3 reasons Gen Z activists have changed the gun control conversation when no one else could

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Thousands of students, educators and faculty across America took part in the #Enough National School Walkout on Wednesday to both honor those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February and fight for stricter gun laws. More than any activists in a generation, they have managed to take over the conversation around gun control and American safety.

"These students are trying to build a different kind of world and correct a lot the mistakes people in previous generations made," Columbia University professor Ed Morales, author of the upcoming book "Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture," tells CNBC Make It.

Morales argues that Emma González, one of the most vocal student survivors, and her Gen Z peers (Americans born between 1994 and 2010) have succeeded in leading the March For Our Lives movement because of their youth, protest style and ability to hold inclusive conversations.

González, an 18-year-old student at Stoneman Douglas, directly called out President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association (NRA) at an anti-gun rally held days after the mass shooting. A week later, González and fellow survivors again criticized the NRA and lawmakers at a CNN town hall on gun violence.


And their efforts are showing: New results from a Gallup poll conducted after the Stoneman Douglas shooting found that support for stricter laws on gun sales is at its highest since 1993.

Here are three ways González and her Gen Z peers are pioneering change when so many who came before them failed, according to Morales.

They're protesting to prevent further mass shootings

Stoneman Douglas student survivors have primarily used social media to rally the public around hashtags such as #NeverAgain, #March4OurLives and #DouglasStrong.

Morales explains that while politicians in Congress and coalitions of victims' families have pushed for gun law reform after mass shootings, they haven't had the same unprecedented success in getting their voices heard like these high school students.

"This is the first time that there is a mass movement among pre-college students, staging walkouts and protests in the manner that has been done about other issues in the past," Morales says.

Citing the American immigration rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, AIDS activism and the protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War, Morales says those were protests primarily led by victims directly affected by these particular issues.

"One of the reasons why the protest movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s was so massive is that everyone was exposed to this universal draft and there was a real a danger to [men] that might be drafted," Morales says. "Now, we're at this place where mass shootings are so common that young people feel [shootings] are almost as much a threat to their lives."

With regard to Wednesday's high school walkouts, Morales says he's "not trying to diminish [previous movements]," but today's students are leading a "preventative movement" to avoid becoming victims of another tragedy.

Now, we're at this place where mass shootings are so common that young people feel [shootings] are almost as much a threat to their lives.
Ed Morales
Columbia University professor 

"They want to put strong pressure on Congress to change laws. They're offering different suggestions like banning bump stocks, high capacity automatic weapons, enforcing an age limit and a background check law," Morales says. "They're trying to put pressure and force action."

González manifests this preventive call to action in one of her very few public commentaries since the Florida shooting. In an op-ed for Harper's Bazaar, González wrote:

"We are kids, we are parents, we are students, we are teachers. We are tired of practicing school shooter drills and feeling scared of something we should never have to think about. We are tired of being ignored. So we are speaking up for those who don't have anyone listening to them, for those who can't talk about it just yet, and for those who will never speak again. We are grieving, we are furious, and we are using our words fiercely and desperately because that's the only thing standing between us and this happening again."

They're using social media and their youth to create change

Morales says Gen Z's activism on social media and their youth helps them enact change so quickly.

"As millennials raise their concerns, it seems like they're being taken up in a more activist fashion by Generation Z. These [Parkland] students are very motivated and are not compromising," Morales said.

He argues millennials and Gen Z hold more progressive views since they face job insecurity and less opportunity to accumulate wealth than older generations.

Morales adds that Gen Z is better equipped to lead the March For Our Lives movement because millennials are, quite frankly, getting older and are busy being "successful adults" with families. That doesn't leave "a lot of time to be involved in direct action or confrontational politics," he says.

"They have less to lose by devoting a lot of time to [activism]," says Morales.

They're sparking an inclusive conversation

González's strong sense of self and identity shines through as a defining characteristic of the most vocal Douglas Stoneman students.

She begins her Harper's Bazaar op-ed by stating her name and saying, "I'm 18 years old, Cuban and bisexual," but concludes, "none of this matters anymore" in light of the tragedy.

Intersectionality, a term first coined by civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, was designed to fight for the rights of marginalized women, such as African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, in the midst of male-dominated liberation movements.

Morales says that González is clearly aware of intersectionality and different political causes, thanks to the convergence of her Latina identity and millennials' growing focus on inclusivity.

"What you see with Emma is someone who is aware that she's Cuban, aware that she's a woman and aware that she is bisexual and she sees all those things as continuous and intersecting, that these issues should all be thought about together," Morales says. "She's able to juggle a series of interlocking problems and work on all of them at once, rather than just feel like she has to focus on one at the expense of the other."

In order to see political change, Morales argues, people need to understand the challenges different groups of people face. He says González and her peers are doing exactly that.

"Emma is capable of a large series of interlocking problem-solving things that she has in her life," he says, "and she's able to juggle all of them and work on all of them at once rather than just feeling like she has to focus on one at the expense of the other."

Earlier this month González and the members of March For Our Lives met with students from Chicago, one of the country's cities with the most gun-related crimes, to talk about their experiences.

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"Young people are much more equipped to see the world today. Twenty years ago, you had to struggle just to come up with the language to describe what all these [intersecting] issues meant, but now you can expect an article in Teen Vogue on it and you can see it all over social media," Morales says. "It's exciting."

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