On Wednesday, the governor of South Carolina described student walkouts to protest gun violence as "shameful." Speaking to public television network SCETV, Gov. Henry McMaster suggested students pray instead of protesting or walking out of their classrooms.
McMaster made these comments as thousands of students and teachers in all 50 states participated in the National School Walkout, a nationwide action organized by the Women's March Youth EMPOWER initiative to honor gun violence victims and call for stricter gun laws.
In an interview with SCETV, McMaster argued that "innocent school children are being used as a tool by [this] left-wing group to further their own agenda." The governor also urged students in South Carolina to "pray and to hope for the families of those who were slain," rather than protesting.
"It sounds like a protest to me," McMaster said of the National School Walkout. "It's not a memorial, it's certainly not a prayer service, it's a political statement by a left-wing group, and it's shameful."
The National School Walkout was, in part, organized as a response to a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people last month. Many of the walkouts lasted 17 minutes — one minute to honor every person who died in at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
McMaster's dismissal of the walkouts as "shameful" has triggered some backlash on social media, with several Twitter users defending the students' First Amendment right to protest. David Hogg, a student who survived the Parkland shooting and has since been vocal in the fight for increased gun control, was one such Twitter user; he responded to McMaster's comments with a call to vote him out of office.
That's fine those future voters will not reelect you and outlive you too[. C]an't wait to see what the history textbooks our generation writes will have to say about people like you[.]
But whereas Hogg has spent the past month advocating for more stringent gun control legislation, McMaster has called for the presence of armed law enforcement officials in all South Carolina schools. Following the Parkland shooting, McMaster originally said that he would sign a bill permitting teachers to be armed in their classrooms, but he has since backtracked to argue that placing trained officers at schools would be "the most effective way and the least expensive way to provide safety."
Students protesting gun violence, however, believe that the key to increased school safety lies in reforming the country's gun laws. Many student activists have openly criticized the NRA following the Parkland shooting, and lawmakers have been responding to students' protests. Following discussions with the Parkland shooting victims' families, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed gun restrictions into law despite pushback from the NRA. However, the law containing these restrictions also contains a controversial provision that would permit some school employees to be armed.
Nonetheless, student activism has clearly influenced lawmakers' decisions, despite McMaster's assertion that protests like the National School Walkout are "shameful." Moreover, McMaster's call for students to "pray and to hope" isn't new, but Parkland shooting survivors and gun control advocates have routinely rejected thoughts and prayers as insufficient following mass shootings. Just days before the walkout, Alex Moscou —another student who survived the Parkland shooting — argued that school safety will not be achieved by thoughts and prayers.
"We are tired of hearing politicians send their thoughts and prayers to us and doing nothing to make the necessary changes to prevent this tragedy from happening again," Moscou said at the iHeartRadio Music Awards on Sunday. "School is a place where we should feel safe and if those elected to represent us won't do what's right to keep us safe then we're going to be too loud for them to ignore."
McMaster may have perceived the National School Walkout as "shameful," but it was just the first of several planned actions against gun violence. On March 24, Parkland students and their allies will head to Washington, D.C. for the March For Our Lives, and hundreds of sister marches have been organized around the world. Then, on April 20 — the 19th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting — teachers and students across the country have planned more walkouts as part of a national day of action against gun violence.