends each tip of the U. The horizonal axis, along the bottom of the U, represents density of especially dangerous guns, such as the one used in the Parkland or Newtown shootings, with fewer guns to the left (or vertex) and more guns to the right. Intuitively, the gun safety index reveals increasing safety at each of the extremes. Archie Bunker pointed this out for the high density extreme in a famous episode of All in the Family. He explained that if we gave everyone boarding a plane a gun, no one would dare to try "skyjacking"! Safety can also increase, however, if fewer and fewer people have arms, as is the case throughout most of the civilized world, where, without broad access to guns, school shootings don’t happen.

Second Amendment enthusiasts ultimately maintain that since criminals will find ways to get guns, and since law abiding gun owners won’t give up their guns, the only solution is to move further and further into the extreme right along the U, arming teachers and administrators, adopting concealed carry laws, allowing broader access to weapons, eschewing background checks, and blaming mental health.

And this is where it becomes vital to take the Parkland students seriously, not literally. Their resounding answer is “no!” Instead, they insist, we must do what we can to push toward closer and closer toward the opposite side of the U. Lower the incidence of gun crimes, impose restrictions on access with background checks, ban particularly dangerous weapons, lower the density of gun access over time, and most of all, keep the issue alive and within the popular imagination not only when tragedies occur, but always. Don’t repeat the endless cycle. Don’t let media commentators get away with disingenuous claims. Don’t let the NRA, or the politicians they support, put this on the obviously never tractable “solution” of studying mental health. Don’t accept that the Second Amendment, as even Justice Scalia made plain in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), means absolute and unrestricted access to any kind of gun no matter how attenuated to self-defense or hunting. Stop playing games. And more than anything else, the serious, non-literal message for these students is “don’t let up the pressure.”

The Parkland shooting has changed the lives of these students, their teachers, and perhaps more than anyone else, the victims’ families. These victims are no more worthy of our attention than their counterparts in Columbine, Newtown, or anywhere else that experienced such senseless tragedy. And yet, under the right circumstances, ordinary people sometimes accomplish extraordinary things. By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these young women and men from Parkland became the right people at the right time. They have been relentless, non-subtle, sometimes excessive, and pretty damned effective. Let’s take them seriously.

I welcome your comments.

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