On March 15, 2016, chalk outlines of human bodies appeared on sidewalks near Capitol Hill. The silent but striking display represented a “symbolic takeover” of the nation’s capital and the launch of #GhostVote, a grassroots project headed by a coalition of advocates for “common sense gun laws.” The campaign, led by States United to Prevent Gun Violence and the Newtown Action Alliance, aims to elevate the issue of gun violence as a political priority, with an eye toward upcoming elections. The grim “ghost” motif recalls the thousands who lose their lives to gun violence each year, many of whom are commemorated on the Ghost Vote webpage. Participants can dedicate their vote to a specific victim, and are urged to change their profile pictures and share their decision across their social networks.
The Ghost Vote campaign, with its coalition of advocates both old and new, is indicative of a surging national concern over gun violence. While the old “gun control” lobby was historically, egregiously out-funded by pro-gun interest groups like the National Rifle Association, many leaders in what is now being referred to as the gun violence prevention movement say that the nation has reached a tipping point on the issue.
“For every great social movement there is a moment when you look back and say ‘that’s when things really started to change,’” said Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign during his recent TED Talk. “For the movement to end gun violence in America, that moment is now.” His presentation followed on the heels of Obama’s emotionally-charged executive actions for gun reform, and after several mass-shootings reignited the debate over gun access. An estimated 30,000 people are killed each year by gun violence in the United States, where firearms now outnumber people by several million. In addition to leading the world in gun ownership, the United States also ranks third in mass-shootings worldwide.
Ladd Everitt, of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, agrees that support for gun control has reached unprecedented levels. “People are finally demanding a change,” he said, citing multiple new initiatives like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Americans for Responsible Solutions as evidence of this burgeoning engagement. Many of these groups focus on local anti-violence measures — such as the “Groceries Not Guns” campaign calling for a ban on open carry in Kroger supermarkets. “Moms head to the grocery store on a weekly, sometimes daily basis — often with kids in tow,” reads the campaign mission statement. “We don’t expect to face armed strangers when we shop with our families.”
In addition, organizations that formerly “just paid lip service” are now taking “real” action to support the cause, said Everitt, who praised the Center for American Progress, Organizing for Action and Americans United for Change for showing “real investment.” In Everitt’s estimation, the critical moment came in 2012 when the horrors of the Newtown shooting rocked the American public. “That was the turning point,” he recalled. “After that, we saw many more ordinary people raising their voice on the issue.”
Everitt’s own involvement in the gun violence prevention movement began in 2000, when he participated in the first Million Mom March, an experience he describes as “deeply moving.” He began volunteering with local gun violence prevention advocates, and — after 16 years dedicated to the cause — said he’s feeling more hopeful than ever. “It’s still going to take a lot of time,” he predicted. “We’ll win some and lose some, but for the first time, we’re seeing a critical mass of support around the country.”
Historically, the pro-gun lobby has been more aggressive in their ideological — and financial — commitments to the fight. In the past, pro-gun constituents have been more than twice as likely than pro-reformers to be one-issue voters. The NRA famously spends millions of dollars a year to protect their interests on Capitol Hill, yet Everitt said it is now losing that edge. “I’m not a fan of money in politics, but the fact that [the NRA] has always had funds, and we didn’t — it made our work incredibly difficult.” Now, said Everitt, gun-reform groups are seeing significant financial backing from concerned citizens and the first-ever pro-gun-reform PACs.
The political zeitgeist has some of the presidential candidates addressing gun control on the campaign trail — Bernie Sanders, under pressure from political opponents and the gun violence prevention lobby, recently reneged his support of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 bill Everitt described as “the biggest gun industry handout in history.” Despite these nods on the federal level, the Center for American Progress recently noted that state-level reforms may be more effective than trying to push change in Congress right now.
Leah Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, agrees. In her opinion, pushing for federal reform is an “exhausting and frustrating” endeavor. “The NRA still exerts far too much power in D.C.,” she said. “Even after so many shootings, the gun lobby still controls the way politicians vote.” Barrett is instead focusing on her home state of New York, where she says local and state elections offer the best opportunity for tangible change. She also sees a strategic importance in New York: “If really influential, highly-populated states like New York and California set an example, I think it will catch on.”
For Barrett, the struggle against gun violence is personal. Her brother was shot to death in his place of business in early 1997. After the tragedy, Barrett, living in the U.K. at the time, moved back to the United States to devote herself to organizing for gun law reform. As part of this work, Barrett and her colleagues work one-on-one with mayors and community groups to organize around the issue. Barrett says she’s excited about the change she’s seeing on the local level, where her organization and grassroots partners host vigils, film screenings, town halls and organize petitions to address the ways gun violence affects their communities.
Barrett also believes strongly in the need to widen the discourse beyond mass shootings, pointing out the numerous deaths that are caused not by deranged criminals, but by accidents. “Children die every week simply because they find an unlocked gun and fire on themselves or others,” Barrett said. “It’s unacceptable.” Likewise, the availability of guns is strongly correlated to the number of violent impulses — like suicidal thoughts or sudden rage — that actually end in death. “If there’s a gun around, people are far more likely to follow through and kill,” she explained.
Lately, the NRA — with its slogan “freedom’s safest place” — has riffed off of liberal messaging by playing up the disparity between low- and higher-income victims of violence, warning that the poor have only “their guns and their faith” to defend themselves from violent crime. The rhetoric of self-defense, said Barrett, is one of the NRA’s most powerful tools. “It’s utterly false,” she said. “Guns don’t protect. Guns kill. Plain and simple.” Barrett believes that micro-level reforms — like better gunlocks and more secure triggers — can prevent many needless deaths. This is in addition to the larger-scale policies touted by her group and others, which include a call for universal background checks, better information sharing, and the closing of loopholes afforded to gun shows and online sales.
Most activists agree that there is a long fight ahead. Yet, as Rebecca Leber noted recently in the New Republic, it appears the issue of gun violence has crossed irrevocably into the mainstream. “Gun control has the potential to be the deciding issue of 2016. And it’s Democrats, for a change, who stand to benefit,” she writes.
This month, Barrett is keeping busy, moving from town to town across New York to meet with local legislators, mayors and community leaders to discuss violence prevention and gun law reform. Everitt said he’s on the phone every day with fellow organizers across the country, “both professional and grassroots,” and that the level of cooperation is heartening. “We have to maintain the fight in every arena — the courts, the legislature and the culture,” he said, but admitted that he’s permitting himself to hope. “It won’t happen overnight, but I’m happy to say that I think we’ll see real change in my lifetime. That’s what keeps me going.”
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I find this topic fascinating, from a sociological standpoint, how easily are people influenced by what they see, hear or read much of it digested in “sound bites” and how easily can an issue that affects .00009% (this is “9” hundred thousandths of a point) of the population (32K/320million) be conflated to suggest it affects a much larger percentage of the population. Narratives consumed passively rarely if ever are fact based… If you were asked, “Is gun violence on the rise?” what would you say? If you would say yes you would be factually wrong. According to both Pew Research and FBI statistics gun violence is dramatically lower than in the 70’s and is down 49% since 1996, all while the amount of guns in the population has grown to over 300 million. Am I suggesting causation? No…but I am suggesting that the facts bear out more guns does not mean an escalation in gun violence either.
When it comes to suicide which represents a full two thirds of gun deaths in America (deaths that pose no risk to the public at large going about their lives) you would think our suicide rate would be higher because of guns yet it is consistent and in some cases lower than other countries that have much stricter gun laws. The US has a lower suicide rate than Japan, Finland, Belgium, and France and is on par with Austria, Ireland, Sweden, and Australia. Am I saying that mentally ill people that pose harm to themselves should have ready access to guns? No. Much of the frustration related to background checks and their lack of effectiveness as it relates to mental health is a direct result of states not submitting more robust data to the Federal government. This is a worthy and potentially very effective pursuit.
On average there are 11K gun deaths per year attributable to homicide or the far less negligent (although tragic) use of a firearm, that represents .00003% (this is “3” hundred thousandths of a point) of the US population. These are the deaths that theoretically affect the public at large. But if you are not dealing drugs, in a gang or live in a rough urban area where most homicides occur your chance of being affected by gun violence is extremely remote. By contrast diabetes affects 29 million Americans if you reduce that by 1% you save 290,000 people if you affect 1% of gun deaths you save 300 people when adding in suicide or 110 people excluding suicide. The point is both are very worthy pursuits but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that all of the time, energy, effort and resources applied to reducing “gun violence” is an effort to achieve the “most” or “greatest” good from a societal impact standpoint.
I cannot conceive of something that affects nine hundred thousandths of a point of the US population getting more outsized attention than this issue. It’s a powerful reminder of both the influence of the media and our willingness to accept the narrative of the day without due diligence or an appraisal of the facts or the ultimate impact of the issue. There are likely many people based on what they see, hear or read who live in fear of guns and gun violence but that is an irrational fear, based on the facts.
This issue is much more of a politically charged issue of ideology than a pragmatic, real world appraisal of the “problem” of gun violence. Are there families and friends affected by gun violence that broaden the concern? Yes but exponentially more are affected by the 610K that die annually from heart disease and the 584K that die from cancer and the 149K that die from respiratory disease and the 130K that die from accidents and the 128K that die from stroke and the 84K that die from Alzheimer’s and the 75K that die from Diabetes. Someone can decide they truly want to do the most good or they can decide to do what suits their political ideology; in the case of gun violence it is impossible and mutually exclusive to achieve both.
There were guns around back in the 40’s and 50’s when I was growing up, but there were no mass shootings in the news other than WW II and Korea. people who shot people were either criminals, soldiers or policemen. Today mass shootings seem to be a daily event. What changed to cause this?Guns were always around, so it must be something else. We placed a high value on human life. I think that is what changed. Sex has become more permissive but having babies has become inconvenient, so abortions which were once almost entirely illegal are an everyday thing. Attitudes like “I planned to go on vacation then, having a baby wouldspoil that.” or having protected sex using a condom wasn’t as exciting. Also our attitudes regarding mercy killing and suicide have become more relaxed.
GUN VIOLENCE….Is a misnomer, we need to control the VIOLENT. Deal with the violent, and the ‘gun violence’ goes away…
Guns and bullets are not even 2nd A issues. They are energy issues, so they can be controlled/modified/regulated without the 2nd coming into it; the 2nd A debate is a smokescreen and an excuse not to do much. Nor is the issue violent behavior, which can’t be entirely prevented, nor can mental illness, suicidal thoughts, road rage, domestic abuse, etc. However, when the energy in a bullet is released from a gun barrel, when a loaded gun is available, the risk of serious injury goes way up. So, regulate guns, especially concealable handguns.
Oh, and this Marine, hunter, gun owner, and public health RN of 30 years, who has 4 times been assaulted by people with handguns and escaped without my having a handgun, said that! Lot more than .009 percent and fake number stats which take reality out of the discussion, rather than add to it.
Like most Americans, I believe that the violence in our country is out of control and has reached a tipping point. Something has to be done to stop this madness! Our country is under attack and it feels like a war is going on! I am concerned about the future of our country. I also believe that HATE GROUPS SHOULD BE OUTLAWED BECAUSE THEY POSE A THREAT TO OUR COUNTRY. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to send this message