Before the shooting in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, and before the March for Our Lives and Friday’s planned National School Walkout, Kyle Kashuv, a 16-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spent a lot of his time taking Advanced Placement classes and playing video games in his spare time (his favorite is Fortnite). But since February 14, Kashuv has been too busy for video games. He’s visited Washington, met President Trump and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and made multiple appearances on Fox News.
In the weeks after the shooting, Kashuv has emerged within conservative media as a “professional and respectful” alternative to Parkland students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, who’ve become something of celebrity faces in the anti-gun movement.
Kashuv has never touched a gun, he told me, but said, “I am super conservative on the Second Amendment because I realize that the Second Amendment protects all the other amendments.”
With the help of a 19-year-old marketer, Michael Gruen, and popular conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, Kashuv met with dozens of lawmakers in March to urge the STOP School Violence Act toward passage — which it did, clearing the House on March 14 and becoming law as part of the omnibus funding bill on March 23. And his profile has only grown since then.
Immediately after the shootings, many on the right decried the teen activists from Parkland, with Fox News’s Todd Starnes calling them “propaganda pawns [used] to peddle a fake news narrative.” But now it seems they have decided that if they can’t beat teenagers lobbying to stop school shootings, they needed to get their own teen.
As the American Conservative’s Matt Purple wrote, “Conservatives objected that leveraging kids in policy arguments was a lousy tactic — until they found a kid of their own: Kyle Kashuv, just as bright and eloquent as his peers and a stout defender of the Second Amendment.”
Kashuv has become part of a culture war far bigger and older than him taking place between liberals and conservatives over one of the most divisive issues in America. Kashuv is conscious of the pitted battle over guns and gun control on a daily basis, an issue he says is “very polar[ized] and split down the middle. It’s sad.”
“I mean what I say, and I am sincere”
Kyle’s activism comes from an honest place: He wants to balance stopping another school shooting with maintaining the Second Amendment. He told me he’s done the research on different gun control proposals, and opposes nearly all of them, telling me that ideas lifted up by his Parkland classmates (like lowering magazine capacity or reinstating the federal assault weapons ban) are “likely unconstitutional and likely statistically devoid of benefit.”
His activism, he said, is all based on saving lives. “I genuinely believe, with all my heart, that what I am doing will save lives and is the best way to avenge [the Parkland victims’] deaths,” he told me, adding, “I mean what I say and I am sincere. I am doing this to avenge my friends that lost their lives.” The STOP School Violence Act, which Kashuv strongly supported, creates an annual $50 million grant to schools for training programs and revamped reporting systems for school safety (and doesn’t mention guns).
To many conservatives who had criticized the gun control favoring Parkland activists capturing national attention, Kashuv’s pro-gun activism was a breath of fresh air. Conservative columnist Guy Benson described Kashuv as “a reasonable voice in pursuit of bipartisan solutions.”
In a March 9 article for the conservative website RedState, “In the Midst of the Parkland Student Media Spectacle, Kyle Kashuv Is the Only One I Respect,” Brandon Morse wrote, “Kashuv has a clear intended goal, and he works toward it. He’s not putting on airs, organizing marches, or promoting politicians. He’s just talking with them and reaching middle ground solutions.”
But more recently, Kashuv’s tweets about debating other Parkland survivors on gun control have made national news. And after former Newsweek senior writer and MSNBC contributor Kurt Eichenwald went after Kashuv on Twitter, Kashuv seemed to call for a boycott of MSNBC’s advertisers. Kashuv was trying to make a point about double standards in the media about boycotts, but at least one company pulled its ads from MSNBC in response.
After the incident, National Review columnist David French wrote that Kashuv was being used by adults, just like David Hogg, adding, “I hope someone is talking to these Parkland kids, telling them the cold, hard truth. The vast majority of their new friends love them because they are useful. If they deviate one inch from the tribal lines, they’ll quickly learn how scarce their true friends are.”
A month after Morse’s story on Kashuv at RedState, the outlet has promised to stop publishing any stories about Parkland student activists, including Kashuv. “The main reason is that this entire media scrum is entirely out of hand and I don’t want to be a part of it,” RedState editor-in-chief Caleb Howe wrote. “And I don’t just mean criticisms of the students, I mean those purporting to admire or praise them. And I mean the kids themselves. It’s all an ugly mess.” I reached out to Howe but haven’t received a response.
A 16-year-old “smart, dedicated kid” turned conservative activist
I spoke to Ben Shapiro, who has worked to raise Kashuv’s profile on his popular podcast and website, DailyWire (and whom Kashuv considers a personal hero). And I asked him if Kashuv was the conservative response to Hogg. He told me, “To a certain extent, of course. Kyle is a really smart, dedicated kid, but his opinion probably wouldn’t be public fodder except that the left has hijacked a series of leftist teenagers to do their political dirty work, and Kyle is happy to respond to his classmates.”
Shapiro started his career as a syndicated conservative columnist at the age of 17 but wrote a critique in February of Parkland activists like Hogg and Gonzalez, pointing out their youth and saying, “Children and teenagers are not fully rational actors. They’re not capable of exercising supreme responsibilities. And we shouldn’t be treating innocence as a political asset used to push the agenda of more sophisticated players.”
I asked him if, given his prior writing on the subject, his decision to lift up Kashuv wasn’t a bit hypocritical. “I didn’t say youth activism is inappropriate, I said that young people often think dumb things, and probably think dumb things more often than older people,” he responded. “That’s true of everyone, including Kyle. The only reason Kyle is important to this discussion is because media have elevated the opinions of particular Parkland survivors above others, and that’s unfair and wrong.”
As Kashuv’s media profile grows, Shapiro told me, “I do worry about Kyle and his exposure to the media,” adding that he speaks to Kyle regularly to “try to caution him against mistakes I made when I was his age.” But, he added, “Kyle’s old enough to know whether he wants to speak in public, and he has every right to do so.”
After going at it with @tedlieu on Twitter, I am scared at who this country elects. But on the bright side, I am confident I will be able to, one day, serve as a member of Congress!— Kyle Kashuv (@KyleKashuv) April 15, 2018
Kashuv says the attention has been challenging. He wants to “be the voice for the other side” from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — and speak out for gun owners and gun rights. But he’s also 16 years old and a survivor of a deadly mass shooting, one that he spent in hiding for two hours, trying to calm down crying classmates until a SWAT team freed them from a classroom closet.
When I asked him if it was hard to have so many new followers on Twitter, and if he felt pressure to tweet the right things or say things that will get a big response online, he agreed emphatically. And when I asked him if balancing his activism with school and family had been difficult, he laughed. “I don’t [balance them.] It’s impossible.”
And I asked him if he thought he’d had enough time and space to work through what happened on February 14, when he and Hogg and Gonzalez and hundreds of other teens experienced the unimaginable: a deadly mass shooting in the halls of their own high school.
He told me, “Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever have it all worked through.”