Gun Reform Is Possible — If We Learn From The Fight For Gay Marriage & Healthcare

by Kristina Marusic

When devastating tragedies like the mass shooting in Las Vegas happen, it’s easy to feel powerless.

After all, the statistics are grim: The U.S has one of the highest rates of death by guns in the developed world, and we now average more than one mass shooting every day. After every sizable mass shooting, we see a brief period of frenzied public outcry and protest by politicians, but sweeping gun reform efforts never seem to materialize. At the beginning of 2016, every one of over 100 gun control proposals introduced in Congress since the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in 2011 had failed to pass, even in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

But despite all of that, activists and politicians remain positive. They believe meaningful gun law reform is actually closer to being within our reach now than ever before.

For one thing, we are better activists now than we were a decade ago: Before Trump took office, many Americans had never been to a protest or called their representative; today, for many of us, it's a way of life. The Washington Post estimates that over 200,000 people in the US attended political protests in August. Millions of us regularly call our representatives in Congress to make our opinions heard every day. And it's making a difference — activists, and in particular women and people with disabilities, have been credited with stopping TrumpCare, and progressives are winning key political battles at the state and local level every day.

The movement for gun law reform in the US has also been growing steadily over the last decade.

“We had around 4,500 active volunteers in 2014, and today we have 60,000,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which helped create the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, told Bustle. “We have an active chapter in every state, and in addition to our active volunteers, we also have nearly four million supporters online who are donors or respond to calls to to action.”

“Congress isn’t where the where work begins — it’s where it ends.”

Watts started the organization, which is open to everyone (not just moms) in 2012, the day after the Sandy Hook shooting. Since then, Moms Demand Action has helped pass laws that keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers in 24 states, helped kill dozens of National Rifle Association (NRA)-sponsored bills aimed at expanding “stand your ground” and “permitless carry” laws at the state-level every year, and helped close background check loopholes in seven states. In states like Ohio and Texas that have passed “permitless carry” laws, which allow guns to be carried openly without licenses or permits, the group has also gone door to door to convince thousands of businesses and daycares to post signs barring weapons inside. At the national level, they’ve gotten big retailers like Target, Starbucks, Chipotle to post signs asking customers not to bring guns into stores.

“Congress isn’t where the where work begins — it’s where it ends,” Watts explains. “Marriage equality is actually a great example of this. When marriage equality activists first went to congress, they got the Defense of Marriage Act in return. So they pivoted and went to states and businesses first instead.”

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was enacted in 1996, defined marriage at the federal level as a union between one man and one woman, allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. At the time, it was virtually unthinkable that we would ever have marriage equality at the federal level — polls showed that 65 percent of Americans were opposed to marriage equality, and just 27 percent supported it. So activists started working to change those opinions, going door to door to give a human face to the movement and working with local businesses and state governments. The strategy was so effective that it ultimately trickled up to the federal level. In 2013, DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, and in 2015 marriage equality passed, with 58 percent of Americans saying they supported it.

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“We did the same thing,” Watts says. “We very narrowly lost the Senate vote for universal background checks in April of 2013 right after Sandy Hook. We’d spent our first few months as an organization the trying to grow and working nonstop to get background checks, and when that didn’t happen at the federal level, we did what was natural to us—we pivoted to where we lived.”

Efforts by Moms Demand Action and similar groups have brought the total number of states requiring background checks on every gun sale (including online sales and at gun shows) to 19, meaning that even though universal background checks never passed at the federal level, about about 50 percent of Americans now live in a state that require background checks on every gun sale. That’s significant — research shows that states with universal background checks see fewer mass shootings.

Watts says their local and state work aimed at keeping guns away from abusers is equally impactful. Mass shooters in the US have overwhelmingly been men with a history of domestic abuse or patterns of misogynistic behavior.

Although federal law prohibits domestic abusers from owning guns, abusers are defined under the law only as someone they’re married to or once were — even though far more women are killed by dating partners than spouses. It’s sometimes referred to as “the boyfriend loophole.” The legislation, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, also leaves out convicted stalkers entirely, and Watts notes that while Lautenberg may stop convicted domestic abusers from buying new guns (in states with universal background check laws), it doesn’t include any mechanism to take away the firearms they already own.

“It certainly wasn’t easy, but that’s exactly the kind of in-the-trenches work that women and moms are used to doing.”

“We’re going into every state legislature to try and pass laws that will broaden the definition of what an abuser is to include non-married partners and stalkers,” Watts says. “Right now in about half the states, if you’re a domestic abuser you can’t buy more guns, but no one is taking away the ones that you have, so we’re also putting teeth in the laws that allow police to insist that convicted abusers relinquish the guns they already own.”

Rhode Island is the most recent of the 24 states to pass new laws or strengthen their existing laws aimed at keeping guns away from domestic abusers since 2013 thanks in part to Moms Demand Action’s efforts, and is the eighth state to do so in 2017 so far. Impressively, most of the news laws for 2017 laws were signed in states with Republican governors. While Rhode Island has a democratic governor (Gina Raimondo, who is also the state’s first-ever female governor), Watts says the fight still took three years of legislative action while the NRA fought every step in the process.

“It certainly wasn’t easy,” Watts says, “but that’s exactly the kind of in-the-trenches work that women and moms are used to doing. We know this isn’t a sprint. There’s nothing sexy about it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is absolutely going to happen eventually if we work hard at it every single day.”

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An important aspect of that work, according to Watts and other resistance activists, is reshaping the narrative around guns. It’s vital to shift the conversation away from statistics and towards an emotional argument that advocates for a positive value. Marriage equality activists did this by moving away from arguments about constitutionality and instead towards “love is love” messaging — something everyone can, on some level, identify with.

Watts says that while Americans do seem more likely to act when faced with losing access to something they already have — abortion access, health care, unfettered access to guns — a majority of gun owners actually support the kind of legislation they’re working towards.

“Was I scared? Absolutely. But that’s exactly why we can’t back down.”

“Sometimes people call us anti-gun, and we’re not,” Watts says. “A lot of our volunteers are gun owners or are married to them. It’s just the totally common sense idea that with rights come responsibilities. And the NRA doesn’t want there to be any responsibilities at all.” She adds that NRA is ultimately fighting for the gun manufacturing industry, and not on the behalf of most American gun owners, pointing out that in 2013 when the Senate failed to pass universal background checks thanks to the NRA, 90 percent of Americans and 74 percent of NRA members actually supported the measure.

“The NRA is going to keep using the tried and tested narrative that ‘They’re coming for our guns,’” Mrinalini Chakraborty, the head of field operations and strategy for the Women’s March on Washington, tells Bustle. “When the truth is that nobody has and nobody ever will ‘come for your guns,’ as pertains to our Second Amendment rights… We have to be relentless in challenging those false narratives.”

This spring, the Women’s March went head to head with the NRA after they released a video depicting anti-Trump protesters as violent criminals, planning an 18-mile march from the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, to the Department of Justice near the White House. The message of the march, which focused on the intersections between gun violence and police murders of people of color, was “We are not safe.”

“Lots of people are rightfully afraid of guns, but backing down in fear also can’t be part of our narrative,” Chakraborty says. “People showed up at our rally in Virginia, which is an open-carry state, with semi-loaded automatics and got right in our faces. Was I scared? Absolutely. But that’s exactly why we can’t back down.”

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Chakraborty says another key lesson we can take from the wins achieved in healthcare and by Women’s March organizers is importance of coalition-building and intersectionality.

“Coalition building is 100 percent essential,” she says. “It sounds cheesy to say that we can only win if we work together, but it’s absolutely true.”

She adds that we’ve already learned the importance of highlighting the most marginalized, most affected voices in our win for healthcare. “The disability rights activists who camped out in senators’ offices and got arrested because their lives were literally at stake shaped our organizing strategy around healthcare and ultimately led us to those victories,” she explains. “We have to connect those dots when it comes to gun violence, too — we can’t talk about gun violence without listening to the communities of color that are the most heavily impacted by it.”

“This is actually about saving lives and freeing people from the fear of being terrorized by gun violence.”

Organizers at progressive advocacy organizations Credo Action and Daily Action, which collectively helped coordinate tens of thousands of phone calls, delivered millions of petition signatures, and helped mobilize thousands of state, local, and federal protesters to stop the repeal of the ACA, emphasized the importance of relentlessness.

“I think that the key success of what we did to kill Trumpcare was applying constant pressure and keeping a consistent drum beat up,” Scott Goodstein, co-founder of Daily Action’s parent organization Creative Majority PAC, tells Bustle. “We need to make sure that Congress actually keeps hearing from vast majority of the public on this guns as much as they hear from the NRA.”

While Republicans in Congress tried repeatedly to enact some version of Trumpcare/Obamacare repeal, Daily Action claims to have facilitated over 250,000 calls to Congress. It’s likely that Republicans will try again in the future (One activist I spoke with referred to their efforts as being like “Whack-a-mole.”), so the fight isn’t over, but for now, the win serves as proof that relentlessness is an effective strategy.

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Heidi Hess, a senior campaign manager at Credo Action, which takes credit for facilitating over 80,000 phone calls and delivering 800,000 petition signatures to stop TrumpCare, added that in addition to signing petitions, showing up at town halls, and calling our representatives, it’s also important to engage with people — and not just legislators — at the hyper-local level.

“If you’re in a place where the conversation in the opinion pages of your local paper is all about how we’ll get our guns taken away, it’s important to respond to that at micro level,” Hess tells Bustle. “We have to make it clear, over and over again, that this is actually about saving lives and freeing people from the fear of being terrorized by gun violence.”

Another key narrative to reinforce is that regulating guns does, in fact, reduce gun violence. Massachusetts is a great example — they have some of the strongest gun laws in the country, and also the lowest rates of gun deaths.

“Google your federal and state lawmakers, see what rating they have from the NRA, and vote accordingly.”

“Massachusetts is a great example of how you can both take steps to protect public safety and reduce gun violence while also respecting people’s second amendment right,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tells Bustle. “I hope other states will look us as an example.”

Healey is currently being being sued by gun manufacturers for issuing an enforcement notice aimed at stopping the sale of copycats of assault weapons, which are illegal in the state. She was also subjected to sexist and homophobic hate speech as a result of the move, but Healey has made it clear that she won’t be deterred.

“If we had another product that was killing or injuring nearly 300 Americans a day, I think everyone would think of this as a public health issue,” she says. “That’s why we worked with the medical community in Massachusetts earlier this year to give them tools to talk about preventing gun accidents and self-injury with their patients, and it’s why it’s why we’ve worked hard to fight efforts by Congress to ban CDC research on gun violence.”

She adds that politicians need to be held accountable by voters for every dollar they’ve accepted from the NRA, every vote they’ve cast about gun legislation, and every gun death that occurs in their state. Watts agrees.

“Google your federal and state lawmakers, see what rating they have from the NRA, and vote accordingly,” Watts says. “If your lawmaker has an A or B rating from NRA that means they support guns for domestic abusers and they oppose a background check on every gun sale. They’re going to vote with the gun lobby when they’re in office, and it really is incumbent on all of us — especially women, who are the majority of the voting public — to educate ourselves about what our lawmakers do, and make it known that this one of the top issues we’re voting on.”

Here's How You Can Take Action On Gun Reform Right Now:

  • Get local action alerts from Moms Demand Action in your area by texting ACT to 64433.
  • Text REJECT to 64433 to get talking points from Moms Demand Action and be put in touch with your member of Congress.
  • Check here to find out your representatives’ NRA scores.