What it wants to be is a rousing tale of triumph over bloodshed, a vivid insider chronicle of the Florida teenagers who rose up in grief and righteous anger after watching 14 of their classmates and three adults gunned down on Valentine’s Day last year and, through sheer energy, inventiveness, and force of will, upended the power of the National Rifle Association and ushered in a new generation of political leaders willing to confront and contain the United States’s gun violence epidemic.
The problem, of course, is that most of this has not happened. Or not yet. It pains me to say so, and it certainly pains Cullen, who sprinkles his text with quotes from Martin Luther King as if to resuscitate at all costs the spirit of an earlier youthful rebellion that inspired a generation and altered the course of American history. Cullen not only yearns to see the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice. He seems, at times, to be straining and heaving to bend it by himself with narrative willpower. And the arc, maddeningly, won’t cooperate.
“Parkland changed everything,” he writes, “for the survivors, for the nation, and definitely for me.” In that sentence he summarizes everything that is right and everything that is wrong with his book.
Cullen is absolutely correct in arguing that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School achieved something novel and remarkable when, in response to the horrors they’d witnessed, they organized themselves into a formidable moral force seething with impatience for change. “The most important thing,” their State Senator advised them early on, “is that we not let people look away.” And they did not.
David Hogg, a student journalist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, went on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show the next day and refused to be fobbed off with platitudes and sympathy. “I don’t want this to be another mass shooting,” he told her. “I don’t want this just to be something people forget.” Ingraham was so taken aback by his passion, so at a loss to know how to respond, that she ended up cutting him off. Days later, Hogg’s fellow senior Emma González captivated the nation with her “I call BS” speech at a rally in Fort Lauderdale in which she eviscerated the gun lobby and its enablers in Congress.
For more than a month, the students kept the Parkland story front and center. They descended on the state capitol in Tallahassee and induced Rick Scott, the NRA-backed governor, to sign an omnibus bill banning bump stocks, raising the minimum age for gun purchases, and mandating a three-day waiting period of the purchase of most rifles and shotguns. They coordinated a nationwide school walkout on March 14, one month to the day after the massacre, and they brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington for the so-called March For Our Lives.
They seemed preternaturally gifted at every aspect of public activism: at delivering the stirring speeches, at coordinating their messaging to stay focused on a short list of policy goals, at lobbying elected officials, at fundraising — all of it. George Clooney put them in touch with lawyers and communications experts. Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg wrote them checks. Oprah said they reminded her of the Civil Rights–era Freedom Riders and kicked in another half-million dollars.
Cullen does a creditable job of giving us the backstory to these developments: who the main students leaders were before the shootings, what galvanized them into action, how they found their focus and their energy. “The Parkland generation was raised on lockdown drills,” he writes perceptively, “responding to tragedy by learning to hide better.” What Hogg, González, Jackie Corin, Cameron Kasky, and their friends understood in an instant was that the time for such crouching acquiescence was over. They took over the narrative, achieving the singular and unprecedented feat, as Cullen notes, of becoming more famous than the gunman who shattered their lives.
Then came the backlash. The NRA, true to its well-rehearsed pattern, said nothing at first but soon came out fighting against what it called the elites and socialists interested only in stifling American freedoms, not in protecting kids. Conspiracy theories that the Parkland activists were “crisis actors” paid to voice outrage they didn’t truly feel circulated among conservative media. (Cam Kasky observed slyly that if anyone had seen his school production of Fiddler on the Roof they would understand nobody was going to pay him to act in anything, ever.) President Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and others flipped the gun control narrative into a conversation about arming classroom teachers. And, as was inevitable, the country moved on — to other horrors and scandals either boosted or obscured by the maelstrom of chaos and transgression emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The biggest blow came last November, on election night, when it became clear that Florida’s two major statewide races, for Senate and for governor, would not be won by gun law reformers but by establishment Republicans financed by the NRA. This development doesn’t just rob Cullen of the feel-good ending with which he clearly hoped to crown his narrative; it makes a muddle of much that has come before. Many of his arguments — that Parkland was different; that the endless Sisyphean cycle of violence, outrage, and ultimate inaction is at last being broken; that a new generation of activism is overturning received wisdom about the intractability of the United States’s deadly gun culture — look wildly premature if not hollow. And that, in turn, raises basic questions about Cullen’s ability to do what readers should reasonably expect from any author steeped in his subject: to guide them through the thicket of personalities and issues and conflicts, with which they most likely have some familiarity already, and give a sense of what matters and what does not.
On that score, Cullen flounders badly and repeatedly. Ten years ago, he published a detailed, vivid, and psychologically penetrating study of the Columbine school shootings in Colorado, and as he acknowledges he may have become emotionally over-invested in the gun reform movement as a consequence. Sadly, that overinvestment — and the emotional scarring he says he’s suffered from repeated exposure to grieving survivors of gun violence — is all too evident. He puts almost no filter between himself and his activist subjects, chronicling their every move and pronouncement as though all are fraught with significance when, frequently, they are not. He devotes pages, sometimes entire chapters, to the minutiae of organizing, Tweeting, group meetings, organizing meals and bus transport, and so on, to the point where the reader loses the bigger picture, if not also the will to go on. His subjects deserve better.
Cullen spends no time with opponents of new gun legislation, so they remain nebulous, two-dimensional villains whose motives are simply assumed to be bad. He spends little or no time delving into Florida’s gun culture to understand why it has flourished, and no time, as a matter of ideological choice, examining the story of the Parkland shooter, not even to understand how he obtained his weapons or how law enforcement missed a number of crucial warning signs. Ten years ago, Cullen gave us arresting portraits of the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; his decision this time not to utter so much as the name of the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, comes across as a decision made by an activist more than an author.
Then there is his description of Emma González at the March For Our Lives in Washington, as she observes a symbolic six minutes and 20 seconds of agonizing silence to represent the length of the victims’ ordeal. “My cheeks were soaked,” Cullen writes. “It was hard to watch, but I saw a young woman radiating power. Emma was galvanizing a country like no man or woman, pope or president.” It was indeed a powerful speech, but all authorial dispassion is now out the window; this is unabashed fanboydom.
It is also crucially wrong, because Parkland has not, in fact, changed everything. It has changed some things. It has led to the passage of some relatively modest new state gun restrictions, mostly bump stock bans and “red flag” measures empowering law enforcement to put a hold on individuals wanting to buy a gun if they are identified as being potentially dangerous. It has, since Cullen’s book came out, spurred the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to pass legislation that would — if it ever became law — close the infamous gun show loophole and institute more rigorous background checks. It has also, unquestionably, opened up an avenue of new, fresh, energetic, youthful political organizing, whether that’s around gun rights or, as we are now seeing, support for a Green New Deal to imbue the response to global warming with a vastly increased sense of urgency.
These are heartening developments, and with luck they will spur the Parkland activist movement and those inspired by it to keep pushing and growing. But we are not at the end of the story, nor even at some identifiable midpoint. Barring some watershed event none of us can predict, this is just the beginning of a long, hard slog that will entail many more moments of hope, many more setbacks, and, as a matter of statistical near-certainty, more bloodshed and heartbreak.
Some of Cullen’s subjects seem to understand this better than he does, and it’s frustrating that he does not listen harder to them when it matters. Here, for example, is Alfonso Calderon, a junior at the time of the shootings, grasping within days how his life as an activist is likely to unfold:
I am prepared to drop out of school. I am prepared to not worry about anything else besides this because change might not come today. it might not come tomorrow. It might not even come March 24, when we march for our lives down in Washington. But it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in my lifetime because I will fight every single day […] to see sensible gun laws in this country.
That’s a staggeringly clear-eyed assessment for anyone, never mind a 16-year-old. And we have only just ticked past the one-year mark. It may be that the Parkland generation indeed has the passion and the talent and the serendipitous timing to change the world. But we don’t yet know how, or when, or in what configuration. Neither does Cullen — and nor do they.
Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles–based journalist and writer and a longtime foreign correspondent for British newspapers.