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Students in gun-control movement turn from marches to elections

By Jessica Wehrman • Apr 2, 2018 at 3:00 PM

WASHINGTON — The crowd that flooded Pennsylvania Avenue has gone home. The kids who chanted "Vote them out" and "Never again" have returned to high school math class or, if they're lucky, gone on spring break.

And the question now, seven months before the midterm elections and more than two years before the 2020 presidential election, is this: Will it stick?

Will the same energy that motivated a half-million people to descend on D.C. and thousands more to join in MarchForOurLives events across the country demanding that politicians support additional restrictions on gun ownership translate into a significant electoral impact?

Those who attended the Washington march on March 24 say they're determined to see this through.

Sammy Caruso, 16, a senior at Oakwood High School near Dayton, is two years away from casting his first vote, but he said he is already organizing another rally, this one on April 20 to mark commemorate the anniversary of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School outside Denver.

"We want to turn all this energy and passion into real change," he said, adding that he's going to work on local and state campaigns and work with others passionate about the issue to get them involved as well.

Alex Bihari is hopeful, too. He's a senior at Thomas Worthington High School who, like Caruso, attended the Washington march. When he goes to the polls for the first time this year, he said, he''ll vote on three issues: guns, immigrants and refugees, and how candidates stand on Donald Trump.

"If someone is on the payroll of the NRA and gun lobby, that's a deal-breaker for me," he said. "If someone is not willing to help refugees and immigrants, that's a deal-breaker for me. If someone supports Donald Trump, that's a deal-breaker for me."

They say they're energized. Others say sustaining that energy will take work and persistence.

"It's really hard, after you've channeled that energy and excitement, to keep it sustained," said one Washington Republican who has worked with young activists. "It's fun to go march with tons of people and yell and scream. But it's not a lot of fun to go door-knocking on a Wednesday night when it's kind of cold and windy."

Although the march was organized to press for gun control, organizers seemed resigned to the notion that they wouldn't change minds. Better, they argued, to change the officeholders.

Even the signs reflected that: "Grab 'em by the midterms," read one sign; "See you in November," read another; "I'm joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started," read a third.

Aaron Ghitelman of HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy, said his group sent volunteers to marches across the country, registering 4,800 people to vote within 10 hours on March 24. That figure did not include voter registrations conducted on the internet.

"I think regardless of what you think about the issue, it certainly is exciting to see young people being listened to," said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. "You've got to think it's having an influence on other young people on whether or not they think their voice matters."

She said that while the recent debate over mass shootings has galvanized the young, it has the potential to influence older voters as well.

"There could be a 'trickle-up' effect from all these young people talking about voting inside their households," she said.

According to the United States Election Project, based at the University of Florida in Gainesville, 43.4 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast ballots in 2016 — up from 40.9 percent in 2012.

But that is a smaller percentage than the turnout rates of other age groups. Among those ages 30 to 44, 57 percent voted, and among those over 60, 71.4 percent voted.

Percentages aside, the Pew Research Center found that in raw numbers, members of the millennial and Generation X groups combined have surpassed baby boomers and older Americans as the majority of voters in U.S. presidential elections, casting 69.6 million votes in the 2016 general election out of 137.5 million total.

None of those groups, however, include those who showed up to the marches who are not old enough to vote now but will be by 2020. About 4 million Americans will turn 18 this year.

Julia Ann Caple, 19, a New Hampshire native and sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University, is among those who will vote for the first time this year. She said she understands that the march is just one step in a long fight.

"Right now, I honestly think it's too early to tell if it's going to be any different," she said. "I'm really, really hoping things will be different ... we have the numbers to really make a difference."

The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has consistently argued that the protests are orchestrated, and it has deployed its own political organization in response.

"Today's protests aren't spontaneous," spokesmen for the organization wrote on their Facebook page on the day of the protests. "Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones."

The organization raked in money in the days after the shooting: The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, found that the organization received twice as much money from nearly five times as many donors in the seven days after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting as it did in the seven days before. After the Feb. 14 rampage, in which 17 people were killed by a former student, the organization's political action committee raised $70,870 through 226 donations, according to the center.

Richard Aborn, who was the chief strategist behind the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the 1994 ban on assault weapons, said the Parkland students have managed to ignite a movement partly because of the specificity of what they're asking for and partly because they're doing something that past survivors of mass shootings have not: threatening to throw those who won't consider their point of view out of office.

"If they are able to show that they are able to elect or throw somebody out of office on the guns issue, things will change so quickly you'll be blinded by it," he said. "This is all about showing you have raw political power."

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©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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