‘Democracy is not failing the American people - politicians are’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch, from March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration held on 24 March 2018 in Washington, DC, with hundreds of sibling events throughout the USA and around the world, in demand of tighter gun control. The march was organised in reaction to the February 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

1. Is democracy failing the American people, and young Americans in particular?
JC: I don’t think democracy is failing Americans, but I do think we need to remember what democracy really is, because right now our politicians are not embracing its true definition.

MD: There are parties that are actively trying to obstruct democracy; there are people trying to suppress voters, whether by voter ID laws, or through registration procedures. The change towards automatic registration in several states is a big step in the right direction, allowing anyone to vote who is eligible. Mass incarceration is also a form of voter suppression, so there are things happening in the US that do suppress democracy. And nobody is free until we are all free, so we need to step up and fight for those who have their power taken away by this unfair system.

JC: It is just a matter of Americans taking advantage of their democracy, because a lot of people don’t realise that they do have a lot of rights. One of them is the right to vote, and many people don’t take advantage of it. So it is a matter of showing people that one vote can make a difference, even though the prevailing thought has long been ‘I’m only one person, I can’t do anything’.

2. What was different about the Parkland shooting? Why do you think it was this particular event that sparked a movement like #NeverAgain, in a context in which mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, have become almost routine?
JC: When this happened, and we were there, we weren’t even that surprised. I remember being in the classroom and thinking ‘this makes sense’. Because I grew up seeing mass shootings, they were all over the place on television. I wasn’t even alive during Columbine, which was one of the most memorable mass shootings in American history. So it was just a matter of us being tired of seeing that happening all the time. It was really important for young people to stand up, because with every mass shooting before this one, either nobody stood up, or they were too quiet and nobody listened to them. This time, there were 16, 17 and 18-year-olds appearing on TV screens, screaming at the very people that they were meant to ‘respect’. We were yelling at them, and people were just intrigued by our fierceness.

MD: The National Rifle Association (NRA) has practised something that is sometimes referred to as ‘normalisation’, where they create a narrative that is not grounded in reality, but this story is told so many times that it becomes fact to some people. So we immediately knew that what we needed to do is just speak with the truth on the matter. They have of course been trying to discredit this truth, but they have been unable to. When it came to Parkland, I was personally terrified for my brother and sister, and when they came home, my sister – it was her birthday – was pretending like everything was fine, but my brother was visibly angry. At that point we thought that only three people had died, and my brother was like ‘I need to find out if so-and-so is OK’, and he was so angry, he looked at me and said ‘I’m not traumatised, I’m pissed. I’m pissed because something needs to happen’. He was saying this 20 minutes after getting home, and we felt then that we could do anything.

JC: Yes, the fact that we didn’t even have time to mourn shows how messed up the system is. In a way, we were prepared for this to happen.

MD: The media was outside almost every funeral, if not at all of them. Every funeral I attended, I walked out and there was a camera on my face. So they give you a choice: you can either mourn and internalise that anger about the need for change, or you can voice it. We then took advantage of the eyes on us and voiced a very powerful message. It’s not that other mass shooting victims or other gun reform advocates have had less powerful messages – what made the difference is that we did something that people were not used to seeing: we broke the cycle that happens when there’s a crime: the families on TV, the funerals, the graduation - it’s almost like watching an exhibit. And we didn’t allow ourselves to be turned into an exhibit. There was something that someone said – Joaquin’s dad, actually – that stuck with me: he said ‘when reporters call me, I tell them I’m not news. What we are doing may become news, but we are not news anymore. The shooting in Parkland happened, and it’s done. We need the news to be something better, positive, something that produces change’. He told me this a week after his son’s funeral, and his message really inspired me. We are not telling people what happened – everyone knows what happened. They may be twisting their own version of it, but everyone knows what occurred. It’s just about making sure that we don’t have to go through something like this again, and that no family feels the way these amazing families now feel.

3. How were you able to move past the ‘thoughts and prayers’ phase, and into the policy-making arena?
JC: The idea of ‘policy and change’ instead of ‘thoughts and prayers’ only came with us after speaking to politicians directly. But what we were getting was just an illusion of change, because it didn’t really do anything: they raised the age to buy firearms, but it wasn’t enough. They proposed a programme to arm teachers, which was exactly the opposite of what we wanted, because that pours even more money into gun corporations.

MD: There’s no scientific evidence that more guns in any situation will make you safer.

JC: Exactly. And there have been hundreds of local laws implemented since Parkland, and 25 across 15 states at a state level, but that’s not nearly enough because what really needs to happen is federal change. Especially when it comes to universal background checks. No matter how strict a state may be, there’s always a state that is less strict and it’s so easy to move firearms around that it just doesn’t change anything.

MD: For instance, Chicago has strict gun laws, but they still have high gun violence, because they are next door to Indiana, which has no gun laws, and there is nobody at the border checking the guns that come through. And we have no federal registry, no way of tracking where guns come from, who owns them or what they are being used for. We need this to enforce individual responsibility for gun ownership.

4. What do you think your chances of success are, and why?
JC: We think our chances are incredibly high; it’s just a matter of time. The easy stuff is going to come first: for instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now will be able to research gun violence on a funded level; a digitised register may be created - all that is going to come first. It’s going to be a longer push for assault weapons and high capacity magazines to be banned. But it’s going to happen, because we are not going anywhere until it’s done.

MD: David Hogg, one of the movement’s founders, was asked on TV whether he thought we would be successful. He said yes, and the reporter said: ‘but the people against you are very powerful, they are a large organisation, they are training leaders every day, and they have tons of money’. And David goes: ‘yeah, but we are going to outlive them’. It’s that simple: young people are coming together to save each other’s lives. The selfish older generation, including the NRA leadership, is going to crumble. It’s bound to happen, because they have been a part of the corruption of our democracy and of America’s freedoms for so long. We are calling their bluff, exposing their façade, for stepping on the flag and using it as a podium instead of representing what that flag means.

JC: There are very few people on the other side compared to ours because young people have a more open mind now, in the 21st century, compared to ever before, and that makes us optimistic. Our open minds stem from the education we have received and the fact that we are aware that we have so much more to learn.

MD: This generation is better educated than most generations before. We were born in the internet age. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to look things up online when I had a question, and that ability to have all our questions answered is something that we have taken for granted - now we understand why it means so much. We can use that ability to communicate with loads of people to continue this education and produce policy that makes sense. A true democracy can only work in an educated society, so being an educated voting force is key to tackling the corruption that seems to have taken over the US, especially in recent years.

5. How did you personally become involved in this movement, and what was your source of inspiration?
MD: We model a lot of what we do after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage and the women’s liberation movements: all the movements that expanded democracy. We are getting the same sort of message out. It worked – we didn’t have a democracy in America until everyone was granted the right to vote. In fact, America has only been a democracy for around 50 years! And we talk about being a free country, but even now, with the trend of mass incarceration, voter ID laws, registration requirements – all tactics of voter suppression – we are not actually a true democracy. We are using the same methods that worked in the past to expand our democracy.

JC: The movements that were most successful in the US had defined goals. Movements that are scattered about and lack one major thing they are striving for end up dwindling away. The fact that we have five main goals makes for a very clear finish line that is achievable. The first one is funded research on gun violence by the CDC – because until recently, as a result of the 1996 Dickey amendment, the CDC was not allowed to receive money to research the effects of gun violence in our country. This legislative provision was changed recently, but the CDC was still given no money – so what we need is categorised grants to fund this research. The second goal is a single digitised registry of files for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Currently there is no single place where you can find who owns a particular gun, and sometimes it is impossible to find out, because so many guns are bought on the black market or in private sales. We have the technology to fix this, but it hasn’t happened because people think it is a violation of their Second Amendment Rights – which has been completely taken over by the NRA lobby, with a definition that makes no sense, as it treats the reasonable regulation of the exercise of a right as an infringement. But the truth is, even if all our demands were made into federal law, people would still be able to go through a screening process and buy a firearm intended for protection, which is what the Second Amendment is for.

MD: The third goal is universal background checks. For instance, in no state should a domestic abuser be allowed to purchase a gun legally. Domestic abuse is the number one indicator for a mass shooter; it has a higher correlation with mass shootings than mental health issues. But that’s not in the law in most places. In some places there are no checks at all. In 12 states a concealed carry permit only requires you to sign a piece of paper. If you are on the terrorist watch list you cannot get on a plane, but you could still purchase an assault weapon. There are places where you need to go through background checks if you want to adopt a cat, but not if you want to buy an assault weapon! This makes no sense. Background checks should be required for every single gun purchase.

JC: It is important to emphasise that background checks should be mandated by federal law, so that every jurisdiction has the same requirements and procedures, and there are not places where regulations are less strict, creating loopholes that can be taken advantage of. Lastly, our fourth and fifth goals are longer term, as they are the hardest to swallow for conservatives. According to polls, they are still supported by a majority of public opinion, but less than the previous three, for which approval rates are around 80 to 90 per cent. Goals four and five are a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles. The shooter in our school fired 180 rounds in less than six minutes, while walking around and taking the time to go to classroom after classroom. When he was firing, it was like rainfall. No person should have the ability to shoot that many bullets in such short amount of time. Most hunting ranges have banned this type of weapon – which in fact are not really meant for hunting animals; they are meant for hunting people. This kind of firing power can only be in the hands of highly trained individuals, and has no place in our homes and streets. This is what so many veterans are telling us: these weapons are a danger not only to other people, but also to their owners and the people close to them, because they don’t know how to handle them, store them and take care of them.

6. In which ways could international civil society and like-minded movements elsewhere help you achieve your goals?
JC: A lot of other countries, like Australia and most European ones, have laws like the ones we advocate for, and their levels of gun crime are incredibly lower than ours. This proves there is a way to fix this, and we should stop ignoring the fact that we have a gun problem and blaming it all on mental health. Other countries have mental health problems but these problems don’t cause the same amount of damage as here, so the argument doesn’t hold. If the international community could add their voices in support of the idea that these laws do work, it would be of a lot of help.

MD: The international community could help a lot in promoting an educated democracy, saying how important it is for young people to not only vote, but also become educated in the voting process, given that our political system has clearly failed us when it comes to protecting us. This is important not only for the US but also for the world, because others emulate the US, as we can see with the current administration and how it has played out in the rest of the world in terms of the increase in intolerance and hate crimes. By promoting education and democracy, the international community would be helping us.

Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with March for Our Lives through their website or Facebook page, or follow @AMarch4OurLives, @JaclynCorin and @MattxRed on Twitter.