How Gun-Control Advocates Are Getting Around the Gun Lobby

While the gun lobby maintains its chokehold on Congress, anti-gun advocates are seeking different ways to affect change

California's Gun Violence Restraining Order law went into effect at the beginning of this year.

When Hollye Dexter was a child, her 7-year-old brother sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Years later, her childhood best friend, who had sat in the hospital with her while her brother recovered, was shot five times. "I did not grow up in Afghanistan. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley," Dexter tells Rolling Stone, still mystified at how much gun violence has touched her life.

Today, Dexter is board co-chair of the advocacy group Women Against Gun Violence. In that role, over the past year she's helped push the Los Angeles City Council to pass laws requiring the mandatory safe storage of guns and banning the sale of large-capacity magazines.

While the gun lobby maintains its chokehold on Congress, advocates for gun-violence prevention are seeking ways to affect change in other ways. For President Obama, that meant a recent series of executive actions. For nonprofits like Women Against Gun Violence, Sandy Hook Promise, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety, it means focusing attention at the state, municipal and community levels.

These groups have seen some significant victories. For instance, California's Gun Violence Restraining Order law, which Dexter's group supported, went into effect at the beginning of the year. The law, similar to legislation allowing restraining orders for domestic violence, was passed in the wake of the 2014 shooting at UC Santa Barbara, during which gunman Elliot Rodger killed seven and wounded 13, declaring he would "slaughter every single stuck-up blonde slut I see." Police had visited Rodger a few weeks before the shooting, on a tip from his mother, who warned he might hurt himself or others, but the officers lacked recourse to do anything other than interview him. Under California's new law, a potential gunman like Rodger would be temporarily barred from buying a gun, and police officers would have the power to temporarily remove any guns or ammunition that person has in their possession. (The guns can be returned after a hearing.)

California was the first — and is the only state so far — to pass a GRVO law, but similar legislation was introduced in 11 state legislatures last year, and Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says a number of states are pursuing similar legislation in 2016.

Cutilletta also expects legislatures to pass other domestic violence-related gun restrictions. "That seems to be very popular in the states, even in the red states. Last year domestic violence bills were passed in South Carolina, for example, and Louisiana — states where traditionally you don't see gun laws get passed," she says.

Everytown for Gun Safety — the group former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg co-founded as a counterweight to the NRA — also counted significant victories at the state level in 2015.

"With at least 38 state legislatures already closed for the year, we have successfully killed or watered down more than 40 NRA priority bills in states across the country," Jack Warner, deputy press secretary for Everytown, said via email. "And we have done more than play defense: We ran successful campaigns to pass common-sense gun laws in the face of strenuous NRA opposition in states with strong traditions of gun ownership like Oregon and Vermont."

In 2016, Warner says, Everytown will throw its weight behind ballot initiatives in Maine and Nevada that would expand background checks to cover all gun sales. "Washington State became the first state to do this in 2014, and we're keeping that momentum going," Warner said.

In California, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is spearheading a ballot initiative that would require background checks for ammunition sales, prohibit the possession of large capacity magazines, create a firearms relinquishment process for convicted criminals, require reporting of lost and stolen guns, and mandate sharing of information with the FBI for background checks.

The state level "is really where the action is going to be in the next few months," Cutilletta says.

Nicole Hockley, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, says her organization is focusing its efforts even closer to the ground — on things that can be done inside individual schools and communities to prevent gun violence.

Representatives from the nonprofit travel around the country teaching students and parents how to recognize and respond to at risk kids before they turn violent. The idea to change behaviors instead of changing laws. "Certainly we advocate for sensible gun safety laws, as well as mental health and wellness… but we also go out and teach schools and organizations around the country how to take actions to protect themselves," Hockley says.  

That's not to say Sandy Hook Promise has given up on Congress entirely — Hockley continues to meet with Congressmembers to push for several mental health-related bills the group has thrown its weight behind — but, it and other groups, like Obama himself, are diverting their efforts to areas where they're more likely to win.

"We haven't given up," Cutilletta says. "I think our goals are realistic though. I don't think we're expecting [Congress] to be the answer at this time, or at least the only answer. We can't put all our eggs in that basket because we know that, until there is a change in the makeup of Congress, it's going to be a much harder battle at the federal level."