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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