On a recent evening in New York’s West Village, 160 people calling themselves GAG — Gays Against Guns — pack an auditorium at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center to celebrate a victory, and plan for the road ahead. The previous day, at the city’s Pride parade, GAG had organized a large die-in, as well as a procession of 49 people in white shrouds, representing the victims of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The actions had been picked up by outlets like NBC, The New York Times and NPR. “I think we got so much coverage because there was such a hunger for something like us to emerge,” Tim Murphy, the group’s media coordinator, says at the event. “I think it was cathartic for the gun-control movement, and the spectators.”
GAG members say they’re determined to win where others have languished. Speaker after speaker talks of bringing to the gun-control movement a crucial element so many of them have developed over decades of activism: visibility.
The NRA is a household name for those on all sides of the gun issue, but fewer Americans might be able to rattle off the names of some of the nation’s biggest gun-control groups: Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, Americans for Responsible Solutions, the Violence Policy Center or even the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — the oldest and most stalwart of the groups.
In some ways, this fact is odd. Gun-control advocates point to numerous recent polls showing that 80 to 90 percent of Americans support common-sense gun reforms opposed by the NRA: expanded background checks, keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and banning sales to those on the federal terror watch list. “The only place you can go in America and not see 90 percent support for expanded background checks is Congress,” quips Brady Campaign spokesperson Brendan Kelly.
So why are organizations supporting these highly popular aims lacking the same cultural influence as groups like the NRA? In part, it may be that NRA supporters historically have been more prone to action. As George Stephanopoulos once said, after his stint as an advisor to Bill Clinton, “Let me make one small vote for the NRA. They’re good citizens. They call their Congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.” (The NRA touts this quote on its website, leaving off a line in which Stephanopoulos disavows the group’s goals.)
But another part of the issue may be time. As activists point out, the NRA has had a considerable head start in terms of delivering its message. The NRA was founded in 1871, by a pair of former Civil War generals. The modern gun-control movement was birthed almost 100 years later, in 1974. Granted, the NRA formed its lobbying arm in 1975, a year after the founding of what is now the Brady Campaign (then it was the National Council to Control Handguns). But prior to that, the NRA had a century over which to collect membership fees and develop fundraising models for their efforts. The group had begun tracking legislation and engaging in direct mailings on voting issues in the 1930s, and had spent that time winning over “hearts and minds” by developing two print magazines (a third was later added, in the Nineties), national shooting competitions, police-certification training programs and the like. The NRA doesn’t just have a “guns everywhere” approach; it has an “NRA everywhere” approach.
Contributing to the NRA’s seeming ubiquity is the fact that the organization outspends gun-control groups by a ridiculous margin when it comes to supporting politicians who are sympathetic to its interests. But most activists say the gun-control lobby need not exactly match the coffers of the NRA in order to achieve its aims. They say they’ve been playing a decades-long game of catch-up, and they’re finally starting to do so. Every new tragedy, they say, brings new converts, and new donors, to the cause, particularly after Sandy Hook.
“Engagement has skyrocketed,” says the Brady Campaign’s Kelly. We haven’t seen this before. There is a growing momentum of people who have had enough, and we have the wind at our back to keep this up.”
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, says the boost has been dramatic. “We do have [funding] now. We have finances from Mayor Bloomberg and over 100,000 donors. The NRA has never had to deal with that [level of public opposition] before.”
A representative for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011, notes that “we do need to bring some balance” to fundraising levels, as compared to the NRA. “We need to get to a point where a member of Congress will vote as to what the feelings are of their constituents, instead of thinking of their own election,” says the group’s spokesperson, Mark Prentice.
Still, he agrees the ground is shifting. Direct communication with voters is finally a reality on the gun-control side of the issue: text messages, telephone calls, reminders to vote. “For a long time, these were things only the gun lobby was doing. Now increasingly we’re competing on the same playing field,” he says.
Part of that work has meant changing what constitutes the playing field. Numerous advocates say the gun-control lobby had started looking to the LGBTQ community even before last month’s tragedy, and had learned a lesson from its successful strategy with marriage equality: taking the fight to the states. According to a summary compiled last month by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in the three-and-a-half years since Sandy Hook, 138 new gun-violence-prevention laws have been enacted in 42 states.
The gun-control movement is working state-by-state toward a twin set of gun reforms: expanding background checks and the protection of domestic-violence victims. Since the Brady Bill was signed into law in 1993, background checks have been required for gun sales by all licensed gun dealers. There was always a loophole that allowed checkless sales at gun shows, but that loophole became a sinkhole with the birth of the Internet, on which gun sales were largely unregulated. Advocates say the Brady Bill was a great leap forward for a brick-and-mortar world, but not for the world of today.
The other area of focus is closing what’s known as the “boyfriend loophole.” The Supreme Court recently upheld the ban on those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning guns, but the legal definition of domestic violence is too narrow, advocates say. Current federal gun laws do nothing to protect women and others who have been abused by a partner with whom they do not live or share a child, or for a person who has been terrorized by a stalker. So, state by state, advocates are working to update the definition of domestic abuse to reflect modern realities of dating.
Delaware, Connecticut and Hawaii are the most recent states to embrace expanded protection, and since 2008, more than 30 new state laws have passed going further than federal laws to protect victims. “Last year, we killed more than 70 bad gun bills supported by the NRA,” says Moms Demand Action’s Watts. “These are things that would have sailed through statehouses before.”
Still, there’s much work left to do to approach anything like the successes of the NRA, or even the LGBTQ movement. Back at the Gays Against Guns meeting, Murphy discusses a conference call he’d been on with three longtime gun-control advocates, who had implored him to bring the LGBTQ movement’s fearlessness to bear on the gun issue — the goal being to flip Congress in the upcoming election and ultimately pass a new national assault-weapons ban.
The gun-control movement is “still broken after the inability to pass a bill after Sandy Hook,” Murphy says. Talk turns to next steps, visibility and a shaming campaign aimed at politicians and corporations who’ve taken money from the NRA.
“There are corporations such as Hertz Rent a Car who give discounts to [NRA members]. It’s vacation season. They want our business. It’s them or us. They have to choose,” says GAG member Ken Kidd, to riotous applause.
The discussion then turns to developing talking points to counter NRA arguments such as “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In the back of the room, GAG member Billy Erb stands up. “How about, ‘from my warm, living heart,’ instead of ‘from my cold, dead hands?'”Representative Seth Moulton speaks out on gun violence. Watch here.