Gen Z and millennial lawmakers want to end gun violence. But they disagree on how to get there.

April 21, 2023

Gen Z still has a very small representation in state legislatures, with just 73 following the most recent midterms, according to the youth leadership nonprofit Millennial Action Project. Still, that is up from 23 before the midterms.

Gen Z and millennial lawmakers want to end gun violence. But they disagree on how to get there.

By Jorja Siemons Globe Correspondent,Updated April 21, 2023, 7:30 p.m.

It is the kind of political presence that elected officials of any persuasion could not miss: swelling crowds of young people marching on state legislatures demanding an end to gun violence. The protests have increased in frequency as the number of mass shootings in the nation continues a grisly count upward, and they suggest a monolithic movement among young voters.

But as the younger generations that have grown up with active shooter drills in schools increase their numbers in the halls of power, where gun debates increasingly take center stage, they are hardly unified on the issue.

For example, a survey conducted in April by pollster John Della Volpe found a split among Gen Z over one issue, a federal ban on assault weapons: 49 percent favored it, but 36 percent opposed. Millennials are also divided, with 49 percent supporting and 44 percent opposing.

Gen Z still has a very small representation in state legislatures, with just 73 following the most recent midterms, according to the youth leadership nonprofit Millennial Action Project. Still, that is up from 23 before the midterms.

And, those elections also saw Congress gain its first Gen Z member, Representative Maxwell Frost, 26, a Democrat from Florida.

Gen Z is typically defined as those born between 1997 and 2013. Frost, a former national organizing director for the youth advocacy group March For Our Lives, made gun violence prevention central to his campaign. But, acknowledging that all his peers don’t share his views on guns, Frost has tried to get opponents to think about a middle ground.

“I’d ask my conservative friends who are Gen Z to take a step back and look at the whole picture,” Frost said in an interview. “You’re right about certain things. We’re right about certain things. Let’s pull together and fix the problem because there’s not one bill that’s going to solve it — it has to be a suite of legislation.”

But for other Gen Z and millennial representatives, guns have a different role in their culture. For example, Tory Marie Blew, a 29-year-old Republican state representative in Kansas, said hunting and shooting are part of life in her deep-red state.

“We go out to the family farm and put out targets that are a mile away,” Blew said. “It’s for our leisure. I don’t think banning it is going to solve anything.”

Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, said while his research finds young people as a whole generally have a shared set of values, such as recognizing the impact of gun violence, they split over particular policies that are also defined along partisan lines.

According to a survey conducted this month by Della Volpe’s research firm, SocialSphere, 38 percent of Gen Z respondents said they were Democrats and 25 percent said they were Republicans. Another substantial 31 percent said they’re independent. And, much like older voters, Gen Z members on either side use familiar rhetoric to stake out their positions.

“Assault weapons are not meant for the everyday person to have,” said Boston University graduate student Maxine Slattery, a volunteer with advocacy group Students Demand Action. “They’re being made more dangerous and being marketed to younger people. They’re weapons of death.”

Joe Mitchell, founder of Run GenZ, a nonprofit aimed at getting more young conservatives into office, disagreed. (Blew, the Kansas legislator is a member of Run GenZ’s “Rising Star” coalition.)“Our perspective is you can’t get rid of crazy people,” Mitchell said. “Even if you tried to ban every gun in America, that would honestly be impossible and then you have the constitutional arguments against it anyway.”

At 21 years old, Mitchell was sworn into the Iowa House of Representatives in 2019 as the youngest state legislator in decades. During his two-term tenure, he backed an amendment to the state constitution further enshrining gun rights.

Mitchell said Republicans have done a poor job of communicating the party’s view on gun violence. He said there should be more focus on implementing armed school resource officers to protect students and faculty from shootings.

Meanwhile, Frost emphasized the need for a broad approach with multiple initiatives to solve the problem of gun violence. His first bill, introduced last month, aims to do that by creating an office within the Justice Department dedicated to coordinating the nation’s response to gun violence.

He faces an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled House, as other young representatives, including Republicans Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, 33, and Jake LaTurner of Kansas, 35, have been vocal advocates for gun rights.

Last June, LaTurner opposed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which supported implementation of state red flag laws that allow police, family, and even doctors to petition the court to confiscate someone’s firearms if they believe that person is a threat to others or themselves. In a statement, LaTurner emphasized solving the mental health crisis to prevent violent crime.

Frost said Republicans frequently point to gun violence as an issue of mental health and downplay the availability of guns as a cause. But he acknowledged that Democrats have focused too much on banning weapons instead of other possible causes, such as poverty and inadequate access to health care.

Alabama state Representative Phillip Ensler, 33, is eager to pursue an approach similar to Frost.

Ensler, who in 2022 became the first Democrat to flip a state House seat in more than a decade, said he wants the state to provide grants to Alabama municipalities to fund grassroots gun violence prevention programs.

Ensler said he has tried to frame gun control as a health and safety issue when talking to Republican members of Alabama’s state House, who currently have a supermajority.

“For my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who claim to be very pro life and support life … I respect our differences on that [and] I would try to emphasize that, look, this is about protecting life,” Ensler said.

Some obstacles to collaboration remain, including polarization.

“Most of the folks I know that are elected conservatives that are in the state legislatures, particularly in our coalition, are actually more pro-Second Amendment than maybe some of the older members,” Mitchell said. “The folks on the other side of [the] aisle our age…they’re much more radical on reforming the Second Amendment.”

Still, Gen Z and millennials said they have been able to find commonalities in bipartisan conversations.

In Kansas, Blew said she’s had productive conversations on policies with young colleagues across the aisle as a Republican co-chair of the Kansas Future Caucus, a cohort under the Millennial Action Project. To her, it’s important to prioritize friendship with her peers when debating.

Increasing the number of young people in office, some say, may result in these conversations producing tangible change.

Tennessee state Representative Justin Jones — who was recently reinstated after being ousted by Republicans for his role in a gun control protest — said he intends to focus on getting more young Democrats to run at the state level.

“I think that we represent a transformation point in our body of politics that’s really going to force conversation and force this shift of political priorities,” Jones said. “I think that Gen Z [and] these younger millennials — it’s our generations’ time to really step into our power.”

Lissandra Villa de Petrvelka of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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Rep. Sara Jacobs


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