Dozens of anti-gun violence protesters at the lobbying offices of the NRA on Capitol Hill following the weekend shooting of 20 elementary school students and eight adults in Newtown, Connecticut
Like many other parents of school-age children, news of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings hit close to home for David Bennahum, a New York tech entrepreneur and founder of the progressive American Independent News Network. The day after the attack, Bennahum took to Facebook: “I posted something along the lines of ‘What would really shift the debate is if you had a million kids march on Washington for gun control,” Bennahum says. “My friends on Facebook were like, ‘That’s a great idea. You should start a page about that.’” Two hours after starting the Facebook page, it had 600 “likes”; two days later, it had 3,000. With the backing of progressive leaders and organizers from his former life as a journalist, Bennahum forged ahead organizing the Million Kids March on Washington.
Since the initial outpouring of enthusiasm, Bennahum has set up a website and began the process of hiring a logistics firm, raising the funds to organize the event, and setting a date. People from across the country have already begun to arrange similar events in their hometowns. Earlier this month, the Prospect spoke with Bennahum about the idea behind the event, America’s gun obsession, and whether the march constitutes the beginning of a populist anti-gun movement.
My thought when I saw the Million Kids March page and website is that kids don’t generally have a voice in the political process. Talk to me about the concept.
I have two kids and “that’s not fair” is one of a child’s favorite phrases. They have a deep sense of justice; they’re completely obsessed with what I’m getting, what my sibling is getting, etc. I think to engage kids in the debate of whether it’s fair to have these high-velocity killing machines for people—is that fair? I would trust a child’s judgment on this far more than an adult’s frankly.
In so many of these shootings, the victims have been children. And to your point, they’re voiceless. So I thought to myself, What would it mean to empower kids to state how they feel? After that originating moment, I thought, “How could you say no to those children? Not even Congress could say no to a million kids.” It writes itself conceptually, which I think is part of why the idea took off so quickly on Facebook with no promotion, no celebrity tweets—there was no money behind it or anything. It was pure bottom-up awareness. It’s highly unusual for something to get so much attention that isn’t really part of a more orchestrated campaign.
What is the significance of this project being kickstarted on Facebook?
As someone in the technology world, I would say that what we went through on Facebook was a proof of concept. We said, “What do you think of this concept? A million kids marching on Washington?” Six thousand plus people said, “I like it” and another thousand or so actually RSVP’d. And they did that in 72 hours. This is where social media is so fantastic: You get to test an idea, see if it has legs and then say, “You know what? This has legs.” Now we do the really hard work, which could be several months of raising money, coordinating, doing logistics, but we’re able to do that on the backside of knowing there’s a lot of enthusiasm behind it.
One of the criticisms that’s been levied at progressives and progressive journalists is that after a shooting there are broad calls for gun regulation, but not specific proposals for how gun laws should be changed. Do you have concrete proposals?
No. It would be premature to say that we have a position. I do think we have a strategy and a vision. The best thing we can do is to create a cultural climate where it’s easier for people who are experts in gun policy to do their jobs and encourage elected officials to make the right, hard choices to reform our laws. But what’s exciting about this march is if we can bring a million kids to the mall, it would be a fundamental cultural moment. It would be the second march on Washington since 1964 where the participants were in some way disenfranchised in the political process. Kids cannot vote; they’re the last group in America that is technically disenfranchised.
Another thing I’ve heard said in the wake of the shooting is that while gun-rights advocates have a movement in the NRA, the same really isn’t the case on the other side. Could you speak to that point?
The phrase “silent majority” was used a generation ago to describe a group of people who had been silent about what was then a cultural revolution and then decided to stand up—not to be silent anymore. Today, we’re part of a majority that’s not going to be silent anymore when it comes to fundamental moral issues like access to high-caliber, high-speed weaponry. I think the NRA and other groups are going to have to grapple with the fact that this majority has been rising; it’s been showing itself at the ballot box and had fundamental impact in the 2012 elections. It’s slow rolling, it’s big, it’s cultural. It has different cultural values and it’s beginning to flex its muscle. This march is part of that historic process and why I think ultimately it will be successful.
What is the larger cultural shift that you’re talking about? Can you characterize that?
I think it’s a shift from individualism to an appreciation that we’re all in this together as a country. A growing awareness that “you’re on your own so get your gun, get your bunker, and camp out” is no longer a good framework for living in a modern American society. With that comes a shift. How do I help my neighbor? How do we work together to solve problems? This whole notion of trickle-down economics, laissez-faire, social Darwinism—a lot of that is being pushed back very, very hard. You see a shooting like this and it reinforces a sense that we’re all in this together.
How would you respond to the criticism that you are using children, whose beliefs are generally set by parents, to further a political agenda?
This is about not just a march, but genuine civic engagement for kids leading up to and past the march. It's an amazing teaching opportunity about the right to petition our government, freedom of assembly, and what it means to be an engaged citizen in a democracy. The march will be a high point in a deeply educational process. So we are confident that, in the end, kids participating in the march will be doing so out of genuine free will, and a desire to set a future course for America that they believe in.
You mentioned earlier that you’re getting set up with a group to do the logistics. So have you had buy-in from larger organizations?
Through email and Facebook we’ve gotten a lot of messages from people working with larger organizations and also just grassroots organizers expressing their enthusiasm to help us out and to coordinate. We need outreach coordinators, people who are skilled at this because it’s a full-time activity, talking and negotiating and coordinating. We are hiring a logistics firm to help with the logistics of the march. That’s where having a bit of a budget will help because if it’s going to become a full-time job, people doing that have to be able to do it financially.