WASHINGTON — Over the next few days, a curious piece of mail will land in the mailboxes of voters in northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and the suburbs of Richmond that is unlike any political campaign lit they’ve received before. There are no shadowy photos of “corrupt” politicians, no all-caps doom-saying about the future.
Instead, this particular mailer takes the form of a letter — plain in design, black text on a white background, no graphics or photos — from a mother named Brenda M. whose son Shawn was killed by an act of gun violence. “The number 17 will forever hold a different meaning for me,” Brenda’s letter begins. “That’s how many times my son’s murderer shot him.”
Brenda’s letter is a new tactic — first revealed to Rolling Stone — used by the gun-safety group Everytown as part of its $2.5-million campaign blitz in Virginia’s 2019 elections next month. Gun violence is front and center in Virginia after the Virginia Beach mass shooting in May that left 12 people dead. Despite an outcry for new gun-safety laws, the Republican-led state legislature in Virginia refused to even consider them, shutting down a special session intended to pass new gun laws after just 90 minutes.
Everytown and other outfits focused on combating America’s gun-violence epidemic have made Virginia their priority this year, hoping to prove that the issue of gun control can move voters and win elections. Republicans hold slim majorities in both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly; if Democrats can retake the legislature, they say they plan to immediately work with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to pass new gun-safety laws. Everytown has endorsed candidates in 25 races across the state, 15 of them in Republican-held districts.
Three out of every four voters in Virginia said gun policy was “very important” to them, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Huge majorities said they supported new policies to strengthen background checks and institute so-called red flag laws. Gun-control groups see this public anger in Virginia as an opening to make gun control a potent ballot-box issue.
State Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer that gun control had dominated the conversations she was having with voters in her northern Virginia district. “The number-one feedback I’m hearing from constituents is they just can’t believe the Republicans were so uncompromising and rigid that they wouldn’t pass one piece of legislation that would address the public health issue that is gun violence here in Virginia,” Carroll Foy said in July. “That is on everyone’s mind.”
Everytown’s Virginia blitz features all the traditional methods of swaying on-the-fence voters and urging them to turn out on Election Day — TV spots, digital ads, direct mail, and so on. The Brenda M. mailer is one of 75 new mailers the group is landing in 15 GOP-held districts statewide this weekend. But an Everytown official says that telling the human story of a mother who lost her son to gun violence is a novel approach for the group.
Personal stories have been used to great effect in other major policy battles. For instance, stories about family members and loved ones who came out as a member of the LGBT community helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of marriage equality over the past decade, paving the way for state-level victories and eventually the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 Obergefell decision, which made marriage equality the law of the land.
Telling deeply personal stories about gun violence is also a grim reflection of the fact that, as the toll of gun deaths and injuries climbs without an end in sight, more and more Americans know a victim of gun violence or are a victim themselves. There are 36,000 gun-related deaths and more than 100,000 injuries each year in America. In the case of the new Everytown mailer, “Brenda M.” is Brenda Moss, whose 34-year-old son Shawn was murdered by a distant relative in August 2014. According to local authorities, Moss was shot 17 times and died after bleeding out. In 2016, a judge gave Moss’ killer a life sentence.
“More than half of Americans have been affected by gun violence — either directly or through people they know,” Everytown President John Feinblatt tells Rolling Stone. “With less than four weeks until the election, Everytown is pulling out all the stops to elect a gun-sense majority that will pass common-sense gun laws to keep Virginians safe.”
Feinblatt adds, “For NRA-backed politicians up in 2020, this is just a preview of what’s to come.”