TREND WATCH: What’s Happening? More than two months after the Parkland school shooting, the #NeverAgain movement that emerged in its wake shows no sign of fading. #NeverAgain’s teenage leaders have become the face of gun-control advocacy. The media portrays #NeverAgain as a generational issue, with the youngest Americans leading the way.
Our Take: This portrait isn’t really accurate. Polls show that older people are just as supportive of gun control measures as the young. #NeverAgain’s leaders aren’t so much representing their generation as they are the American public, with support among all age brackets for stricter gun laws now hitting record highs. This shift of opinion, combined with the prospect of a strong Democratic showing in the 2018 midterms, spells tighter regulation of the gun industry. Counterintuitively, given the historical correlation between social mood and firearms sales, this shift could actually boost gun stocks.
On Valentine’s Day, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on students at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and wounding 17 others. The mass shooting, one of the deadliest school massacres on record, reopened America’s long-running debate on gun control. But this time, pleas for stricter gun control didn’t simply fade away overnight—giving advocates hope that new legislation may be on the horizon.
At the heart of the debate’s longevity is the #NeverAgain movement, a series of staged protests, rallies, and media appearances launched by teenage Parkland survivors. The founders of this movement—including Parkland teens David Hogg and Emma González—have been lauded (and also attacked) for their role in the debate, with some calling them the “voice of a generation” determined to take action.
But is #NeverAgain—and the gun-control debate more broadly—truly a generational issue? And what are the ramifications for the firearms industry, politicians, and the nation? The answer may not be what you expect.
THE TRUTHS (AND MYTHS) OF #NEVERAGAIN
Media coverage has portrayed the renewed gun-control debate as a generational issue, with the students who grew up amid active shooter drills and lockdowns taking the lead.
The anecdotal evidence adds up: From the national school walkout to the March for Our Lives, teens have commanded the spotlight. Impassioned thinkpieces—like this Time cover story, titled “The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough”—cast the Parkland teens as leaders of a revolution. The idea is that young people have a very different, more restrictive attitude toward guns and are dragging their elders along on the path to gun reform.
This framing makes for a compelling story. But it’s not true.
Young people actually don’t differ much from their parents and grandparents on the issue of gun control. Gallup data since 2015 indicate that on average, adults under 30 are only 1 percentage point more likely to support stricter gun laws than the national average of 57%. What’s more, 13- to 17-year-olds are actually slightly less likely to support raising the minimum purchase age for assault-style rifles.
It also bears mentioning that teens didn’t dominate the March for Our Lives attendees: According to a survey by University of Maryland professor Dana R. Fisher, only about 10% of the crowd was under 18.
Quite simply, most Americans of all ages strongly favor the policies #NeverAgain is promoting, such as preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns, mandating universal background checks, and creating a federal gun-sales database. This majority has also been growing significantly in recent years. All told, the share of Americans who want stricter gun laws (as measured by Gallup, Quinnipiac University, Morning Consult, and NPR/Ipsos) is at its highest level in 20 years.
Not only do attitudes toward guns not differ much by age, but actual gun ownership doesn’t differ much either. Pew data show that 27% of 18- to 29-year-olds owned a gun in 2017, only slightly lower than the roughly 30% of older adults who owned one. This statistic is remarkable given that Millennials are less likely to be white and rural, and therefore less likely to participate in the “field and stream” hunting culture that glorifies gun ownership. Millennials have also come of age in an era of declining crime rates, which suggests that fewer of them first sought a gun for self-protection.
Indeed, young people are by some measures less progressive about guns than their elders. According to the Pew Research Center and Gallup, young adults are least likely to support banning assault-style weapons or high-capacity magazines, and most likely to support concealed carry. “What we're hearing now in the immediate aftermath of Parkland might not be representative of what a whole generation feels,” Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research, told NPR.
What’s going on here? While Millennials may have less contact with guns through hunting and military service, they have a lot more contact with guns through video games. Millions of Millennials have forged their own distinct relationship with guns by way of game series like Call of Duty which teach (virtual) gun literacy in encyclopedic detail. Many of these first-person shooters feature in-game weapons that are virtual carbon-copies of their real-life counterparts—like a Medal of Honor .50 caliber rifle that bears a striking resemblance to a Barrett model.
This familiarity has given rise to a hobbyist culture unique to young gun owners: According to Pew, 18% of 18- to 49-year-old gun owners belong to a shooting club of some kind, double the share of gun owners age 50 and older. Unlike older Americans, Millennials are more likely to own a gun for sport shooting than for self-defense.
To be sure, the above polls questioned young adults, not the teens who launched the #NeverAgain movement. Support for gun control may be stronger among late-wave Millennials and early-wave Homelanders, who tend to be polled less due to parental consent requirements.
Indeed, a USA Today/Ipsos poll of 13- to-24-year-olds taken last month did find that fear of gun violence is more pronounced among those under 18: Fully 53% of 13- to 17-year-olds say it’s a major worry, compared to 32% of 18- to 24-year-olds. Younger respondents were also more likely to support banning the mentally ill from owning firearms, installing metal detectors in schools, and (by a margin of 19 percentage points) banning semi-automatic weapons—even as they expressed less confidence that these measures would succeed in preventing mass shootings.
Another media creation is the very narrative that school violence is on the rise. To the contrary, despite some horrific recent massacres, school violence has been declining for decades (since the early 1990s).
By virtually any measure, the school experience is safer today than it's ever been. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students who were victims of crimes at school plunged 85% from 1992 to 2016. Victimization rates of all types—fatal and nonfatal, violent and nonviolent—are in the midst of a secular decline. Students today are less likely to report being bullied at school, being afraid of attack or harm at school, or seeing gangs at school. Just 4% of high school students say they've carried a weapon at school at least once during the past month, down from 12% in 1993. University of Virginia professor Dewey Cornell told The Atlantic that students are far more likely to be injured in restaurants than in schools, which are generally “much safer than the communities around them.” The vast majority of fatal shootings (even fatal mass shootings) are linked to domestic violence, target adults, and take place at home.
If anything, these data speak to the persuasive power of #NeverAgain. As with other trends involving youth and violence, public tolerance is declining faster than actual behavior is changing.
HOW #NEVERAGAIN DIFFERS FROM PREVIOUS YOUTH-LED PROTESTS
But if Millennials are largely in agreement with their elders on gun control, their style of youthful political activism is vastly different. The media gets it exactly 100% wrong by suggesting that Millennials diverge from Boomers when it comes to their views on gun control but resemble Boomers in their youth when it comes to their method of protest.
In a stark reversal from protesters of the '60s and '70s, the teen leaders of #NeverAgain have focused on calling for measured policy changes. More drastic actions, like repealing the Second Amendment, are not on the agenda. The movement’s tone is earnest, not confrontational. As one Boomer told Broward County’s Sun-Sentinel, this isn’t the ‘60s-style activism she remembers: “They’re to some degree more sensible than we were. They’re trying more to work within the system… A lot of us wanted to tear things down.” #NeverAgain’s pragmatic teen leaders urge their peers to use their civic power to vote NRA-backed officials out of office. No torches and pitchforks required.
Much of #NeverAgain’s rhetoric is similarly unobjectionable. It argues that gun control is an issue of public safety and that children deserve protection. Boomers demanded fewer rules and a lower voting age; Millennials and Homelanders want more rules and higher age limits for gun ownership. At the March for Our Lives, Parkland survivor Jaclyn Corin declared, "We cannot keep America great if we cannot keep America safe.” Speakers took pains to highlight everyday gun violence in non-white communities and to appeal to listeners’ sense of empathy. Their civil tone and pragmatist stance has resulted in more firebrand adults issuing apologies to them than the other way around.
The calm, deliberative nature of these youth protests makes sense in light of a recent survey showing that today’s teens have a negative impression of what passes as activism for older generations. According to a PRRI/MTV report released in January, a majority of young people ascribe negative characteristics such as “pointless,” “divisive,” “counterproductive,” and “violent” to the recent protests and marches. In a piece about March for Our Lives, New Yorker writer Emily Witt joked that “it has to be one of the least anti-establishment social movements in American history.”
The #NeverAgain movement has the potential to influence everything from the political composition of Congress to the fate of the U.S. gun industry.
#NeverAgain rides on the 2018 midterms—and also vice versa? It’s no secret that the one big obstacle standing in the way of the #NeverAgain agenda is the GOP. Republicans are much cozier with the NRA. They are much more supportive of a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment. And the party’s “house media” has gone out of its way to ridicule the #NeverAgain leaders (sometimes with disastrous results, as conservative pundit Laura Ingraham can attest).
So does the sustained success of #NeverAgain ride on the 2018 midterms? In a word, yes. A Democratic clean sweep—which, although unlikely, is still possible—would drastically improve the likelihood of meaningful gun-control legislation reaching President Trump’s desk. Even if Democrats only win the House (PredictIt now gives them a 69% chance), it will still get Republicans running scared, perhaps raising the odds that the GOP entertains a deal on gun reform to save face ahead of 2020.
And if gun control does advance all the way up to Trump? A city-slicking real estate mogul, Trump doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a “gun guy.” What’s more, he has voiced his support for certain gun-control measures in the past, such as banning assault-style weapons and lengthening the waiting period for prospective buyers. This all bodes well for #NeverAgain.
Is it also true that the Democrats’ prospects ride on #NeverAgain? We simply don’t have enough evidence to say.
Yes, #NeverAgain has gained steam at the same time that the Democrats’ Congressional odds have been rising. Gun control has become a valuable part of the Democratic platform, with candidates hosting registration drives for young voters and emphasizing gun control in close races from Colorado to Virginia. In a recent Quinnipiac University survey, 18- to 34-year-olds were most likely to say they feel “more motivated than usual” to vote this year.
But all of this is circumstantial. We have no demonstrable data showing that #NeverAgain is having a significant impact on voter support for Democrats in the same vein as #MeToo (e.g., the dramatic rise in the number of women running for office). And in fact, polls show that most Americans are far more concerned with substantive policy issues like health care and the economy than gun control.
Firearms industry could benefit from political heat. Conventional wisdom says that rising interest in gun control should be disastrous for the firearms industry. Nearly 150 professional investors are "strongly urging" companies in any way involved with the manufacture and retail of firearms to take a stand. Dozens of big-name businesses, including Walmart, United, Wyndham, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, have either eliminated NRA discounts or increased gun-related restrictions. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is exploring ways to exclude gun makers from client portfolios. All that must be bad for business, right?
Maybe not. In fact, the industry was already facing challenges even before Parkland. Firearms giant Remington announced in mid-February it was filing for bankruptcy, and stock prices of the publicly traded gun companies are all down. The big turning point was Trump’s election. In the run-up to the election, fearful red-zoners rushed to buy guns before Hillary had the chance to push through new regulations. It’s the same phenomenon that fueled a boom in sales of emergency food packets, outdoor gear, and other “survivalism” staples. (See: “I Will Survive.”)
On the contrary, the specter of a draconian crackdown on gun ownerwhip could actually be great for gun sales, and therefore for gun stocks. According to researchers from Wellesley College, the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino shootings resulted in huge spikes in gun sales amid calls for gun control from President Obama. No such spikes occurred after Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs; indeed, with little fear of new restrictions under Republican leadership, gun sales have plummeted. The industry experienced growing sales and market cap throughout the first six years of the Obama presidency. The outlook was especially bullish in the year following Sandy Hook (roughly, calendar year 2013), when Obama leaned heavily on Congress to pass legislation. Next year, when it was clear this legislation was going nowhere—especially after the second "Tea Party" victory for the GOP in November—sales and prices dropped.
The recent gun boom hasn't been caused solely by a surge in consumer demand. Another driver has been the dramatic post-9/11 militarization of U.S. federal agencies. According to nonprofit OpenTheBooks.com, roughly 120,000 federal agents were authorized to carry firearms in 2008, a 50% jump from 1998. Federal agencies spent a combined $1.5 billion on firearms from 2006 to 2014, with annual sales swelling to a high of $225 million by 2012. These are not just your conventional FBI agents or corrections officers we're talking about: Agencies such as the Small Business Administration, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency have each spent millions of dollars on firearms since 2006. These figures don't even count the outlays by state and local governments—which could soon get a boost from the Trump Administration's decision to reinstate the 1033 Program, which hands down surplus military hardware to police departments. And then there's President Trump's proposal to arm teachers and other school personnel. OK, this last idea is probably a nonstarter. Still, all these government dollars add up to plenty of arms purchases.
The irony is that the faster Democrats storm into Congress with a conspicuous gun-control agenda, the better it will be in the near term for gun manufacturers. In the long term, if the government ever passes sweeping gun-control legislation that gains broad public backing, then yes at that point the firearms industry should worry. But even in that case, the continued militarization of government agencies could create an offsetting stream of demand for the industry.
#NeverAgain isn’t targeting the firearms industry itself. It is a plea for action to those in power from a generation of youth who believe in their right to protection. While the movement’s legislative victories have so far been modest, its vision of a better world—safe, sensible, and cooperative—is one that has resonated so widely precisely because it’s so easy to swallow. And depending upon what happens in 2018 and beyond, #NeverAgain may yet have some legs.