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What Happened to the Young Voters Focused on Guns?

After the mass shooting in 2018 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead in Parkland, Fla., the massacre’s young survivors converted their outrage into political organizing. Alongside other student leaders across the country, they brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington for the March for Our Lives, pressed the case for tougher gun laws in the Florida legislature and at the U.S. Senate, registered 50,000 new voters nationally, and helped drive a surge in turnout by young people in that year’s midterm elections.

But Congress passed no gun legislation, even as measures like universal background checks consistently win the support of about nine in 10 Americans, according to surveys.

Another stark reminder of the country’s vulnerability to gun violence arrived one year ago, when a gunman in El Paso, Texas — a state with some of the country’s most permissive gun laws — opened fire at a Walmart Supercenter, killing 23 people in a rampage driven by anti-Hispanic hatred.

But now, with the country swept up in a reckoning over racial justice driven largely by young protesters, the youthful voices that propelled a movement just two years ago find themselves less squarely focused on issues around gun violence. Polls show that racial justice, the coronavirus pandemic and the related economic downturn far outpace guns as top issues of concern for young people. When asked about gun control measures, it is in fact the oldest Americans who now most often express support, according to some polls.

The activists who organized after the Parkland shooting say they have built up their organizing capacity since then, and they remain committed to making at least as significant a difference in 2020 as they did in 2018. But this year, they say, a big part of that will mean building solidarity with organizers confronting racial injustice.

“For us, we recognize how gun violence is such an intersectional issue,” said Kelly Choi, 20, a member of the executive board at March for Our Lives, the national nonprofit that grew out of the Parkland students’ organizing. “Gun violence is the symptom of other things, like poverty, racism, housing insecurity, domestic violence.”

Students Demand Action, a grass-roots network affiliated with Michael Bloomberg’s nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, sprouted more than 400 chapters of its own after the Parkland shooting. Its student members are at the core of Everytown’s voter-registration and other campaign operations, part of a planned $60 million investment by the nonprofit in federal and state races this fall.

In their work, too, Students Demand Action organizers are emphasizing collaboration. “When I first got involved, it was in the wake of a school shooting, and there was this thought that gun violence is school shootings and mass shootings,” said Alanna Miller, 19, who founded a Students Demand Action chapter at her Texas high school after the Parkland attack, and then another chapter at Duke University — where she is now a rising sophomore — in the wake of El Paso. “Yes, that’s true, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s domestic-partner violence, it’s inner-city violence.”

“I don’t know if I would still be in this movement, organizing, if I hadn’t expanded my worldview in thinking about this issue and how insidious and how pervasive it is,” she added.

March for Our Lives has established partnerships with older organizations like the longstanding Brady Campaign as well as Black community-based groups like the Community Justice Action Fund. In April, March for Our Lives joined a number of other youth-led groups, including the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, in writing a letter to Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign demanding action on a range of progressive policies.

On Monday evening in El Paso, the local March for Our Lives chapter plans to convene a vigil at the site of last year’s massacre, with participation from other local groups. The next day, young organizers with the nearby Houston chapter will gather alongside representatives from racial-justice organizations and other activist groups to promote a City Council bill proposed by the council member Letitia Plummer that would reallocate funding away from the Houston Police Department and toward social programs.

A year after the Parkland shooting, with Democrats enjoying a newly strengthened majority in the House, young adults remained more likely than older Americans to say that gun control legislation should be an immediate priority for Congress, with half of respondents under 30 saying so, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll.

In that survey, conducted in February 2019, two-thirds of those under 30 said that they prioritized strengthening gun laws over preserving the rights of firearm owners — a heavier gun-control tilt than in any other age group. Young adults were also the only age group to have a majority unfavorable opinion of the National Rifle Association, according to the poll.

When the massacre in El Paso took place, the Democratic presidential race was just beginning to heat up, and gun control again appeared poised to become a central focus.

The presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who had spent six years representing El Paso in Congress, suspended his campaign and visited the site of the shooting. During a presidential debate a month later, he pledged to put in place a national gun registry and a mandatory buyback program for assault rifles, declaring: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

But today, with a different youth-protest movement sweeping the country, millennials and young adults in Generation Z are more likely to explicitly name racial justice as their top political concern. A Fox News poll last month found that voters under 30 were three times as likely as those 45 and over to call race-related issues their No. 1 policy priority. Just three percent of the youngest voters named gun violence as their top concern.

And in a sense, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Less than a month after the Parkland shooting, a Gallup survey found that race relations was tied with gun control as the most-cited issue of concern among Americans under 30.

Charlie Kelly, Everytown’s senior political adviser, said that emphasizing the links between racial justice and gun policy could be essential to driving home a message that resonates this year. “These issues are inextricably linked,” he said. “When we put out a call to our supporters to support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, we saw students take action at twice the rate of any previous action.”

Mr. Kelly said that Everytown’s own research this year had shown that gun violence remains an issue organizers think they can win on, and one with particular appeal to young voters. “Gun safety is especially powerful and persuasive at mobilizing young voters, communities of color, suburban women,” Mr. Kelly said, pointing to internal polling and message-testing that the organization recently undertook in battleground states, including Texas.

“Gun safety messaging was the most effective and resonant among young voters, 18 to 34, and independents,” he added.

The midterms in 2018 drew high levels of participation across the board, but the spike was especially large for young people. Among voters under 30, turnout doubled from 2014 to 2018, according to the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida. Not since the 1980s had young people made up so big a share of the midterm electorate.

The highest-profile Democrats who put gun control at the center of their campaigns — such as Andrew Gillum, the candidate for Florida governor, and Mr. O’Rourke, then running for Senate in Texas — lost. But amid a Democratic surge in congressional races, advocates reported broad success: In 43 federal races in which Everytown and the N.R.A. endorsed opposing candidates, the Everytown candidate won 33 of them.

“This isn’t the end of the race, this is permission to start,” David Hogg, a Parkland student who had by then become a spokesman for the movement, said after the midterms. “The shooting at Stoneman Douglas has all been training for us on how to get corrupt politicians out of power.”

A similar cycle played out in 2019, when voters went to the polls in Virginia just three months after the El Paso massacre. With gun control most frequently cited in statewide polls as their top issue, voters handed Democrats control of both houses in the state legislature for the first time in 25 years.

Source : New York Times

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