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Calling B.S. on Ageism: What the Response to the Parkland Shooting Means for Youth Rights

Written by NYRA Apr 17, 2018

Yet another reason we should lower the voting age

The fallout from the Parkland shooting has brought the country’s attention to several facts that often go overlooked. Since the shooting, more people are starting to see that young people have an immediate stake in the way the country is run. And, secondly, thanks to student activism, people are starting to see that youth are willing and able to be politically active. This has led to many op-eds advocating lowering the voting age. More people now see the absurdity of claiming that politics is “not for kids” when “kids” are being killed in incidents that are highly politicized.

Of course, political activism is not something new that young people suddenly started to do two months ago. Young people have been major political participants from today’s Black Lives Matter movement to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond. The fact that youth activism is starting to gain the recognition it deserves is a great step forward and has a tremendous amount of potential for increasing youth rights in general.

Pushback against the voices of young people

However, whenever young people attempt to be heard, there is a backlash. While much of the backlash in the case of Parkland is simply because gun control is a highly controversial issue, the Parkland activists have largely been attacked because of their age rather than the substance of the issues. They have been told by politicians that they are too young to be involved in politics. They have been accused of being pawns in a conspiracy by the liberal media. Their critics assume that young people “are not rational actors,” and that they are simply parroting what liberal adults say.

Sign reads Armed with Ballots
A sign from the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

However, this argument quickly falls when we realize student have also organized walkouts in favor of the Second Amendment or against abortion. These protests show that young people are capable of participating in a variety of political movements as independent actors. Whether commentators think young people should participate in politics is largely dependent on whether they agree with the protestors’ position.

Similarly, whether or not students were punished for organizing school walkouts was determined by the biases of adults. While some schools supported students’ right to freedom of expression and assembly, others punished students harshly, including one school that notoriously, yet legally, hit students for participating in the walkout. Another school punished students because participation in the walkout would conflict with students “growing educationally, emotionally, and morally,” which, of course, is not a judgement young people are allowed to make for themselves.

“Making schools safer”

With any school shooting comes discussion about how to increase safety in public schools. However, we should recognize that school shootings command a disproportionate amount of media and political attention, compared to other serious issues. According to recent research, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and only about one of those incidents on average takes place at a school.  And only an average of about 10 students per year have been killed by gunfire at school over the past 25 years. This is a very small number, compared with the over 35,000 gun deaths that happen each year, and yet politicians and the media spend a disproportionate amount of discussing how to make schools safer, rather than focusing on the country as whole.

It is easier to “ask” young people in school to make all of the sacrifices: to pass through metal detectors each morning, to put up with heightened levels of suspicion and more restrictions on freedom of expression. Of course, students don’t get asked at all what they think about these policies, as most would reject them.

It has been long established that increased fortification and policing of schools has a negative effect on students. More policing leads to more students being arrested, and worsens the school-to-prison pipeline. Such policies, in fact, have a negative effect on school safety overall, and do little or nothing to prevent gun violence.

Some of the “make schools safer” platform has also proposed arming teachers. This too is a burden for students. Not only is it intimidating to spend all day following the directions of an armed teacher, it is also dangerous. Since Parkland, at least one student has been accidentally shot by an armed teacher and there’s legitimate concern that armed teachers would disproportionately shoot students of color. But because young people lack other fundamental rights, it is easier to further whittle away at the ones that do exist.

Banning guns for people under 21

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, many advocates for gun control have called for raising the firearm purchasing age to 21. Stores such as Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kroger, and L.L. Bean have implemented store policies to refuse to sell guns to anyone under the age of 21. However, these policies are an ineffective and an unfair way to prevent another Parkland.

Raising the purchasing age would be ineffective at preventing mass shootings. Out of the 34 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, the Parkland shooter is the only person under the age of 21 who purchased the gun legally. On top of this, the vast majority of mass shootings are committed by people between the ages of 20 and 49. So even if raising the purchasing age were effective at stopping people aged 18-20 from committing mass shootings, then out of the 1,000+ deaths from mass shootings in the last 35 years, this policy would still only have saved tens of lives.

Second, raising the purchase age would be unfair because it would single out a minority group to sacrifice a freedom that many consider to be a Constitutional right. Of course, how we should interpret the Second Amendment is still an open question. But it is a double standard to say that owning a gun is a Constitutional right for people 21 and up (the ones who commit the vast majority of mass shootings) and yet to say that it isn’t a Constitutional right for people under 21 (who will continue to be victims of the mass shootings largely committed by older people). Once again, young people are being unfairly volunteered to make a disproportionate number of sacrifices to pay for the irresponsible behavior of older people.

Two young people, Tristan Fulton, 18 and Tyler Watson, 20, are resisting these unjust policies and are currently suing Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart for age discrimination. Fulton and Watson are residents of Michigan and Oregon, respectively, and these states both have statutes protecting young people from age discrimination. Both of these cases could set a future precedent for protecting young people’s rights and NYRA will be following them closely.

Where do we go from here?

This is a particularly interesting time for youth rights as we see more support for lowering the voting age as well as greater restrictions on youth rights in and outside of school.

We must take advantage of this opportunity to promote a lower voting age. A member of the Washington D.C. City Council re-introduced a bill to lower the voting age to 16  for all elections. When NYRA worked on this bill in 2015, the bill stalled because there wasn’t enough support for lowering the voting age. Now, because of the March for Our Lives, D.C. Council Member Charles Allen decided to reintroduce it saying: “It’s pretty hard for anyone to watch the events of the last couple of months and not understand the pure power and maturity of incredibly young voices… I don’t see how anyone could hear any of those voices and think that person couldn’t make an informed decision like anyone else.” Now more voting age campaigns are being organized and we have compiled a list of current campaigns to lower the voting age.

We must also continue to resist people using false narratives to single out young people with new restrictions. Targeting young people is not the answer. No matter what side of the gun debate individuals find themselves on, we should all come together and resist any attempts that try to scapegoat young people for the nation’s problems. We need to recognize that students don’t just have a right to safety, but a right to express themselves and make decisions concerning school policy. Of course, NYRA has always done these things, but now, it seems like a lot more people are listening.

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