By Tom Robotham

Teach your parents well / Their children’s hell will slowly go by. ~ Graham Nash

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the debate over gun control began anew—but there was little reason to believe anything would come of it. If the slaughter of 20 small children in Newtown didn’t force Republicans’ hands, I thought, why would this shooting do so?

Within a matter of days, however, there seemed to be glimmers of hope. Chief among them were the eloquent expressions of determination by the teenage survivors of the shooting. They would not stop, they pledged, until lawmakers agreed to enact sensible measures, including a ban on the sale of assault rifles. Indeed, without missing a beat, they took their case to the Florida legislature. Predictably, the Republicans of the Sunshine State refused, initially, to even debate the issue. But the students were not deterred. If their home-state officials refused to act, they would take their case to Washington. Following the lead of the organizers of last year’s Woman’s March, they announced plans for a rally in the Capital on the 24th of this month. Organizers are predicting a turnout comparable to that of the Woman’s March, according to The Washington Post, with affiliated protests in other cities across the country.

The radical right’s reaction to all of this was swift—and uglier than ever. It began with the usual talking points about “good guys with guns” and other nonsense but quickly morphed into something far more despicable—direct attacks on the students themselves.

Some—notably a Tweet by Dinesh D’Souza—took the form of “jokes.” If you don’t know who he is, that’s understandable. Once a darling of neo-conservative “intellectuals,” he has largely been forgotten. Hence his Tweet, which struck me as a desperate attempt to revive his reputation as a provocateur. Under an accompanying photograph of students sobbing at the Florida state house, D’Souza wrote, “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs.” His followers reacted with cackling laughter. “LOVE IT!!!” read one comment on my own Facebook network.

Meanwhile, a more insidious response was emerging. Spurred by online propaganda, people began spreading the lie that some of the most outspoken students, notably David Hogg, were “Crisis Actors”—paid troublemakers, in other words. It’s an old story in some respects, not unlike the accusation that labor organizers in the 1930s were “outside agitators.” The key difference, of course, is that this time they were attacking traumatized teenagers.
Nor were the attacks limited to insults. Several weeks into the drama, The Washington Post reported that Hogg and his family were receiving death threats. The irony and hypocrisy were mind-boggling. As the death threats were coming in, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre gave a speech in which he accused Democrats of wanting to take away “all individual freedoms.” LaPierre and his ilk like to talk about “Constitutional protections,” but their true colors had never been clearer: The message to the students, and to the nation, was laid bare in all of its contradictory absurdity: The Second Amendment is inviolable—and if you dare to criticize it, in exercise of your First Amendment rights, we will kill you.
And yet, the momentum continues. In late February, a number of corporations that had long offered discounts to NRA members announced that they would no longer do so. Delta Airlines was chief among them. Republicans in Georgia—where the airline is headquartered—threatened to punish Delta by killing promised tax breaks for the company, but it didn’t appear as of press time that the airline was backing down.

In the wake of this dustup, moreover, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell assault rifles and would establish a minimum-age of 21 for the purchase of all firearms. Wal-Mart, which had already stopped selling assault rifles (see New York Times article, published on August 26, 2015) quickly jumped on board with the new age minimum as well.

On March 7, even the Florida legislature came around—to some degree—passing legislation that would require a 3-day waiting period for purchases of most long guns and raising the minimum age for such purchases to 21. The legislation also includes money for the training and arming of school employees, which is widely regarded as a terrible idea. (As one teacher put it recently, “When a SWAT team shows up, I don’t want to be the first person they see who is holding a gun.”) On balance, though, the legislature’s action is good news if only because the NRA staunchly opposes the measures. That they didn’t get there way, for once, may suggest that the tide is beginning to turn.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been all over the map on the issue. After bragging that if he’d been at the school at the time of the shooting he would have run in, even without a weapon (never mind that he was a draft-dodger), he, too, argued that the solution to the problem was to arm schoolteachers.

Later, he briefly floated the idea of supporting a federal law raising the minimum age for purchase of firearms, then appeared to back away from the idea.

But on Feb. 28, The New York Times ran a headline reading, “Trump Stuns Lawmakers with Seeming Embrace of Gun Control.”

“In a remarkable meeting,” the article stated, “the president veered wildly from the N.R.A. playbook in front of giddy Democrats and stone-faced Republicans. He called for comprehensive gun control legislation that would expand background checks to weapons purchased at gun shows and on the internet, keep guns from mentally ill people, secure schools and restrict gun sales for some young adults. He even suggested a conversation on an assault weapons ban.” (Emphasis added.)

Given Trump’s track record of making empty promises (“Mexico will pay for the wall, etc.), I see little reason to believe that he will follow through on any of this. And even if he were to do so, it is unlikely that those “stone-faced Republicans” in Congress would defy the NRA, an organization that keeps them in line by threatening to crush them come election time if they don’t march in lockstep with the group’s agenda.

All of this has shed light on the realities of our national culture as we approach the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century. One of these realities is horrifying—and I’m not just talking about the normalization of gun violence. The attacks on the student activists, which will likely escalate as they continue their protests, reveal a kind of spiritual disease in our country: the death, in many quarters, of empathy. We’ve long known that our president is utterly lacking in that capacity, but he is not the cause of this phenomenon. He merely personifies it. Indeed, the fact that millions of people could vote for him after he mocked a reporter with disabilities says as much about his supporters as it does about him. That these same people would dare to heap scorn on the survivors of the shooting reinforces this truth with gut-wrenching force.

The dying of empathy is a much larger problem, even than the problem of gun violence. To my mind, in fact, the former underlies the latter—but extends far beyond it. It signifies the decay of our very humanity—and may in time cause the downfall of our society as we know it.

For the time being, though, we need to take on more manageable problems—and the easy access to firearms is one that deserves our sustained focus. The fix won’t come quickly. But as many people have noted, the student activists at Stoneman Douglas will soon be old enough to vote—and there are many reasons to believe they represent the sensibilities of large numbers of their generation. This is a generation, after all, that is far more enlightened than older Americans on gay rights, environmental concerns, religious tolerance and a host of other issues. My gut tells me that they’re also tired of our nation’s long history of glorifying guns. The change may come as soon as the 2018 midterm elections. It may take longer than that. But for the first time in many decades, I’m beginning to think that the days of the NRA’s tyranny may finally be numbered.