The surest way for America’s young adults to change gun laws is through the ballot box

You have to admire the speed and resolve with which students who survived the mass killing at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week have moved to use their tragedy as a launching point for political activism over gun control laws.

It’s a notoriously uphill fight. The 2012 slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut sparked outrage and demands for action, including a ban on the military-style weapon gunman Adam Lanza used to do most of his killings. Congress essentially scuffed at the chamber floors with their shoes until the moment passed.

The state of Connecticut did react, though, and eventually passed a menu of gun control measures that officials believe has helped drive down the state’s homicide rate. The students of Stoneman Douglas High School are eyeing a similar pressure point — the Florida state capital. Busloads are heading to Tallahassee this week to protest and lobby legislators to tighten the state’s gun laws.

That’s a good start, though the chances of success in Florida, where the governor and state Legislature are controlled by NRA-friendly Republicans, are much lower than they were in Connecticut, a reliably blue state. How long the youths’ anger will last is not known, but here’s a thought _ and not just for them, but for young adults across the nation. Lobby for what laws you can, but also work to register young adults to vote, and then get them to the polls.

As it stands, young adults register to vote at much lower rates than older Americans. In fact, in the last presidential election, only 43 percent of eligible 18-year-old voters were registered, compared with a national average of 70 percent of all eligible voters, according to Census data. And only 34 percent of the 18-year-olds actually voted, compared with a national average of 61 percent of all eligible voters.

Just as a rough calculation, if the age group 18-24 years old had been politically engaged in the 2016 presidential election at the same rate as the national average, there could have been nearly 5 million more votes cast.

That’s enough to turn elections. And that’s enough to begin to counter the undue pressure the NRA wields on legislators through campaign funding and lobbying. Nothing gets an elected official’s attention quite like an organized block of motivated voters with a mission.

It is laudable that the students in Florida and elsewhere are pressing for gun control. Washington, D.C.-area students converged on the White House Monday for a “lie in,” with its echoes of 1960s anti-war sit-ins, demanding action. Activists behind the successful Women’s Marches are helping coordinate a nationwide school walkout for March 14. And the Stoneman Douglas students are organizing a march on Washington for March 24.

Laudable actions, those. But they will only make a difference if they are used to galvanize more direct political pressure. Demonstrations draw attention to a problem. But the nation knows in excruciating detail that it has a gun problem. The political pressure to change laws and culture, though, has so far fallen short of forcing a fix.

Will this be the massacre to finally spark change? Only time — and, it seems, the energy and persistence of youth — will tell. But it would be a good time to invoke the old labor rallying cry, “don’t mourn, organize.”

Scott Martelle
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Scott Martelle

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