Can Activists Beat the Gun Lobby at Its Own Game?
Moms Demand Action was launched the day after 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School and is now a central grassroots force in lobbying for universal background checks on all gun sales.
This story appears in the December Issue of VICE magazine.
When the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs began calling names for public testimonies on two major gun bills set to be voted on in its 84th session, Senator Joan Huffman, the chairwoman, warned her colleagues that the response was "overwhelming." During the marathon nine-hour hearing in February, more than 100 members of the public aired their views on the bills. One would require colleges to allow permit holders to carry firearms on campus, and the other would extend open-carry rules to handguns – a right that already applies to long guns. Opinions varied.
A 65-year-old veterinary technician, keen to protect her glass-walled clinic on Texas A&M's campus from "interesting characters," said the "tremendous privilege and tremendous responsibility" of her concealed-handgun permit ought to extend to her workplace. Agreeing with her, a mother of five in knee-high red-white-and-blue boots evangelised about her right to keep and bear arms without infringement, calling on lawmakers to employ their "testicular fortitude" to protect it.
In uniform, Austin police chief Art Acevedo reminded the committee that the vast majority of his colleagues opposed both bills, and asked whether they were necessary. A 14-year-old boy dressed in a suit later rebutted: "It's not a bill of needs, it's a bill of rights."
Among those who testified were a dozen or so women, in blazers and matching T-shirts reading "Gun Sense Voter," from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Throughout the six-month legislative session, they were relentless, showing up several days a week with laptops out and babies on their hips. One mother drove her four sons from out of town and plopped them on the gallery floor with colouring books and crayons. The women met with lawmakers to lobby for stricter gun laws, forming alliances where they could.
"We just kept showing up," said Angela Turner, a Moms Demand Action volunteer and mother of three from San Antonio. "At the end of the session, every lawmaker in the State of Texas knew exactly who we were."
When it came to a vote, both measures sailed through the legislature with about a 2:1 advantage, ushering the open carry of handguns into law and making Texas the eighth state to permit concealed weapons on college campuses. But a small victory for Moms Demand Action came in the form of an eleventh-hour amendment allowing colleges to carve out some gun-free zones, a concession that amounted to an abject failure for hard-line gun-rights advocates. For the Texas mums, progress is measured not so much in moving forward as in not moving backward.
In the Texas Senate, Turner told me, "what we're fighting is not even to get gun-safety laws on the books. We're fighting against them making things even more dangerous." After a pause she said, "This is Texas," as if that explained everything.
Like many of the Texas mums, Turner is a proud gun owner. Her husband, who buys one or two new firearms every year, keeps his 20-piece collection under lock and key in their attic. But a little more than a year ago, Turner was troubled when she noticed in her three children a "dull acceptance that maybe someone might walk into their school and start shooting at them," she told me. Turner joined Moms Demand Action after attending one of the house parties the group regularly holds to recruit and support volunteers. "Coming from a hunting family, I didn't see any conflict between creating safer gun laws and my Second Amendment rights," she said.
Moms Demand Action was launched in December 2012 on Shannon Watts's Facebook page, the day after 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The organisation has since become a central grassroots force in lobbying for universal background checks on all gun sales, showing up to oppose bills that expand gun rights and forcing strip-mall staples that rely on the purchasing power of mums to join the debate. Starbucks, Target, Chipotle, and Sonic are among the businesses that have responded to Moms Demand Action petitions by asking gun owners nationwide to keep firearms out of their stores.
In April last year, Moms Demand Action joined forces with Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 1,000 mayors who support stronger gun laws, to assemble Everytown for Gun Safety. The network of mums, mayors, survivors, advocates, and communications and legal experts is now the largest organisation of its kind, with chapters in all 50 states and hubs in New York and Washington, DC.
Everytown is dwarfed by the NRA in every respect—history, size, spending, and legislative influence. To beat the gun lobby at its own game, Everytown is taking on state and local legislatures in which laws expanding gun rights would otherwise pass without ceremony, bringing national attention to these bills with the help of gun-violence survivors and a slick celebrity campaign featuring Julianne Moore and Aziz Ansari.
"Nearly three hundred bills expanding and protecting the Second Amendment have become law in the last three years. That's almost ten times the number of new anti-gun laws passed across the nation." —Lars Dalseide, spokesperson for the NRA
The NRA's wide-ranging strategy has developed for more than a century and given rise to a multifaceted culture all its own. For decades, the NRA's most prominent poster boys have remained Tom Selleck and the late Charlton Heston, whose images are sprinkled throughout its headquarters' museum in Fairfax, Virginia.
Both sides have thrown a lot of money at the problem. Everytown reported $36 million in spending in 2013. The NRA, which filed its first accounts in 1871, spent more than $250 million in 2013, $27 million of which went to lobbying.
In the absence of congressional action, winning state battles is crucial to Everytown's agenda, but gun laws as varied as the country itself make state borders somewhat arbitrary. Twenty years ago (the last period in which there was still government funding to investigate gun violence), the private sale of firearms, which account for 40 percent of all guns sold in America, didn't require a background check in 33 states. This porous legal landscape has given way to a wide network of illegal gun trafficking across state borders. Ninety percent of crime guns uncovered in New York City, which has some of the country's toughest gun laws, arrived there from states with weaker restrictions, often through a series of highways along Interstate 95 known as the Iron Pipeline, or via the internet, through websites like ArmsList.com.
As the best-funded organisation of its kind, Everytown has a better shot at closing the background-check loophole than cohorts like the Brady Campaign, which spends many times less. When accounting for the costs of lobbying, marketing, and manpower, state ballot initiatives can run into the tens of millions of dollars. In Washington State last year, Everytown spent $4 million and put full-time staff on the ground to help pass a successful ballot initiative requiring background checks on all gun sales. Other campaigns are in the works for Nevada and Maine in 2016.
Bloomberg has personally pledged $50 million to the cause of ending gun violence and filled Everytown's advisory board with his billionaire peers, including Warren Buffett and Eli Broad, hoping to counteract the gun lobby's aggressive tactics.
"They say, 'We don't care. We're going to go after you. If you don't vote with us, we're going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we're never going to stop,'" Bloomberg said when speaking about the NRA to the New York Times ahead of Everytown's launch. "We've got to make them afraid of us," he added. In turn, Bloomberg is a favorite villain of the gun lobby, which often refers to him to as one half of the "Obama-Bloomberg gun-control agenda."
Even with some of the biggest influencers and the biggest money on their side, getting through to Congress has remained a largely futile pursuit for Everytown. "We can't even get a subcommittee meeting in the House of Representatives," said Colin Goddard, a senior policy advocate for Everytown who still has bullets in his body from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that killed 32 of his classmates. "Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sitting on close to a hundred gun bills and has done nothing."
According to the Violence Policy Center, the NRA has received up to $60.2 million from the firearms industry since 2005. Among the top donors are several "corporate partners" that have been inducted into the NRA's Golden Ring of Freedom for donations of $1 million or more, including the manufacturer of the Bushmaster assault rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre. It's a connection the NRA downplays.
"More than ninety percent of the funds donated to the NRA are two hundred dollars or less from average, everyday Americans," Lars Dalseide, the NRA's media-relations manager, told me. "Suggesting gun manufacturers, who donate less than two percent of NRA's operating revenue, are running the ship is ludicrous."
When I spoke with Dalseide in October, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action was busy finalising two bills to submit to the House of Representatives that very day. One, known as the Hearing Protection Act, would remove the $200 tax and additional Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) background checks required to purchase gun silencers. The other would speed up the process of bringing alternative ammunition materials to market by requiring the ATF to respond within 60 days to a manufacturer's application to use brass instead of copper, which is more expensive, and lead, which is regulated in some states.
"The only thing that we have to protect the lives of Americans and Virginians is our vote." —Andy Parker, father of Alison Parker
The NRA is proud of its record. "The fact is that nearly three hundred bills expanding and protecting the Second Amendment have become law in the last three years," Dalseide said. "That's almost ten times the number of new anti-gun laws passed across the nation."
It's a reality Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe knows all too well. In the two years since he was elected on a progressive platform promising stricter gun laws, McAuliffe and his allies banked on Democrats winning in two critical districts this November to swing the Republican state senate in the governor's favour. Everytown pulled out all the stops, canvassing for Democratic candidates Jeremy McPike and Dan Gecker in the state.
In the few months since their daughter Alison Parker was shot dead while reporting live for a Roanoke TV station, Andy and Barbara Parker have become a key part of the effort in Virginia. "Is this it? I almost couldn't find the place!" Andy Parker yelled cheerfully from his car as he pulled up to McPike's campaign headquarters, next door to a psychology clinic in a deserted office park in Woodbridge, for an October canvassing event. The Parkers have channeled their grief into a very public rallying cry to get single-issue voters to the polls for stricter gun laws.
A dozen or so members of the local Moms Demand Action chapter and the Everytown Survivor Network (of which the Parkers are members) and a smattering of press and Everytown staff huddled in the chilly parking lot and staged a rally before heading out to knock on doors.
"The only thing that we have to protect the lives of Americans and Virginians is our vote," Andy Parker told me, searching for a sunny patch to stand in within the drafty parking lot. "McPike supports sensible gun legislation," he said. "It's as simple as that."
McPike's opponent is Hal Parrish, the NRA-endorsed mayor of Manassas. The NRA spent more than $45,000 in the 29th district this election period, including $3,500 on a phone bank and Facebook ads, contributions that Parrish said he knew nothing about. Weeks later, Everytown countered with $2 million in TV ads starring Parker, contributing to the most expensive senate election in the state's history.
Wins by both Democratic candidates could have given McAuliffe leverage to further his gun-control agenda beyond executive actions and would have made the state a friendlier place for his ally Hillary Clinton come the 2016 presidential race. But it wasn't to be.
When the results rolled in on November 4, the Virginia senate's 21-19 Republican majority remained unchanged. McPike celebrated a win against Parrish in the 29th district, but Dan Gecker conceded the tenth district to Glen Sturtevant, a Republican with an A rating from the NRA.
Despite Everytown's efforts, and the pages it pulled from the NRA's own playbook, they got only halfway there.
With Hillary Clinton putting gun control front and centre in her campaign, the 2016 presidential race may go the whole hog. Regardless of the outcome, Goddard has one prediction: "There will be more money spent on this side of the issue in 2016 than ever before."