Parkland teens keep gun-control adults at arm’s length

Nicholas Riccardi
Associated Press

Hiding from a gunman at their South Florida high school, a small group of teenagers resolved on their own to launch a crusade against gun violence that will peak with a series of protests across the country Saturday.

In this March 20, 2018, file photo, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Cameron Kasky, center, reaches out to clasp hands with Jaclyn Corin, below left, while David Hogg, top left, and Alex Wind, right, applaud at the conclusion of a panel discussion about guns at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Mass.

To launch those demonstrations and their own effort to become a force in November’s elections, the students have joined forces with a well-financed and energized liberal infrastructure that’s been laying the foundations for years for a national push for gun control. That’s led to criticism that their cause is less spontaneous than it seems.

“This isn’t just a few kids from a Parkland high school who started a national movement – they’ve been swept up in it,” said Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights group. “The gun-prohibition movement in this country is pretty organized and anytime there’s a tragedy they jump on it and try to get the victims to work with them.”

Such critiques infuriate the teenagers who have worked furiously since last month’s massacre at their Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died. They say they welcome financial help and assistance with certain basic, organizational tasks – “I’m 17. I can’t rent a hotel room,” said Cameron Kasky, a Parkland junior – but that the ideas behind the movement remain all theirs.

“You can help us but you’re not going to run us,” Kasky said by phone. “There are some things we’re going to inevitably need help with. But our message, our organization, our platform – that’s us.”

He said as proof of his group’s independence, they’ve turned down requests by some adult supporters to address Saturday’s main march in Washington, preferring to reserve all speaking slots for youth.

Longer-established gun control groups supporting the march chortle at the notion that they are the ones really in charge. “Everybody wonders who’s the adult pulling the strings, and there really isn’t one,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the organization created by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head in a 2010 mass shooting. “This is an authentically student-led movement, from the message to the formation of the program, up and down.”

In this March 14, 2018, file photo, demonstrators raise their fists in the air during a student-led march against gun violence at the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, one month after the deadly shooting inside a high school in Parkland, Fla.

Kasky recalled how in the days after the attack people kept asking him if George Soros was funding them. He didn’t even recognize the name and had to look it up to find that they were referring to a liberal billionaire whose funding of several progressive groups is a favorite of conservative conspiracy theorists.

Likewise, Kasky laughed off attacks connecting the students to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who’s been accused of anti-Semitism. The criticism came because the teens accepted help from the Women’s March movement to organize student walkouts last week, and the co-president of the Women’s March had met with Farrakhan. Kasky noted that most the students in the group are Jewish.

Yet the Parkland students are in no way going it alone. The raw emotion and outrage they emitted over social media and at rallies after the Valentine’s Day attack electrified supporters of gun control and opened wallets. They’ve raised more than $4 million to support the more than 800 scheduled marches, including donations from celebrities such as George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey, as well as support from groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control advocacy group funded by former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

In groups like Everytown, the Parkland teens are getting support from a well-financed gun control movement that sprouted up after the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adult staffers were killed. After gun control legislation failed in the U.S. Senate, activists decided they needed to create a counterpart to the National Rifle Association’s combination of financial heft and grassroots support.

Everytown raised more than $70 million in 2016, the last year for which tax records are available, and has pushed gun control measures in several states with limited success. It helped get a background check ballot measure passed in Nevada in 2016 as well as laws in 25 states to prevent domestic abusers from owning firearms.

“The turf has changed significantly before Parkland,” said John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president, noting last year’s Virginia governor’s race, won handily by Democrat Ralph Northam, a supporter of gun control in the NRA’s home state.

Still, the Parkland students have been quick to seize their moment. First, they went to Tallahassee to lobby for gun control legislation at Florida’s Capitol, where they were joined by Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly. They traveled to Washington, met with senators and parents of children killed at Sandy Hook and got advice on activism from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who was a stalwart of the civil rights movement. A pro bono attorney helped them set up a nonprofit to handle donations. They even have their own app.

What happens after Saturday? Kasky said the students plan to launch a get-out-the-vote campaign targeting young voters, whom he and his fellow organizers expect will tend agree with them on guns.

The students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the energy they’ve injected into the gun control movement. Feinblatt said Everytown has received nearly 100,000 separate small donations since Parkland. Everytown, and Giffords’ organization, are helping fund some of the “sibling” demonstrations around the country Saturday. The main march’s web page directs supporters who want to make a tax deductible donation to an Everytown fund.

Gottleib, of the pro-gun group, said the Parkland teens represent only one side of the debate among their generation and that they’re being lionized by the media at the expense of peers who disagree. In fact, that’s helped some pro-gun teens start to mobilize, he said: Youth memberships in his relatively small group have increased twelvefold since Parkland.

“There’s movement on both sides of the equation,” Gottleib said.

Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy in Miami contributed to this report.