I’ve been working in the gun violence prevention field for 16 years now as a volunteer and professional. As reflected by the events at the recent Democratic National Convention, there is no doubt the movement is in the best shape it’s ever been in.
The convention dedicated an entire program to gun violence prevention (GVP) on its most electrifying night, Wednesday. DNC 2016 included emotional appearances by gun violence survivors like Mothers of the Movement (the surviving mothers of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis and Dontre Hamilton) and Erica Smegielski from the Everytown Survivor Network. It also featured riveting speeches by the likes ofReverend William Barber (a powerful nonviolence icon) in favor of an Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). “You heard, you saw, family members of police officers killed in the line of duty because they were outgunned by criminals,” saidDemocratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech. “I refuse to believe we can’t find common ground here.”
It was a defining moment for a movement that has built significant capacity since the awful tragedy that happened on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
Much of that progress has been led by the movement’s two most powerful groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS). Their PACs have dramatically changed the political calculus of legislators across the country. And Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (under the Everytown umbrella) has been an ever-present grassroots force in states across the country.
But important questions hang in the air…
With so many gun violence survivors and gun violence prevention champions in elected government now aggressively calling for an Assault Weapons Ban — after having seen the Orlando gunman decimate a civilian population with the MCX rifle designed for members of our Special Forces — why are the two most powerful groups in the GVP movement, Everytown and ARS, still refusing to even mention the issue, much less support a ban? Shouldn’t the GVP “Bigs” be setting the agenda for their elected (and cultural) champions, much like the NRA does on the pro-gun side? What does the movement lose by pursuing a more moderate agenda — i.e., overwhelmingly popular policies like expanding background checks and prohibiting suspected terrorists from purchasing firearms — that fail to motivate its most ardent supporters?
We are now seeing a constellation of new individuals and groups emerging to assume a bolder posture on the issue. They are less rigid on policy and willing to embrace solutions from the ground up. They are acting aggressively to confront our nation’s degenerate gun culture. They are totally unapologetic. [And they are just the tip of the spear. With the cultural tide on the issue shifting, more will soon follow.] Among them are:
· Celebrity hairdresser Jason Hayes has crowd-funded more than $40,000 (average contribution $21) to put on a “Disarm Hate” rally on the National Mall on Saturday, August 13th. The rally will endorse a renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban.
· Po Murray and David Stowe of Newtown Action Alliance have done phenomenal work to organize a coalition of 97 different organizations that support an Assault Weapons Ban renewal. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (the third and final “Big”) is part of that coalition.
· Anonymous men and women from across the country have created “The Betsy Riot,” a social norming project with a suffragette theme that aggressively confronts gun idolatry and gun culture at large.
· Gays Against Guns has stood up in response to the Orlando massacre and is building chapters across the country. They are conducting in-your-face protests at a number of high-profile venues, such as Trump Tower.
· The National Action Network is preparing an August 27th rally at the DC lobbying offices of the NRA that will launch 72 days of action. This will involve civil disobedience.
· Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence got a handgun licensing law enacted in their state and are the policy’s strongest proponent in the movement today.
· Actor/LGBTQ rights activist George Takei has launched One Pulse for America [I’m their director], a rapidly growing Facebook group with 70,000+ members. Members, described as “the folks who have been dying to turn up the volume and just needed to find the right muse,” are asked to take action on gun violence prevention on a daily basis.
The goal of these groups will be to close the oft-discussed “Passion Gap.” You can imagine what it looks like in practice. When a legislator hears from the pro-gun side, most often he/she is hearing the message, “I’m a single-issue voter. If you support any gun reform — no matter how modest — and fail to pass permissive gun policies, I will do everything I can to end your political career.” When they hear from the gun violence prevention side, it’s typically, “I care about reducing gun violence in our country. Please vote to expand background checks today.”
There’s no comparison. And when compromises are hammered out by legislators on gun legislation, pro-gun activists are almost invariably successful in “moving the middle” to their side and making those policies more favorable to the gun lobby.
I also think there is an opportunity to reach out to people who feel like they don’t have a home in the contemporary gun violence prevention movement. I see these folks on social media all the time. I meet them at rallies.
Remember, we’re living in an era of daily mass shootings. There are many people who would like to live in a society without guns; or at least with dramatically fewer guns and far tougher controls. Controls that you would typically see in every other free nation on the planet. They haven’t had a voice in the GVP movement since the late 1980s, when Handgun Control and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns changed their names to the Brady Campaign and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, respectively, and began arguing for more moderate policies.
Currently, there is no advocacy in the movement for the following policy options:
· Licensing and registration laws, which have proven enormously effective at denying firearms to dangerous individuals in states that have implemented such laws. Virtually all other democracies have licensing and registration laws at the national level. They have astronomically lower rates of gun death, and there has been no loss of individual freedom whatsoever. [See Alan Berlow’s excellent article on the topic.]
· Larger gun buyback programs at the state and/or national level.
· Computerizing records of gun sales maintained by federally licensed firearm dealers and the ATF (out-of-business dealers).
· Comprehensive updating of the prohibited categories for gun buyers defined in the (amended) 1968 Gun Control Act, based on the best evidence/research currently available in 2016.
· Mandated requirements for smart guns and crime-solving technologies (microstamping).
· Outright opposition to private citizens carrying firearms in public, except under “May-Issue” systems that give law enforcement discretion to deny permits to individuals with a history of violence.
Nor is any organization in the movement really challenging the legitimacy of the controversial 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision, in which the Supreme Court’s conservative wing rewrote 200+ years of judicial interpretation of the Second Amendment, declaring a newfound individual “right” to keep a handgun in your home. [Contrast this with the approach taken on Citizen United.]
This is about the time where some anxious critic stops me and says, “Fine, but Ladd — If you advocate for things like gun bans — even one as limited as the federal AWB — you’re going to be feeding into NRA confiscation rhetoric and we’ll be doomed!”
But listen. The NRA has been promoting confiscation propaganda for decades now with no provocation whatsoever. The NRA’s www.gunbanobama.comwas up and running long before President Obama ever addressed the GVP issue during his second term. And look what the gun lobby has to say about Everytown founder Michael Bloomberg, a guy politely calling for modest policies.
I’d say we’ve suffered about as much as we’re going to suffer from gun ban propaganda. And it’s not like truth is an antidote for the Trump crowd these days, either. We need to begin embracing what they consider to be a weakness as a strength. Why not start harnessing some intensity among our own base by advocating for more aggressive policies? Let’s move the middle on this issue toour side.
The result will be a win-win for everyone: a more vocal, passionate movement that will push the envelope and make space for the more moderate policies favored by GVP Bigs. And most importantly, we will create a safer America with far less human suffering.