Parkland students move the needle even as Washington idles

Washington (CNN)Just because Washington is stuck in the same old deadlock over firearms reform, it doesn't mean the tide of youthful anger and activism unleashed by the Florida massacre did nothing to change gun politics in America.

While the adults in the Capitol hedge and turn away, debate is raging outside the federal bubble in a way that is giving gun control advocates hope that the aftermath of the latest mass shooting really is different.
It became quite clear Tuesday that on Republican-run Capitol Hill there is little appetite for the sweeping reform demanded by the teenagers who seized their moment after escaping the slaughter of their classmates.
Middle aged and elderly political leaders spent the day in Washington explaining why doing something to stop future massacres was not quite as simple as kids just calling for change appear to think.
    The White House grappled for clarity on what exactly President Donald Trump is prepared to do, amid growing doubts about his capacity to turn his torrent of words on the issue into significant action.
    Trump will meet lawmakers on school safety on Wednesday and several limited measures, including one on strengthening compliance to background checks could be slowly headed for votes next week.
    But the equivocations by elected leaders struck a tepid contrast to how students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, swiftly pivoted from grief to a campaign for change that shocked politicians from their normal rituals after mass shootings.
    Their impact reached far further than their own hometowns, sparking debate about gun law changes in multiple states and extreme pressure on the National Rifle Association and the GOP lawmakers it supports. Businesses with ties to the gun-rights group have also been scrutinized, as have gun sellers.
    That's why, even if Washington manages to muster just the most modest of steps, that the uprising of the last two weeks might still be a game changer.

    It's a generational thing

    The kids leading the current charge were aged 11 or 12 during 2012's Sandy Hook school massacre and their childhoods have been punctuated by mass shootings that seem to be happening more and more often.
    "These are unspeakable tragedies that they have had to grow up with and they are saying absolutely no more," said Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the executive editor of Teen Vogue.
    "These kids are saying -- our whole lives are in front of us and this is not the world we want to live in," Mukhopadhyay said on CNN International's "Hala Gorani Tonight" on Tuesday.
    So far, the activism that spilled over after the Parkland shooting has kept the issue at the center of political debate. It cranked up heat on the White House and congressional leaders. Its youthful leaders have avoided being tarnished by the polarization of America's current politics.
    In the process, they have established a template for their generation and offered a playbook for how victims of future mass shootings that are destined to occur can leverage their suffering for political effect.
    They've also offered a hint that despite the ill feeling and mistrust that pervades a bitter political era, America can still gestate the idealism and renewal that has been the lifeblood of its democracy.
    "There is going to be a generation that is introduced to politics for the first time through the lens of guns," said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun law reform group Giffords.
    "They are rejecting the notion that we are powerless. You have got kids standing up and speaking out and asking the adults in the room, asking the politicians why the hell aren't they doing anything to protect kids?" Ambler said.
    But clearly, the children of Parkland don't represent the entirety of national opinion on the Second Amendment.
    Large chunks of the public have not been heard in the debate that erupted over the tragedy. The caution of conservatives is rooted in the knowledge that their voters are loath to see any steps that infringe in any way on gun rights.
    When Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said on CNN Tuesday that America did not need more gun control after the shooting by a lone gunman two weeks ago but more "idiot control," a lot of people agreed with him.
    Soon, news coverage will shift away from the Florida school kids, gun control will slip down the political agenda -- until the next mass shooting, at least, and intense emotions will fade.
    But gun rights activists believe that the events of the last few weeks mean the debate will never return to its fossilized battle lines, whatever Congress and the Trump administration do or don't do.
    They point to the fact that one young Stoneman survivor, Emma Gonzalez, cracked the million Twitter follower barrier -- and has substantially more followers than the NRA's main account. There's also the list of blue chip companies that have severed ties with the mighty gun lobby group. Dick's Sporting Goods, the nation's largest sporting goods retailer, announced this week that it will stop selling assault-style weapons like the one used in Parkland and will also raise the minimum age for all gun sales to 21.
    While federal lawmakers may be indifferent, there has been a flurry of activity in many states to improve safety in schools, calls for raising the age on rifle sales and engagement by Democratic candidates on the issue of guns in emerging House races. Some Republicans have faced unaccustomed pressure on guns.
    Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he was considering ditching his opposition to limits on high-capacity ammunition clips during the heat of a CNN town hall event last week.
    Polls meanwhile show a spurt in public support for gun reforms. In a CNN/SSRS poll, 70% of people back stronger gun laws. A CBS poll showed more Democrats than Republicans thought gun laws would be the single most important issue in the midterm elections (21% to 10%).
    A set of events, including a March on Washington next month, school days of action and the approaching midterm elections give activists hope that they can turn public outrage into votes that could change the shape of Congress.
    Still, history suggests that change will come slowly and that movements take years to build. On the other hand, grassroots change when it finally breaks can come suddenly and with great force, as was seen in the civil rights movement the 1960s and the push for same-sex marriage in this era.

    Why Washington can turn away

    There are reasons why Washington may be able to turn away this time -- but it might not be the same forever.
    For now, the constitutional power granted to small, rural states where the Second Amendment is a key voting issue means that reaching a 60-vote Senate filibuster for gun reform is always going to be a challenge.
    The midterm elections map has 10 Democrats running for Senate seats in states won by Trump in 2016 leaving them vulnerable to votes on gun control that could come with a heavy price. Many House Republicans serve in deeply conservative districts and fear a challenge from their right more than a Democratic opponent in a general election.
    Apparent serious lapses by local law enforcement in failing to act on multiple reports that the Parkland shooter was mentally disturbed and prone to violence have also played into the conservative argument that action on mental health is more pertinent to this situation than more gun control.
    The issue has also been highlighted repeatedly in conservative media, offering a counter narrative to that of the gun reform lobby.
    While polling shows most Americans want change, it also reveals that Trump voters don't want their President to go too far.
    In the CNN poll, only 41% of those who approve of Trump's job performance favor stricter gun regulation. Given how reliant the unpopular President is on his base, his room for maneuver seems limited.
    Such data also shows why it was politically sustainable for House Speaker Paul Ryan to dampen calls for gun control Tuesday, despite the agitated national mood.
    "We shouldn't be banning guns for law-abiding citizens. We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don't get those guns," the Wisconsin Republican said Tuesday, hitting the familiar talking point that any gun reform is a slippery slope to the removal of all gun rights.
    Yet the events of the two weeks suggest that for the generation just coming of political age, the traditional GOP position may not always be so impregnable.
    The simplicity of the question being raised by the Florida survivors about massacres is the key to its eventual political potential, according to Mukhopadhyay.
    "These could be stopped. How come no one has stopped them?" she asked.