WASHINGTON — The crowds that flooded Pennsylvania Avenue have gone home. The kids who chanted “vote them out” and “never again” have returned to high school math class, or, if they’re lucky, gone on spring break.

And the question now — seven months before the midterm elections, two years before the 2020 general election — is this:

Will it stick?

Will the same energy that motivated half a million to descend on D.C. and thousands more to MarchForOurLives across the country to demand that politicians support additional restrictions on gun ownership translate to a significant electoral impact?

The nation is seven months from knowing, but those who attended the march say they’re determined to see this through.

Sammy Caruso, 16, an Oakwood High School senior, is two years away from casting his first vote, but the Dayton-area student said he is already organizing another rally, to commemorate the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20.

“We want to turn all this energy and passion into real change,” he said, adding he’s going to start working on local and state campaigns, and working with others passionate about the issue to get them involved as well.

Alex Bihari is hopeful too. He’s a senior at Thomas Worthington High School who, like Caruso, attended the Washington march. When he goes to the polls for the first time this year, he said, he'’ll vote on three issues: Guns, immigrants and refugees, and how candidates stand on Donald Trump.

“If someone is on the payroll of the NRA and gun lobby, that’s a deal breaker for me,” he said. “If someone is not willing help refugees and immigrants, that’s deal breaker for me. If someone supports Donald Trump, that’s a deal breaker for me.”

They say they’re energized. Others say sustaining that energy will take work and persistence.

“It’s really hard after you’ve channeled that energy and excitement to keep it sustained,” said one D.C. Republican who has worked with young activists. “It’s fun to go march with tons of people and yell and scream. But it’s not a lot of fun to go door-knocking on a Wednesday night when it’s kind of cold and windy.”

While the march was organized under the auspices of additional gun control measures, organizers seemed resigned to the notion that they wouldn’t change minds. Better, they argued, to change the office-holders.

Even the signs reflected that.

“Grab ‘em by the midterms,” read one sign.

“See you in November,” read another.

“I’m joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started,” read a third.

Aaron Ghitelman of HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy, said his group deployed volunteers at marches around the country, registering 4,800 nationwide over a 10-hour period on Saturday. That figure did not include voter registrations conducted on the Internet.

In the days following the march, HeadCount released a tool kit aimed at helping young people run voter registration drives. “The idea is, and the goal — which isn’t that crazy because a lot of schools are doing it — is to make sure we have 90 percent of America’s high schools hosting voter registration drives in some capacity, be it on paper or lap top,” Ghitelman said.

The group is nonpartisan, so their goal, he said, “is to empower students and get out of the way.”

“I think regardless of what you think about the issue it certainly is exciting to see young people being listened to,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “You’ve got to think it’s having an influence on other young people on whether or not they think their voice matters.”

She said while the recent engagement over mass shootings has galvanized the young, it has the potential to influence older voters as well.

“There could be a ‘trickle-up’ effect from all these young people talking about voting inside their households,” she said.

According to the United States Election Project, based out of the University of Florida, 43.4 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in 2016 — up from 40.9 percent in 2012.

But that group represents a smaller percentage than those in other age groups. Nearly 57 percent of those aged 30-44 voted and 71.4 percent of those over 60 voted.

Still, percentages aside, the Pew Research Center found that in raw numbers, millennials and Generation X combined have now surpassed Baby Boomers and older Americans as the majority of voters in U.S. presidential elections, casting 69.6 million votes in the 2016 general election out of 137.5 million total. Boomers and older voters represented fewer than half of all votes for the first time in decades.

None of those groups, however, account for many of those who showed up to the marches who are not old enough to vote yet, but will be by 2020. Some four million Americans will turn 18 this year.

Julia Ann Caple, 19, a New Hampshire native and sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University, is among those who will vote for the first time this year. She said she understands that the march is just one step in what is going to be a long-term fight.

Still, she’s realistic.

“Right now, I honestly think it’s too early to tell if it’s going to be any different,” she said. “I’m really, really hoping things will be different … we have the numbers to really make a difference.”

The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has consistently argued that the protests are orchestrated and has deployed its own political organization in response to the shooting.

"Today’s protests aren’t spontaneous," spokesmen for the organization wrote on their Facebook page the day of the protests. "Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones."

The organization raked in money in the days after the shooting: The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, found the organization received twice as much money from nearly five times as many donors in the seven days after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting than it did in the seven days before the Feb. 14 shooting. From Feb. 15 to Feb. 28 alone, the organization's political action committee raised $70,870 through 226 donations, according to center.

"While we applaud the Parkland students for exercising their First Amendment right, they don’t speak for their entire generation," the NRA tweeted.
Richard Aborn, who was the chief strategist behind the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the 1994 ban on assault weapons, said the Parkland students have managed to ignite a movement partly because of the specificity of what they’re asking for and partly because they’re doing something that past survivors of mass shootings have not: Threatening to throw those who won’t consider their point of view out of office.

“Gun politics is brass knuckle politics,” he said.

He said the kids have begun “the second big gun control movement.”

“If they are able to show that they are able to elect or throw somebody out of office on the guns issue, things will change so quickly you’ll be blinded by it,” he said. “This is all about showing you have raw political power.”

 

jwehrman@dispatch.com

@jessicawehrman