The student activists who crashed the political arena after the mass shooting last year at their high school in Parkland, Fla., are throwing their weight behind a new and ambitious gun-control program that they hope will set the tone for the debate following the most recent mass shootings and headed into the 2020 elections.
The students are speaking out for the first time since 31 people were killed in one weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. They hope their plan — unveiled Wednesday morning — will be considered by President Trump as well as his Democratic presidential rivals and will serve as a catalyst for a surge of youth voters next year.
“I think similarly to a lot of the country, I’m in a lot of pain right now,” said David Hogg, 19, a co-founder of March for Our Lives and a survivor of the shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “You see these shootings on TV every day and very little happening around it. It’s painful to watch. And I think it’s been really hard for me and many of the other students and people that we work with to find hope in this time.
“But I think that this plan is something that we can truly — as a country and as Americans united against violence and fighting for peace — can get behind.”
March for Our Lives has been focused on voter registration and outreach across the country over the past year and a half, building a national infrastructure with more than 100 chapters centered on grass-roots organizing. They hope to turn that into droves of voters at the polls next year.
Called “A Peace Plan for a Safer America,” the ambitious platform, which was obtained by The Washington Post, goes much further than the current debate over universal background checks and “red flag” laws, which would apply to people who could be a danger to themselves and others.
After El Paso and Dayton, President Trump signaled that he was open to both ideas, but he told National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre on Tuesday that universal background checks are now off the table.
The Peace Plan would create a national licensing and gun registry, long a nonstarter with gun rights advocates; ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; implement a mandatory gun buyback program; and install a “national director of gun violence prevention” who would report directly to the president and coordinate the federal response to what advocates call a national public health emergency.
It would dramatically increase restrictions around owning guns in ways sure to spark fierce blowback, including raising the age to 21 from 18 for those who want to buy guns. It calls for a “multi-step” gun licensing system, overseen by a federal agency, that would include in-person interviews and a 10-day wait before gun purchases are approved. The license would be renewed annually.
In the vein of the Green New Deal, the Peace Plan takes a holistic approach to gun violence by also calling for automatic voter registration when those eligible turn 18, along with the creation of a “Safety Corps,” which the authors compare to a Peace Corps for gun violence prevention. The plan also proposes community-based solutions like mental health services, as well as programs to address and prevent suicide, domestic violence and urban violence.
“It’s bold. It’s nothing like anyone else is proposing. We are really setting audacious goals,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts, a Parkland survivor who is on the March for Our Lives board of directors. “And more than anything, what we are seeking to do is be intersectional. We know and acknowledge every day that gun violence prevention is not just about preventing mass shootings.”
Roberts noted that the effort is also a means of taking ownership of the conversation that has stalled legislatively in Washington — a plan “written by us, for us.”
“We are changing the conversation around gun violence itself because we don’t want the narrative to come from people who haven’t experienced it — to come from people who benefit from the sale of guns. We want the narrative to come from people who understand it from its very root,” she added.
Hogg, Roberts and Charlie Mirsky, the political director of March for Our Lives, hope the 2020 Democratic candidates embrace and campaign on their platform. The first test of its resonance will come Oct. 2 in Las Vegas, when March for Our Lives will host a forum dedicated to addressing gun violence in partnership with Giffords, the group run by former congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabrielle Giffords.
The issue of gun violence has recently become a much more dominant concern for the 2020 presidential candidates. Raw emotions have hit many of them as they have met advocates from Moms Demand Action and other groups whose members have been affected by gun violence. During one poignant moment, Andrew Yang broke down in tears at a gun forum in Des Moines this month.
“My hope is that they focus like a laser on youth turnout,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said of March for Our Lives’s 2020 efforts, after reviewing the proposal. “The election is over the minute young people decide to turn out. The only reason that Trump would get reelected is if young people stay home. The issue of gun violence is one of the only issues that truly motivate young people to shake off their indifference and aversion to voting.”
Democrats, who in the past would at least nod toward gun owners and do photo ops while hunting, are embracing gun control with greater urgency than they have in any election in recent memory, a sign that they are sensing movement among voters. During the 2018 midterms, when Democrats recaptured the House majority, nearly 70 percent of registered voters said gun policy was “very important” to them, ranking the issue ahead of taxes and immigration, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
Former vice president Joe Biden favors renewing an assault weapons ban and implementing a federal gun buyback program. Several Democrats have said they support gun licensing, including Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), while Biden has been skeptical of such a plan.
“Gun licensing will not change whether or not people buy what weapons — what kinds of weapons they can buy, where they can use them, how they can store them,” Biden said in June.
March for Our Lives is calling for a mandatory buyback of all assault weapons and a voluntary buyback of handguns and other firearms. O’Rourke has said that he would support a mandatory buyback program, while Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been more skeptical, pushing for voluntary programs.
“Political parties believe they have all this power, but in reality the power in the U.S. resides in the culture and what we choose to prioritize,” Hogg said. “Movements are bigger than political parties.”
Hogg, Mirsky and Roberts, who are heading to college this fall, stressed the bipartisan need for lawmakers to adopt the plan — or at least to consider parts of it. And despite their disillusionment with Trump and his inaction on gun policy, they would welcome a meeting with him at the White House.
“I don’t know if he’d be sincere about it, but I would accept any meeting I could get regardless of political party because we must make these things happen,” said Hogg.
“Donald Trump wants gun reform,” said Mirsky. “If you look at what he does when he’s unfiltered, he will tweet about universal background checks. He was saying that Republicans are owned by the NRA. These are the things he says when he’s speaking off the cuff. . . . Donald Trump’s instincts are not what the problems are here. It’s clearly and shamelessly the NRA money that is flowing in there.”
NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter, commenting on the plan, said: “The gun-control community is finally being marginally honest about their true wish list. The simple fact remains their proposals and ideas are out of the mainstream, and most people will understand their real intent goes beyond what they publicly state.”
March for Our Lives has fiercely denounced what it says is the undue influence of the NRA in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, while the gun rights group has pushed back against the students’ calls for gun safety laws. Hogg called the NRA “the big tobacco of violence in the U.S.” and claimed that “they don’t care about gun owners, like my father.”
“The NRA cares as much about gun owners’ safety as the tobacco industry cared about smokers not getting cancer,” Hogg said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Charlie Mirsky, the political director of March for Our Lives, was not a student or survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.