I won’t lie. As the director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, it’s been fun watching the Democratic presidential candidates jump over each other in trying to be the strongest on the issue of gun violence prevention — as well as the most vocal opponent of the National Rifle Association. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley are puffing out their chests and demonstrating fearlessness, the most precious commodity our movement possesses. And Bernie Sanders? We’re going to make sure he doesn’t win anything until he supports a full repeal of the noxious 2005 Gun Industry Immunity law, which gave gun manufacturers, distributors and dealers unprecedented legal immunity from their own negligent behavior.
It’s hard to tell right now if the candidates are feeding off the American public or vice-versa. But Clinton has been leading on this issue for some time now — long before she officially announced her candidacy. For some reason, the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon last month really resonated with the public. My organization is seeing that in the correspondences we’ve been receiving from concerned citizens, who have had enough and want to get involved as volunteers on the ground.
When you work on this issue for some time, it’s always very difficult to guess which tragedies will move people to action. My sense with Umpqua is that it finally cemented for people that this endless cycle of daily, gun-related horrors is never going to end given the current status quo on gun laws. I think the same old tired argument about “gun-free zones” is falling flat, too, because Umpqua allows students to carry concealed handguns. MSNBC interviewed a veteran named John Parker, Jr. who confirmed that he and many other students were carrying their firearms on campus that day, but decided not to intervene because they were worried about being shot by responding SWAT officers.
All of a sudden, there’s been a spontaneous burst of energy at the grassroots level, as evidenced by actions like Jessica Jin’s “Cocks Not Glocks” protest at the University of Texas against a law that will allow guns on campus starting next August. Overall, the commentary is increasingly shifting toward a focus on gun culture, as opposed to policy. The times they are a changin’.
It is probably the greatest outburst of energy we have seen since the Sandy Hook massacre, which fundamentally transformed our movement. The two areas where we have long fought to level the playing field with the National Rifle Association are political fundraising and grassroots energy. We have made enormous strides in both areas since that awful day of December 14, 2012.
I am no fan of Big Money in politics — it erodes political equality entirely, and reform is desperately needed to restore the concept of “one person, one vote” — but we have suffered terribly for decades from having no skin in the game when the NRA was paying off politicians left and right. Too many lawmakers who agreed with us in principle ended up voting against us because they were afraid of the NRA running ads against them, sponsoring rallies in their district, getting the vote out on the pro-gun side through paid campaigns, etc. They always had the comfort of knowing that they would never have to face similar resources on our side.
That changed for good when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his Independence USA PAC in 2012. For the first time, we had the resources to reward candidates who voted with us and punish those who didn’t. Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords then launched the Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC, which is also extremely well-funded. Both PACs are heavily involved in Virginia’s off-years races right now and that will continue in the upcoming 2016 elections. The great crusade of the 21st century has to be getting money out of politics, but as long as the NRA is free to spend in political races, I want to make sure our side can as well. Lives depend on it.
The gun violence prevention, or GVP, movement has also made enormous inroads in terms of grassroots organizing in the last three years. For starters, Sandy Hook led to the creation of a new national organization mobilizing activists on the ground in 50 states: Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (now incorporated under the Everytown for Gun Safety umbrella with Mayors Against Illegal Guns). Existing coalitions like States United to Prevent Gun Violence in America added additional state organizations and new volunteers as well. Equally important, progressive groups that previously paid lip service to gun violence prevention became fully vested in it. This includes Organizing for America, Americans United for Change, and the fantastic new gun violence prevention team at the Center for American Progress led by Arkadi Gerney.
The result has been a far greater deal of activity on the ground by volunteers, even in red states. This has manifested itself in terms of lobbying visits to lawmakers, attendance at legislative hearings, and even single-issue voting (yes, the gun violence prevention movement is now hearing from many Americans who are indicating they will only vote for candidates who are solid on the gun issue). It has made an enormous difference in our campaigns and advocacy. For the first time in a long time, politicians understand that they better look both ways before deciding how to vote on gun bills.
We are incredibly unified. The federal and state groups in the movement do weekly conference calls and at least one face-to-face meeting each year. A day does not go by in which I am not directly working with activists and organizations from across the country. I don’t want to get too corny with this, but we really are family. Many of us have been working together for many years and you don’t join this movement to get rich — we all believe in this work passionately.
There is broad agreement in the movement that our federal priority should continue to be universal background checks, and also quite a bit of consensus on the types of state policies we need to be promoting. Once you get outside of that, there is a diverse range of opinion in terms of the strategies our movement should be employing for mobilizing grassroots support, messaging with the public, etc. I’m sure you’d find the same in any movement in America. So for those of you calling for a GVP mega-merger, don’t hold your breath. It not’s going to happen on any large-scale in the near future, and it is no panacea for breaking the NRA’s political power anyway.
Finally, we have mutually agreed to never use the term “gun control” again. It is a term from a far earlier time before multi-millionaires like Wayne LaPierre routinely exploited our government’s good name for their own profit. None of our organizations have any problem with Americans owning firearms for a host of legitimate purposes; hunting, recreational shooting, home defense, etc. We will not operate in the biased frame they have spent millions discrediting.
In the months ahead, you will see our movement make aggressive efforts to become more diverse (we need to do a better job of reaching out to communities of color and speaking to issues that they are most concerned about, including gun violence committed by police). You will also see us speak about the cultural aspect of the issue in a way that is far more confident and assured. No longer will the NRA be the sole arbiter of political and moral values on this issue. We are challenging them aggressively on their promotion of insurrectionist ideology and now have them squarely on the defensive in this area. We have seen recently seismic cultural shifts on the issues of gay marriage and the Confederate flag. Our moment is coming as well. We are going to make reckless, threatening gun ownership as cool as second-hand smoke.
Look to see our movement continue to push ballot referendums on universal background checks and other important policy questions at the state level. The policies we promote enjoy broad public support (a recent survey found that 93 percent of registered voters support universal backgrounds checks on all gun sales) and the referendum process allows us to get around legislative stagnation and take these decisions directly to the people. Nevada and Maine, in the 2016 election, are the next two target states and many more will follow from there.
This movement has come a long way since I started as a professional in 2006. Today, we are better organized, better funded, and more determined than ever. It is only a matter of time before we break the political power of the NRA and create space for reforms that can save countless lives. On that day, not only America but the entire world will rejoice.
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