At the risk of romanticising the past, there was once a line that couldn’t be crossed, wasn’t there? So much has changed, it is difficult to be sure, but I seem to recall there was a time when some blows were judged too low, some targets accepted as off-limits; a time when the base level of human decency dictated victims caught up in a tragedy were immune from smear campaigns.
No longer. Last week, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida – students who, just days earlier, had been at the centre of a mass shooting – were subjected to the kind of slurs normally reserved for presidential candidates. As they channelled their grief and anger into a crusade for gun control, they found themselves mocked, undermined and branded impostors by members of a lobby that would rather hound traumatised teenagers than give one inch on their right to bear arms.
It was not long after Emma Gonzalez made her raw and emotive speech at a rally at Fort Lauderdale that the black propaganda began. The student leaders interviewed by TV networks were too knowledgeable, too polished to be real. Therefore they must be “crisis actors”, part of a “deep state” conspiracy paving the way for tighter gun laws. At the centre of these slurs was aspiring student journalist David Hogg, who, at the age of 17, found himself in the Kafkaesque position of having to convince the world he really had hidden in a closet as the gunman rampaged around his campus.
We have seen this kind of behaviour before; it happened in 2013 when Infowars host Alex Jones claimed the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a false flag operation. Back then, however, Barack Obama was president, and such beliefs were recognised as the fevered haverings of a few alt-right idiots. Now Jones’s admirer, Donald Trump, is in the White House, they have filtered into the mainstream; so much into the mainstream that Benjamin Kelly, aide to a Florida congressman, had to be fired after spreading them, while old news footage of Hogg interviewed at the scene of a contretemps on a Californian beach – held up as “proof” he was an actor – went viral on YouTube.
Others who stopped short of branding the students frauds still questioned their integrity or suggested they were being exploited by the left. Hogg, whose greatest mistake was to be the son of a former FBI agent, was said to have been coached, with Donald Jr “favouriting” two tweets claiming he was the puppet of an anti-Trump movement. Then, after the Florida State House rejected a ban on semi-automatic guns and large capacity magazines, the political commentator Dinesh D’Souza took a pot-shot at the teenagers’ affluence, tweeting: “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.”
That “check your rich, white privilege” line of attack was quite prevalent. To be fair, there probably is a discussion to be had over the respective coverage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High campaign and the Black Lives Matters movement. But when the person pushing that comparison is Dana Loesch, the spokeswoman of the NRA, you can be sure it’s not a display of genuine concern for “grieving black mothers in Chicago”, but the worst kind of whataboutery.
Set next to this tawdry cynicism, the Parkland school students and other young people who rallied around them shone all the more brightly. Footage of hundreds of them pouring out of Washington’s Union Station on their way to the Capitol was a sight to gladden jaded old hearts. If these protesters are naive about their capacity to effect change in a country where the NRA wields so much power and there are so many guns already in circulation, then so be it; idealism is the prerogative of youth and something to be celebrated in its own right.
But maybe, just maybe, they will make a difference. In the past few days, it has felt as if something is shifting. Trump remains his shambolic, inappropriate self, blaming the armed security guard who remained outside the school as the shooting took place (so much easier than examining his own conscience) and parroting the NRA as he enthused about the frankly insane idea of arming teachers. Early on, he kept emphasising shooter Nikolas Cruz’s troubled state of mind, though – as Gonzalez pointed out – he signed a bill repealing an Obama-era regulation that made it more difficult for people with mental health issues to purchase a gun.
Yet, almost two weeks after the massacre, he seems to be coming round to a range of (admittedly small) measures: the raising of the minimum age for purchasing an assault rifle from 18 to 21, for example, and the banning of bump stocks – mechanisms that change guns from semi to fully automatic. There are challenges: any congressional legislation would require support from the leaders of both chambers, and this year’s elections will make all involved more risk-averse. Yet, should he choose to try, Trump is better placed than Obama to exert pressure on Republicans and the NRA.
Outside Washington, there are also positive signs; in Oregon last week the state legislature passed a bill banning people convicted of stalking, domestic violence or under a restraining order from buying or owning firearms, and it seems unlikely Florida can withstand the growing pressure to enforce some gun control measures (although they are likely to fall short of the ban on the sale of assault weapons the students want).
Perhaps the most interesting development, however, has been the decision of a succession of major companies – including First National Bank, FedEx, car hire firms, Enterprise, Alamo and Hertz, and hotel chains, Ramada, Days Inn and Super 8 – to sever links with the NRA. What better way to loosen the organisation’s grip on the political world than to toxify the brand?
Most commentators, myself included, believed any prospect of effective gun control measures ended after Sandy Hook; if the slaughter of 20 six and seven-year-olds couldn’t win hearts and minds, the logic went, then nothing would. But then we reckoned without the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. It’s too early to know if their protests will forge a lasting legacy or fizzle out in the face of opposition. But they have already shamed those politicians willing to trade children’s lives for NRA donations. They have proved themselves so much bigger than those who sought to bring them down. And they have created an opportunity for change after many years of stasis.
Watching them mobilise, it is just possible to believe that all is not lost; that active shooter drills – in which children too young to tie their shoelaces are taught how to behave under fire – will one day disappear from US schools’ curricula. Now wouldn’t that be something?