There are two things about the Parkland school shooting that stand out.
The first factor is the body count — 17 dead — which establishes Parkland as one of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
The second thing that makes Parkland feel different is how quickly the surviving students have taken to the Internet to condemn lawmakers for refusing to enact the kind of sensible gun control laws that most Americans have wanted since the Sandy Hook massacre.
At a time when mass shootings happen almost daily — when no volume of letters, petitions, or pleas to Congress seems to move lawmakers who routinely shoot down any form of new gun control legislation — the student response to Parkland is visceral and assertive.
And it might illuminate a new path forward for gun control advocates.
For decades, students and parents have made their case for gun control by sincerely appealing to the empathetic side of politicians and trying to win “hearts and minds.” Both of these tactics rest upon good faith: the presumption that most members of Congress believe in keeping the American landscape — and especially the American classroom — as safe for children as reasonably possible.
What we have learned in the years since Sandy Hook is that this good faith may be misplaced, and also counterproductive for the gun control movement. This is why the rage that’s so palpable in the Parkland students’ messages to Congress feels like a turning point. Because this time, there’s an implicit ultimatum in those student messages.
Do something — or we will.
So let’s talk about that.
If Congress refuses to budge on gun control again -- as they have every time someone fires an automatic weapon into a crowd of people — students and their families will be challenged to muster a powerful and legal response that would escalate the battle for gun control and stop the usual cycle of thoughts, prayers, petitions and ultimately nothing.
Here’s one idea: How about a lawsuit against the government?
What if kids and their parents sued the United States government for blocking gun control reform while knowing the risks this poses to the life and liberty of students?
This idea isn’t half as crazy as it sounds, particularly because there’s already a legal precedent for a suit like this. In 2015, a group of children filed suitagainst the Obama administration and various government agencies for failing to take meaningful action on mitigating climate change. The lawsuit argued that the government did nothing knowing that this would imperil the plaintiffs’ right to an inhabitable planet. A federal appeals court allowed the long-shot suit to go to trial. Since then, similar lawsuits have been filed around the world, including a more recent one that names the Trump administration as a defendant.
If this legal approach can be applied to an issue as grandiose and unwieldy as climate change, a lawsuit in the name of gun control could take flight as well. Its odds of going to trial and possibly even delivering results for the plaintiffs would come down to a question of negligence — how much does the government know about the risk of further blocking gun control laws, and in failing to enact those laws, is the government abdicating its responsibility to uphold every student’s constitutional right to life and the pursuit of happiness?
There’s no black-and-white answer to this question because thus far, no minors have sued the government for such a failure of responsibility. A lawsuit like this would be a landmark case that would be litigated for years before a resolution was reached. But regardless of which way the suit ended, its mere existence could have game-changing implications for the gun control debate and the relationship between Congress and the American people.
By now, gun control has become an immensely popular cause that millions of kids and adults are invested in. The terrifying frequency of mass shootings in America have created an atmosphere of desperation in which a lawsuit like this could not only go viral, but also give every anxious student or parent something more empowering to do than writing letters that will most likely end up in an indifferent Congressman’s trash bin.
This might be the most powerful rationale for students and families to sue the government for shooting down gun control — it would give a measure of agency back to those who’ve felt angry and powerless. People can only endure so much dejection and at a certain point, many will abandon the gun control fight altogether for the sake of their mental health. That would be a disaster for the safety of today’s students and those to come. To stay in any game and win, you have to convince yourself that winning is possible. And whenever the possibility of winning fades, you create a new strategy for bringing victory back into view.
In America, there’s a playing field for such games, and it’s the courtroom.