The Fury of Innocents

Few moments on live TV have been as compelling as baby-faced high school student Emma Gonzalez coming face-to-face with a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association at CNN’s town hall meeting Wednesday night.

The NRA’s Dana Loesch showed up to a crowd that likely despised her before she stepped on the stage, looking somewhat like a Disney villain whose edges makeup artists might have spent hours trying to soften. Her fierce opponent that night was Gonzalez, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., the site of the most recent school shooting.

Gonzalez’s unflinching interaction with Loesch was a moment so arresting that time skipped a few beats while they faced off. To begin, it was unusual to get the NRA on the stand for such a public grilling. But to see the face of such a powerful American organization wither under the gaze of a high school senior was the sort of show-stopping, David-and-Goliath moment we rarely get a chance to see. It was electrifying.

Gonzalez asked Loesch a simple question: Do you support making it harder to get semiautomatic rifles and the accessories that make them fully automatic, such as bump stocks? When Loesch’s response meandered, deflected and condescended, Gonzalez politely stopped her and reminded her what the original question was.

The power of Gonzalez and her classmates from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been awe-inspiring for many of us, and contemptible to a few, but it has gotten the attention no one else in the gun control debate has managed.

After Sandy Hook, parents lobbied too, if you remember. And what could be more compelling than 20 sets of grieving parents, whose six and seven-year-olds were gunned down with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle? But the improvements made in gun laws after Sandy Hook were minimal. If anything, most states weakened existing gun laws, and gun deaths — and sales — continued to soar.

What makes these Florida high school students different, and why might they be able to affect nationwide change? Maybe it is the fact that, although they are kids, they are not as vulnerable as they could be. Many are preparing to go on to college soon. Many are getting ready to vote. They are already thinking deeply, and articulating beautifully their right to be and feel safe. They do not need to have studied gun policy or have polyscience degrees to step into the national fray with credibility. Staring down the barrel of an AR-15 is enough.

Having spent the entirety of their school careers drilling for that very massacre also distinguishes them. Most of us who graduated from high school before Columbine never had to endure one school-shooter drill, and yet these kids cut their teeth on them.

So all of that is enough to push them to the front lines of a debate about gun laws, which has devolved, for the rest of us, into an ineffectual murmur, so cowed are we by the moneyed power of the NRA and, apparently, Republican lawmakers. Gun rights activists seem to equate their right to own AR-15s with freedom itself, and because of that they will not budge. These kids are calling B.S.

The Florida kids also have one more superpower the rest of us do not, and that is they are unencumbered. They do not have long-standing ties with any political party, whichever one they may identify with. They are not running for office, and therefore are not pandering for money, votes, or the support of a constituency. They are just young people who are hyper aware of what should be their inalienable right to go to school without fearing they will be slaughtered by a mad gunman, especially one who bought his gun with the full support of the United States government.

They are aware that the lawmakers elected to represent them would stand up for the shooters’ rights to buy guns long before they would stand up for students’, or anyone else’s, right to live. Many of us have long seen a problem with that. But this group is among the first to fearlessly call it out, without regard for diplomacy; without fear of retribution. After all, what retribution could be as chilling as watching your friends slaughtered next to you at school? 

They have every reason to tell the truth, and tell it loudly. And because of that, they will do what most of us do not get a chance to do, which is stare the NRA directly in the face, and call B.S.



Cover Photo via Gottfried Helnwein