At Justin Vaughn’s Maryland high school, support for curbing guns runs deep, “and I’m on the ‘wrong’ side,” the 17-year-old says.
So it came as a relief for Vaughn to mingle with like-minded conservative students from across the country at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
“This is like the only place I’ve seen where kids are on my side,” Vaughn said. At his high school, he said, his pro-Second Amendment views are received as, “I’m supporting killers, when I’m really supporting people who want to protect the Constitution.”
The students who survived the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have captivated the nation — on television, in town halls and in marches and rallies from campuses to state capitals. While they have turned their grief and anger into a powerful political force in support of gun control, and luring their peers in other states to do the same, the young adults speaking up for gun rights at CPAC say they feel increasingly marginalized.
“Not liking guns is a millennial thing, it’s the cool thing to be against guns,” said Vaughn.
Jacob Thomas, 20, a student at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Va., said he’s experienced the same situation.
“You can’t express that opinion, especially on college campuses,” he said.
While their peers elsewhere have been adding their names to campus walkouts to protest gun violence, several students here said they took advantage of the National Rifle Association’s show discount and signed up for membership.
“The Second Amendment is what we’re protecting,” said Abby Brinkman, 22, a senior at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio who wore a dress imprinted with the words “We the People.” She said there have been talks on her Ohio campus about starting a group to help students who are turning 21 and are interested in carrying a concealed weapon.
“People have been so quick to turn on gun owners rather than smart solutions,” she said.
Eric Folkerts, 20, a freshman University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said he believes the Parkland students are “victims being used as pawns in a way to advance a political agenda.”
“They’re 16, 17, 18, the reality is they really don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “Just because you go through a tragedy doesn’t mean you know the issues, the policy and the legislation.”
Liberty Fuchs, 19, a self-identified libertarian from Los Angeles, said she strongly empathizes with the Florida students, but is afraid their tactics are alienating even those sympathetic to them. She said she’s read statements on social media that equate support for gun rights to sanctioning school shootings.
“It’s so upsetting to hear them say you’re either for gun control or dead kids,” she said. “I don’t question their motives, of course they want to do something and it’s been so powerful, so strong. But to turn it into an attack on the right wing? It’s like the feeling when you get bullied in high school because you believe in something different.”