After Gun Control Marches, ‘It’ll Go Away’ vs. ‘We Are Not Cynical Yet’


This has certainly not happened yet. Both before and after the march, high school students have shown themselves eager to hatch longer-term plans, with some plotting together last week through their spring breaks.

In this stretch of Northern Virginia, students are trying to organize a town hall with Representative Barbara Comstock, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress, recognizing that her support from the National Rifle Association could be a drag in a district that preferred Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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In Berryville, Va., a town where congressional Democrats laid out an economic agenda last summer, talk has turned to gun control and whether student-led protests will actually drive real change.

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Jared Soares for The New York Times

New voter registration pushes, steered by teenagers, are well underway. Students are consulting with established (and adult-run) groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, founded and financed by Michael R. Bloomberg, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — with plans to discuss how to host their own candidate events before November or start clubs at their schools.

Even less politically active students in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District have learned Ms. Comstock’s name. “They know who she is,” said Paige Thimmesch, 16, Ms. Banks’s classmate in Sterling, Va., who is hoping to arrange the forum with the congresswoman. “They don’t know every single policy. They do know that she is pro-gun.”

Looking to history, fledgling activists are researching Vietnam-era student protests for context and inspiration. They are using words like “intersectional.” They are quoting favored lyrics from “Hamilton”: “This is not a moment, it’s the movement.”

That movement, though, will hinge on reversing years of below-average voter turnout among young Americans — translating sound and fury into the long, slow work of lasting change.

In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 20 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out to cast ballots, compared to more than 40 percent of voters between 45 and 59, according to an analysis of survey data by the United States Elections Project, which is run by Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. Recent polling suggests the gap could close, at least somewhat, this fall. A Quinnipiac University survey released in late February found that 54 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they were more motivated than usual to vote, outpacing every other age group.

While youth-driven movements in recent years, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, have installed themselves as forces in Democratic politics and the national discourse, their effects at the ballot box have been uncertain.

Gun owners, mindful that flurries of mass activism have often dissipated on their own after past shootings, are still taking no chances. Some efforts have been unsavory: Survivors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre in February have been the subject of internet conspiracy theories and bizarre fictions. More civic-minded supporters of gun rights are discussing counterrallies this month to demonstrate their collective might.

“All these calls for gun control are only making gun owners snap to attention,” said Philip Van Cleave, the leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group. “This is not a one-way movement by any means.”

Then there is the N.R.A., whose track record includes few political losses in recent memory — its power derived less from direct donations than a fine-tuned electioneering machine primed to mobilize voters with a letter-grade system for assessing candidates and tens of millions of dollars in campaign ads and voter-guide mailings. Shortly after the Parkland shooting, President Trump expressed support for gun restrictions opposed by the N.R.A., scolding fellow Republicans for kowtowing to the group. It did not take long, after an Oval Office meeting with N.R.A. officials, for the president to reverse himself.

Yet even in corners of the country unaccustomed to dissent on gun issues, supporters of restrictions sense an opening. In Maine’s Second Congressional District, a region that includes both small cities and parcels of land so rural they are officially called “unorganized territory,” school walkouts and satellite March for Our Lives protests have specked the map, powered by students and Democratic activists.

Though gun owners have betrayed little immediate concern — “If they hang around, we’ll still be here, and if they don’t, we’ll still be here,” said Todd Tolhurst, the president of Gun Owners of Maine — students seem comfortable with their odds in any war of attrition.

“We’ll outlive them,” said Sean Monteith, 17, a junior at Lewiston High School, adding that he hoped his peers would be able to outvote them, too. His cellphone includes a list of action items and reminders: “connect with city council,” “draft legislation,” “do not go on assumptions.”

Back in Washington, a handful of Republicans seem attuned to at least two of those directives, hedging their positions in recent weeks to accommodate the post-Parkland moment. Several vulnerable members signed on to a Democratic bill authorizing federal research into gun violence. Two of them, Brian Mast and Carlos Curbelo, both Republicans from Florida, have endorsed an assault weapons ban.

Activists appear determined to make others pay a professional price for declining to engage. In Colorado’s Sixth District, where Representative Mike Coffman is widely considered one of the most endangered Republican incumbents, organizers with Never Again Colorado, a new group advocating gun control, are planning a forum to discuss guns “with or without” Mr. Coffman. The district includes Aurora, where a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater in 2012.

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Representative Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, is a top target for Democrats in the midterm elections.

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Nick Cote for The New York Times

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” said Ian Gaskins, 17, a high school junior who is helping to plan the event. “I don’t want people to stop caring about this until the next mass shooting.”

For Democrats, the zeal for gun control has at once presented an uncommon opportunity and an occasion to revisit plans for midterm messaging. After Mr. Trump’s election, his opponents did not necessarily expect a gun reckoning to be central to their 2018 strategy.

Last summer, as the party strained to communicate its own agenda in the Trumpian haze, Democrats chose Berryville as the backdrop to introduce a broad-strokes platform of economic populism. Their top leaders in Congress, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, and progressive stars like Senator Elizabeth Warren schlepped 65 miles outside Washington to deliver their message in the same park where Mr. Ashby, the gun owner, flicked away his cigarette on a recent afternoon.

Eight months later, it is gun violence, more than any fiscal issue, that has galvanized a new generation of prospective Democrats, some not yet old enough to vote.

In Virginia, the party had already long targeted Ms. Comstock, casting her as a poor fit for a district that includes some rural pockets, like Berryville, but also left-leaning Washington suburbs and vast reserves of more moderate voters repelled by Mr. Trump. “Barbara Bump-Stock,” said Candy Baracat-Donovan, 34, from Leesburg, Va., whose morning routine now includes a round of phone calls to the offices of representatives like Ms. Comstock.

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Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia, a vulnerable Republican in the midterm elections. She has drawn support from the National Rifle Association.

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Drew Angerer for The New York Times

A spokesman for Ms. Comstock, Jeff Marschner, said the congresswoman was “committed to a multipronged effort to prevent gun violence,” citing her support for additional mental health funding and narrow, N.R.A.-backed legislation improving reporting to the national background check database, among other measures.

It is not clear if she will agree to a town hall with students. They seem to understand the calculation.

“High school students are scary,” said Jay Falk, 18, a senior in Virginia who co-founded Students Demand Action DMV, a gun control group with over 100 members. “We are not cynical yet.”

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