Students rise to challenge gun lobby’s stranglehold on US policy

jules witcover

WASHINGTON — The decision of students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 were slain by a young mass murderer last week, to stage a march here next month may already have brought modest results. President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association have indicated willingness to consider minor new background checks on purchases of assault weapons.

The students’ planned demonstration calls to mind last year’s Women’s March on Washington that triggered and fueled the current #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. It’s another indication that abused Americans, to paraphrase the line from the movie “Network,” are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The spectacle of thousands of young people, many probably accompanied by concerned parents, descending on the nation’s capital should convey that very powerful message to the 535 members of Congress. Most of them have sat on their hands as the mayhem against school kids has continued.

The even more tragic mass killing in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., should have been more than enough to move them. But in-person pleas from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were to no avail. Slaughter by assault weapon has gone on across the country with easy access to these mass-murder weapons intended for the battlefield.

The meager offers of Trump and the gun lobby of more background checks on gun buyers are a pathetic fig leaf on the nation’s most glaring legislative failure. Worse is the president’s dangerous notion that teachers should pack heat in the classroom, which would only invite more chaos. The very obvious first step should be restoring the outright ban on the assault weapons that Congress allowed to expire in 2004 under a 10-year sunset provision.

Trump’s comment that his Justice Department should draft a ban on the so-called bump stocks that convert single-shot weapons to rapid-firing vehicles of mass death is another half measure that should be welcomed. But it is only a sop to the NRA that continues to grip the country by the throat with its stranglehold on the commonsense solution of outlawing all war weapons in non-military hands.

Wednesday night’s CNN confrontation of the Florida high school students with their two U.S. senators and a congressman captured both the determination of the teenagers to hold them accountable and the legislators’ unease in response. Republican Sen. Mario Rubio, an NRA toady, squirmed in a pathetic display of dissembling under a student’s tenacious inquiry about the gun lobby’s political donations to him.

Earlier, Trump had discussed the latest schoolroom murders with conservative television talk host Geraldo Rivera at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where his guest suggested raising the age for buying an assault weapon from the current 18 to 21. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders subsequently told reporters the notion was “on the table for us to discuss.” But that too would fall short of the obviously preferable total ban.

The Second Amendment language is brief and clear enough: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” No well-regulated militia has a license to use citizens as targets in a shooting gallery, particularly one in a schoolroom of grade-school or high-school innocents.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced a bill to reinstate the assault weapons ban, but it was voted down in the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 40 to 60. So it remains to be seen whether the newly aroused public, at least among women voters and teenage schoolchildren, will strike sufficient spark to challenge the NRA’s hold on the Republican majority in the current Congress.

The CNN confrontation left little doubt that much of the rising generation is mad as hell, with its own members’ lives at stake, and is in no mood to take it anymore. Unfortunately, it will be up to their voting elders to take on the fight against the NRA at the ballot box between now and the midterm congressional primary and general elections in November.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is, “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at