On April 20th, 1999, I was only two years old, at home with my mother in our house in the middle of suburbia in Denver, Colorado, when less than 10 miles away, the nation’s worst school shooting of the time was occurring. I obviously don’t remember the shooting, but I do remember what it was like to go to school in Denver in a post-Columbine era. What was once a middle-class suburb of Littleton became a headline that the nation would never forget, the name Columbine no longer referring to a purple flower, but rather referring to the site of tragedy.
The massacre that left 12 students and 1 teacher dead stood out as something that happened, an isolated incident, and became a textbook term and an example of why bullying was bad. There was gun control activism, but nearly 20 years later, the same shooting sprees are happening, each taking inspiration from the Columbine killers, and each becoming so much deadlier that Columbine was kicked off of the top 10 worst American massacres list. Clearly, the early activism advocating for gun control was not nearly as successful as it would have been had social media been around.
Activism following the Columbine shooting started to unfold. Only 10 days after the shooting, on May 1st, 1999, the NRA held their annual convention in downtown Denver. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb had asked the NRA not to come, however, they came anyway, with NRA president of the time Charlton Heston saying “Don’t come? We’re already here.” This is when Tom Mauser, father of deceased victim Daniel Mauser, knew he had to fight for gun control. Mauser rallied with thousands of other anti-gun demonstrators as they gathered on the state Capitol a few blocks away, with his sign reading “My son Daniel died at Columbine. He’d expect me to be here today.” Mauser spoke about the TEC-9, a semi-automatic gun used by one of the killers, saying that it isn’t used to hunt deer, and demands that it is time to address the problem of gun control.
In the weeks following the protest of the NRA meeting, Mauser co-founded an organization called SAFE – Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic. SAFE aimed to promote “reasonable” gun regulations. One goal of Mausers was to close the “gun-show loophole” in Colorado. Federally licensed dealers are required to perform background checks – however, under federal law, gun buyers can purchase weapons from private sellers without a background check.
Mauser wasn’t the only activist working towards change. Denver East High School students Ben Gelt and David Winkler formed a youth-centered version of SAFE called SAFE Students. Gelt and Winkler called national gun control organizations to organize a march on Washington in the hopes of ending gun violence and promoting gun control. In July 1999, nearly 100 students traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby lawmakers. Their goals were to close the gun-show loophole, ban high-capacity magazines, and prohibit those under the age of 21 from buying a gun. SAFE Students started chapters at schools all around the state, with many students using tactics like organizing meetings, raising money, and attending rallies. SAFE Students also pushed the state of Colorado to change state laws, with the most notable measure being a bill to eliminate the gun-show loophole.
Change did not happen overnight. Because change was not happening with lawmakers, SAFE Colorado turned to the people. They drafted up a ballot initiative that would close the gun-show loophole in Colorado, meaning that every buyer at a gun show would undergo a criminal background check. Over 2,000 volunteers collected over 110,000 signatures needed, and the initiative, known as Initiative 22, passed in the November 7th, 2000 ballot with 7o% voting “Yes” to closing the gun-show loophole in Colorado.
That year, George W. Bush won the presidency, and gun control advocates fought on, becoming overshadowed by the Republican-controlled White House. According to Gelt, SAFE Students continued for a few years, but received far less attention. Traction slowed down, and with the tragedy of 9/11, national attention turned eyes to other problems.
What would this movement have looked like had social media been around? Not much is left up to the imagination for me, as I am seeing it play out right in front of my eyes with the current Never Again MSD movement. Never Again MSD, a student-led gun control organization, was founded after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a lone shooter left 17 students and teachers dead, using an AR-15. The organization was founded by 20 MSD students, starting as a social media movement “for survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, by survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting” by using the hashtag #NeverAgain. The movement works towards a lot of what Tom Mauser and SAFE worked for – universal background checks, high-capacity magazine ban, and assault weapons ban.
Social media plays a huge role in the Never Again MSD movement. Many survivors use Twitter to tweet about a range of things – their feelings in the aftermath of the tragedy, asking people to register to vote, asking people to call their representatives, etc. These students organized a march on Washington, also known as March For Our Lives, to grab the attention of not only lawmakers, but American citizens. There have been organized nation-wide walkouts, where students left class in order to support the movement. They also organized another student protest to commemorate the 19th anniversary of Columbine.
Thus far, the survivors have been very successful in using social media to further their movement and gain support for legislation in favor of more gun control. On top of tweeting, a website was created, marchforourlives.com, and also an app available for download on Android and iOS. The site provides information on the movement, how to find your nearest march, and what goals they are working towards. A Facebook page by the name of “Never Again” was created the day following the shooting, and over the next three days, the page had over 35,000 followers. The page currently has over 150,000 followers.
Another advantage of having social media as a part of this movement is that we see more behind the scenes coverage from the students themselves, not just from the news media. On Twitter and sites like liveleak.com, there are videos from inside the school, recorded by the students themselves. Some videos are gruesome to watch, the sounds of screams and gunshots echoing in my head, with visible deceased bodies in their own pools of blood that will forever haunt me. Our generation has become so desensitized to mass shootings that when people hear about a shooting, they are quick to send their thoughts and prayers, say it’s too soon to talk about gun control, and then move on to the next thing. But when you actually see and hear what happened in that school that day, it becomes less political and more gut-wrenching. While some are disturbing and heart-breaking to watch, I think it’s important that people understand that it’s not “just another mass shooting,” but rather this is an issue big enough for an entire movement to come of it. On the flip side, however, this is challenging because social media websites do not want gruesome photos and videos floating around their website, and this could desensitize people even more.
Their social media strategy connects to offline activism in many ways. The nation-wide walkouts and the march on Washington showcase the successful social media tactics that the founders used, which urged them to get out and march, and later this year, vote. Also, the number of likes and retweets can be seen in some ways as gathering signatures for a petition. More specifically, gathering signatures online through sites like Change.org is one way of bringing the same tactics used offline to the online activism. Like the SAFE Students, Never Again MSD has done some fundraising, and were able to raise $5 million for the march on Washington within two weeks of the shooting. Because of their use of social media, the word of the fundraiser was able to spread around social media platforms and reach people not only around the nation, but around the globe.
However, social media does not make a movement perfect – movements still face challenges despite having a huge internet following. For instance, some students did a photoshoot with Teen Vogue, and one picture shows teen activist Emma Gonzalez tearing up a shooting target. Later, a photoshopped version of that image swirled around the internet, the altered image showing Gonzalez ripping apart the U.S. Constitution. Many people on Twitter thought this was the real image, and those against the movement will circulate this image and spread misinformation about the Never Again MSD movement. We have seen this happen a lot on the internet, especially through the use of ritualized practices. Of the four ritualized practices (memes, wordplay, parody, and intertext) we have seen all of these surface on the internet, with the Gonzalez picture being used as a meme.
Another challenging aspect is facing the NRA. The NRA has contributed millions of dollars to politicians over the years, most of them being Republicans, in turn for a pro-gun stance. The NRA is seen as one of the top three most influential lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C. Gun-control advocates have been taking on the NRA long before the MSD shooting, and also long before the Columbine shooting as well. While the Never Again MSD movement has social media as an advantage, it doesn’t completely eliminate the NRA as a challenge.
Nearly 20 years later, after a plethora of mass shootings all across the United States, gun control activism has evolved from students like the SAFE Students all the way to the Never Again MSD Students. The Parkland kids have inspired many around the nation, giving people hope that maybe, just maybe, our lax gun laws will finally be solved.
This essay was submitted for my final paper in my class “Topics in Mass Communications: Social Media and Social Change.”