For this Valentine’s Day my wife and I got my fourteen-year old daughter a pair of hot pink patent leather Doc Marten boots I found at a local thrift store, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack in 180 gram pink vinyl, a black David Bowie “Starman” t-shirt with pink and blue accents, and some pink-foil wrapped dark chocolate hearts. In Parkland, Florida, the students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their families got something else.
I’m sure Valentine’s Day will mean something drastically different for the MSD community from now on in ways that I can’t fully imagine. But as these students and their families work their way towards some new normalcy, they are simultaneously leading their childish elected officials kicking and screaming towards a more reasonable, responsible relationship with guns in America. Teenagers who huddled behind desks and hid in closets are standing up in the name of the seventeen students and staff who won’t be around next Valentine’s Day, and they’re challenging perceptions about what their Tide Pod eating generation is capable of.
That these kids are more resolute and reliable than the people their parents elected to lead them was painfully clear to anyone who saw the Florida legislature refuse to open a gun measure up for a floor debate shortly after the shooting. Yet on that same day - with many MSD students in the gallery - they defined pornography as a public health risk. Regardless of your opinion on pornography, as a teacher, I can tell you that I’ve never worked at, nor have I heard of, any school being locked down because someone brought a Hustler into the building.
The brilliance of the MSD students and the movement they’ve started is that they’re doing something the adults in this country - on both the left and the right - have never really been able to do. In the wake of unspeakable tragedy, they are turning thoughts and prayers into action. They are finally, and effectively bringing change to bear in an area people from other countries have long looked askance at: America’s willingness to tolerate a culture where citizens are cut down by gunfire. And it’s working.
Three weeks after the shooting, those Florida lawmakers finally did take up the issue, passing a 400 million dollar gun control and school safety bill in the face of NRA opposition. The measure does little to reduce the number of guns available in the state (It does not ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, nor does it strengthen background checks - which even a vast majority of gun owners want), at least those legislators were willing to try, unlike many of their peers in other states and at the federal level. And how could they not, after facing the passionate advocacy of a group of Floridians who, for the most part, are too young to vote them out?
Valentine told me who's to go
When I look at my quirky daughter, who loves David Bowie and vintage clothes, I see a lot of the promise currently being fulfilled by her peers in Florida. As she and I exchanged texts about the shooting, which was close to where her step-cousins go to school, we wondered if the shooter was somehow inspired by the David Bowie song quoted above. Bowie, who had quietly made America his home during the last few decades of his life, used songs like “Valentine’s Day” to take a critical look at his adopted country. While a dubious website called Illuminati Watcher claims that “Valentine’s Day” is an example of the predictive programming the mythical secret society uses to subliminally control people (because the only thing more American than guns are conspiracy theories, right?), I don’t see how a song critical of American gun culture could have that effect. Furthermore, if Nikolas Cruz was inspired by Bowie’s song, investigators have yet to reveal it.
So while many people have pointed out the eerie similarities between “Valentine’s Day” and the Parkland shooting, a more welcome connection has been made to the MSD students and the second verse of one of Bowie’s better known songs, 1972’s “Changes”:
And these children that you spit on
These children are painfully aware of what they went - and are still going through. That’s why they are so resolute even as the adults they challenge remain married to the status quo, or display the kind of waffling exhibited by President Pancake, who slaps the NRA across the face with one hand while giving them a friendly pat on the ass with the other. If Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum make guns more expensive, and therefore harder to get, then I say, by all means, proceed, sir.
That’s because the problem really is guns, (along with the fact that many people have come to view the Second Amendment with such idolatry that they are blind to reason and data), despite our desire to blame other objects and issues. True, the United States routinely ranks last in mental health care when compared to other developed nations; but, if all things were equal, we would still have to worry about keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill because there are so many guns available for them to get their hands on. Yet, we’d rather make sure that future Dylan Roofs can’t amass a cache of Penthouse magazines while still ensuring the availability of high-capacity magazines. Better to demonize the mentally ill as evil monsters for legally acquiring and using weapons like AR-15 rifles in the manner in which they were designed (for creating mass-casualties cleanly and with ease) than to call their weapon of choice what it is: a killing machine that should have no place in homes or on store shelves.
Then there are those who say the answer can be found in “hardening” our schools. This means doing a better job of controlling ingress and egress points, installing metal detectors, and - unbelievably to me - arming teachers and other school employees. An acquaintance on Facebook touted this last measure, writing something to the effect that since teachers are already thoroughly vetted, highly trained individuals with a vested interest in the welfare of their students. preparing them to go all Bruce Willis on a shooter is the way to go. The Florida Legislature partially endorsed this view by including 67 million dollars to arm certain school employees - but not teachers - willing to carry firearms in school (so be nice to the lunch lady, kids). But, getting back to Bowie, that’s like putting out a fire with gasoline. It makes no sense to tackle the gun problem by adding more guns to the equation. Nor is it wise to make schools structurally equivalent to prisons.
Much of this comes down to the fact that many of our politicians do a better job of respecting the whims of special interest groups than they do at enacting the will of their constituents. Nowhere was the power of the National Rifle Association more evident than in Georgia, where legislators killed a 40-million dollar tax break on jet fuel for Delta Airlines after the company responded to MSD students by ending its discount program for the NRA. Delta is the largest private employer in the state, yet Republican Lt. Gov. / gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle promised that, if elected, he would kill any tax break for Delta unless the company fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA. USA Today has since revealed that only thirteen NRA members have ever used this discount (JUST THIRTEEN!). Yet Cagle and other Georgia politicians are willing to leverage it against the economic well-being of the 33,000 Georgians Delta employs. It’s pretty clear who politicians in Georgia really represent.
So here we are, at a crossroads yet again (see Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Aurora, Las Vegas). But this time it’s different. The children in Parkland have turned to face what makes America seem so strange to the rest of the world, and they’re doing it with the kind of grit and resolve that some adults find infuriating and that I - and many others - find marvelously inspiring. Next year, I’ll gather more gifts for the people I love while many of the people in Parkland will struggle to reconcile what happened on February 14, 2018 with what Valentine’s Day looks like for everyone else. But today, MSD students aren’t thinking about carnations and candy. They are continuing to challenge officials (both elected and appointed), and they’re mobilizing. On March 24th, I plan on standing with them in my community, at the March for Our Lives in Boston, so that in the future, the phrases “gun control” and “school safety” never have to share the same space again.
To find a March for Our Lives event near you, click HERE.