Students hold portraits of victims of Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, as they protest for tighter gun laws during the student organized 'March For Our Lives' rally in Los Angeles, California on March 24, 2018. Galvanized by a massacre at a Florida high school, hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to take to the streets in cities across the United States on Saturday in the biggest protest for gun control in a generation. / AFP / Mark Ralston Image Credit: AFP

Young activists raised on social media and memes were bound to come up with the best protest signs. At the March for Our Lives, and the national school walkout earlier this month, teenagers held posters blasting politicians and declaring, “I should be writing my college essay, not my will.” Some were hilarious, many were sad, and all were designed to go viral. The one that I can’t get out of my mind, though, was held by a teenage Pakistani immigrant in New York’s Union Square: “Girls’ clothing in school is more regulated than guns in America.”

We know that the gun debate is a culture war. But Haider and her sign reminded me that it’s more than an abstract debate over ideology or constitutional principles. It’s a fight between a young, diverse, feminist generation representing an emerging majority and an old, white, male minority desperate to hang on to power. And guns are their security blanket of choice.

Just 3 per cent of Americans own half of the guns in America. And that 3 per cent isn’t just anyone. According to a Harvard study flagged by Scientific American this month, the person most likely to stockpile guns in this country is an older, white man from a rural conservative area. And an alarming body of research shows that they’re motivated by racial anxiety and a fear of emasculation.

A 2017 Baylor University study, for example, found that men’s attachment to guns often stemmed from economic woes and fear of losing traditional “breadwinner” status. The researchers wrote that “engaging in fantasies about being an NRA ‘good guy’ who uses his gun to protect his family and community from the ‘bad guys’” was one way for men to reclaim “that threatened masculinity”. And in 2015, researchers from the University of Chicago reported that racial resentment was a strong predictor of opposition to gun control; and that the more racist respondents were, the more steadfast that opposition was.

There’s a long history of white male support for gun rights being connected to anger and fear over gains for women and people of colour. That’s part of the reason that many of the most irate responses to recent young activists have skewed racist or misogynist. It should not surprise us that when a Republican politician in Maine attacked student activist Emma Gonzalez; or that a senior columnist at the right-wing publication Townhall took to Twitter to mock the appearance of protesting teenage girls. Just as it’s no surprise when so many mass shooters are white men with histories of domestic violence, and why so many of their victims are women.

But while issues of race and gender confound and alarm those on the right, young activists are doing nuanced thinking to bolster their work on gun violence. This generation is calling out the hypocrisy of conservatives who abhor government interference unless it’s over women’s bodies, talking about how arming teachers would endanger students of colour, and recognising how white students are getting the support that young Black Lives Matter activists never did. A generation ago, before social media and digital activism, it wouldn’t have been mainstream common knowledge that the National Rifle Association (NRA) failed to support Marissa Alexander, a black woman who used a gun to defend herself from domestic violence. Or that they similarly ignored Bresha Meadows, a teenage girl of colour who shot her abusive father. But today’s young activists can see these failures and hypocrisies clearly and quickly — adults don’t fool them, nor do well-funded lobbying groups.

A lot of us adults watching the march and the walkout felt hope for the first time in a long time, and not just because of the incredible signs. We saw a generation that is succeeding where we failed, an emerging new force that thinks differently and that is willing to take the power it democratically deserves.

I, for one, am ready to take my cues from this smart new America for whom creating change comes so easily. As Haider told me when I asked why she protested: “Why wouldn’t I? It’s insane not to.”

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jessica Valenti is a columnist and the author of multiple books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com