Watching clips of students who left their classrooms to speak out against powerful gun lobbies and stand up to politicians who have been unable or unwilling to pass gun control measures, I felt profoundly moved. Their energy and message gave me hope. Maybe, finally, a force has been tapped that can help all of us move toward a saner and safer place – where life and people matter more than monied interests.
I also watched politicians speaking with the students at a rally in Washington D.C. and felt a little uneasy. After remembering the thousands of children who died at the hands of gun violence, Chuck Schumer tried to engage the crowd by holding up a youth’s hand and shouting “We’re going to win! We’re going to win!” Thankfully the crowd did not get whipped up by the message. With great appreciation for all that Senator Schumer has done to fight for sane gun laws, I believe his messaging was unhelpful because it framed the changes we desperately need to make as a competition.
Senator Pelosi’s remarks were more inclusive. “There is a bipartisan path in Congress.” She told the crowd that with this walkout, they are an ongoing challenge to us all, to the conscience of America. They are creating a drumbeat across America – a drumbeat that will echo until we get the job done.
It’s not my aim to criticize and compare politicians’ speeches because the day was about the students – their intention and incredible energy. The student message is, exclusively, about the right of children to be safe while at school. Their righteous anger is at money and power mattering more than their lives.
The language of “winning” creates a false dichotomy that does not change hearts and minds. And using words like “winners”, implying that there are “losers,” has the unhealthy consequence of making those who disagree feel excluded and defensive. In fact, the NRA has built its power by creating similar false equivalents, such as claiming their position as the only viable one that appreciates a citizen’s right to self-protection.
Let’s change the conversation to be one of standing up for people, all people, and for values. The language of winning implies that those who think differently will lose. And that is simply not true. If our nation returns to gun control measures strongly supported by Ronald Reagan in his post-presidency, such as his support for the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, everyone wins.
It is important to remember that many students who were not part of this student walk-out are watching and listening. Some of them, like their parents, fear that the government wants to take away their rights. They are also going to vote in a few years’ time. We have a chance to reach out to them in an inclusive way by dialing down the conversation of winning and losing. Let’s choose to use the language of inclusiveness even as we passionately disagree on what the second amendment means.
We don’t need short-term wins. Instead, we need long-term changing of hearts and minds. We don’t need to be right. Instead, we need healing of divisions and a shifting of perceptions. We need a language that tells every student that they matter, and that securing our schools with common sense gun control measures is in the interest of every citizen, without exception.