The day after an ex-student walked on to their campus with an AR-15 and murdered 17 people, a group of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high schoolers got together to plan a march against gun violence. Less than six weeks later, the idea has swelled in size and scope: as many 500,000 protesters are expected to turn out in Washington, D.C. this Saturday at a demonstration that touts performances from, among others, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Along the way, the students have raised over $3.3 million dollars and inspired more than a hundred “sibling” marches taking place around the world the same day.
The dizzying speed with which the student-led #NeverAgain movement materialized caught the NRA flat-footed. In the weeks the massacre, executive vice president Wayne Lapierre – legendarily adept at navigating the lobby through the uncomfortable periods directly following mass shootings – delivered a rambling, paranoid address at CPAC; spokeswoman Dana Loesch was hackled at a CNN town hall, and the organization’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, had to be hurriedly dispatched to the White House to talk the president out of supporting sweeping gun reform measures. Under pressure, dozens of companies cut ties with the group, and even the Florida state legislature, famously under the NRA’s thumb, staged what amounted to a mini-revolt by passing minor restrictions on gun purchases.
Skillful and motivated as the student organizers are, it’s worth acknowledging that they couldn’t have realized their goals as quickly or seamlessly without the quiet backing of powerful anti-gun groups, Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety and Giffords – organizations have spent the last several years laying the foundation of a national network powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with the NRA, but nimble enough to seize the momentum of a moment like this one.
Everyone wants to know why Parkland was different. And the reason, says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, is how quickly the community coalesced around a clear purpose: “Within hours of the shooting. We had never seen that before.”
“Typically, you see a survivor here or there or a family or a community member coming out and saying, ‘Stronger gun laws are needed,’ but in this case, it was almost as though it was all the survivors, all the families, all of the community, and they were very, very clear in their call to action and it has helped keep this issue in the spotlight,” Watts says.
The other thing that has helped keep the issue in the spotlight is infrastructure Moms Demand Action, its parent organization, Everytown, and Giffords have spent the last several years putting into place – a vast network of supporters, legislative experts, PR professionals and large amounts of money available to put behind the students’ spontaneous efforts.
The day after the shooting, members from the Tallahassee chapter of Moms Demand Action were already on the ground protesting at the state capital. The next day, Everytown had rolled out a five-point plan to remove NRA-backed politicians from office. Days after that, Giffords had rolled out a six-figure ad buy targeting Governor Rick Scott for his coziness with the NRA. (Scott signed the new restrictions in law a few weeks later.)
Most importantly, though, almost as soon as the Parkland students began planning their march, Everytown offered their support to help spread the movement across the country. They went on to create an open source tool kit anyone could download to plan a march in their town and pledge $2.5 million in grants to offset “operational expenses” of more than 400 marches set to take place in every state around the country.
For Watts, who got involved in the gun control movement after Sandy Hook, those sibling marches around the country are key “because that is where we are making the most progress: the state houses.” Like the movement for marriage equality, advocates for gun control are making the most progress at the state level.
“What I’ve come to realize is that this work really ends in Congress – that’s not where it begins. You have to stop bad bills, you have to pass good bills, you have to change corporate policies,” Watts says. “You have to create momentum on the ground that then points the nation in the direction it needs to go on.”
And, unfortunately, every shooting creates more momentum. Within 24 hours of Parkland, Everytown had received $750,000 in unsolicited donations. Within that week, Giffords had received an additional $1.2 million from 43,000 donors. In the month since, Moms Demand Action has attracted 1.7 million new supporters, brought in 140,000 new volunteers and witnessed the creation of 150 new local chapters around the country. All of it just more machinery that will be in place, ready to spring into action, at the next right moment.