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If Parkland teens persist, they can make America great again

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
If Parkland teens persist, they can make America great again
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez (C) comforts a classmate during a CNN town hall meeting on February 21 after the mass shooting at their school. Pool Photo by Michael Laughlin/UPI | License Photo

Is the #neveragain movement, ignited by the mass shootings at a Parkland, Fla., school and created by the student survivors of those murders, only a fad that will dissipate as quickly as news coverage shifts to the next outrage or sensational story? Or will these passions endure and lead to a powerful political and cultural movement that could actually force profound positive change in how the nation views guns and the Second Amendment?

Experience strongly suggests the former. Hope informs the latter.

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These teenagers are very savvy about social media, much more so than older generations. Whether those street smarts can be put into action will be the test. However, parallels exist.

The Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in Cairo are cases in point.

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In 2010, Mohamed Bouaziz, a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire after his cart had been unjustly confiscated by the police. His suicide prompted a massive social media response leading to protests that were sufficiently strong to force Tunisian President Ben Ali to flee. Repercussions were felt throughout the Arab world. The Egyptian protests likewise forced the end of Mubarak regime in 2011 and the temporary rule of President Mohamed Morsi until a military coup reasserted control over Egypt.

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In 1956 and 1968, student protests led to revolutions in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia that were brutally suppressed. During the Vietnam War, college campus protests no doubt contributed to Lyndon Johnson's refusal to seek re-election. Sadly, the war continued until 1974 when the United States finally withdrew. And over a century earlier, student riots and protests were part of the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

That some of these examples fell short of the aims is not the issue. The point is that even the young can mobilize and generate powerful political forces. The larger point is whether or not change will be for the better and permanent, not temporal.

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Conspiracy theorists are already conjuring up absurd charges that these Florida students are indeed actors being coached and underwritten by anti-gun organizations. Even if that were true, what is wrong with that? Before the Second Amendment, there is the matter of the First. The more likely reason for these nonsensical allegations is fear of what this movement can do.

That the gun lobby and NRA vehemently attacked and discredited this movement is because, at long last, sensible gun control might take hold. This is a potentially existential battle for the NRA. And as for actors joining the debate, was not Charlton Heston best known in that role as well for "my cold dead hands" grasping a rifle?

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The founding children will be well served to focus on societal pressure points to foment long-term change. First, this movement is a real threat to those who fear or oppose sensible rules and controls on guns to halt violence. The best way to exploit that fear is to propose common sense steps to limit the spread and murderous use of firearms.

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Second, through social media, #neveragain should seek to build a membership of millions of all ages beginning with the young. And youth can influence parents and older generations. The goal should be to gain more supporters than the current 5 million NRA members while inducing current members to resign or withhold contributions until sensible laws are enacted.

Third, corporate sponsors and individuals must be challenged to reject the NRA and its "blood money" until common sense legislation and regulations are imposed at the state and federal levels. Emphasis should be on the charge of "blood on your hands."

Fourth, members of Congress who support the more extreme agenda of the NRA should be targeted with candidates who pursue common sense controls. The ballot box is the center of gravity in this battle.

A former Texas Democrat, Rep. Charlie Wilson, best known for Charlie Wilson's War in which he virtually single-handedly helped arm the Afghan mujahedin in the fight to evict the Soviet occupiers is the model for political mobilization. Years before he would attend the Naval Academy, as a very young teenager, Charlie's dog was killed by a local elected official who fed it ground glass. Waiting until the next election, Wilson struck back by ferrying enough local residents to polling stations in his pickup truck to vote the sheriff out of office.

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Given the news cycle lasts two or three days -- does anyone remember Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury or porn star Stormy Daniels? -- staying power is vital. If #neveragain emulates the young Wilson over the long term, perhaps the founding children can accomplish something their seniors have not. Were that to happen, that would surely Make America Great Again!

Harlan Ullman served as senior adviser for Supreme Allied Commander Europe for 12 years, is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and chairman of two private companies. His newest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him on Twitter@harlankullman.

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