Why There May Still Be Reason To Hope

A new advocacy group is doing just what it needs to in order to break the NRA’s grip on gun politics.

By Nathan Pippenger

America’s mass shooting epidemic has introduced many grim rituals into public life, one of which is the spectacle of lawmakers expressing their sympathy for the latest horror, while simultaneously refusing to take any action that might help prevent the next one. In that sense, the Senate’s failure on Monday to pass four gun-control measures seemed utterly routine. But this time, E.J. Dionne, writing in The Washington Post on Tuesday, detected something different: “What happened this week,” he argues, “will be marked over the long run as the beginning of the end of gun lobby dominance.” Instead of vainly and slowly working out a compromise measure, sure to be rejected out of hand, gun control advocates decided to lose in an even louder and grander fashion: proposing stronger than usual measures while the media was still covering the shooting, and leading a filibuster that seems to have put political pressure on the NRA’s friends. The gun lobby prevailed, just as it has before—but this time, Dionne claims, its win was a “Pyrrhic victory.”

If Dionne’s prediction holds, part of the credit will go to Everytown For Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-backed gun control group whose growing clout was examined in an informative Post feature this week. I’ve written before about research that explains some of the organizational shortcomings that have historically hampered gun control efforts. From the Post‘s reporting, it sounds as though Everytown is writing its playbook with an eye towards these same findings.

According to researchers, gun control proponents have long dealt with funding problems, of which even Everytown is not immune: the Post reports that in 2014, it spent $37 million to the NRA’s $345 million. But of course, money isn’t everything. Even if Everytown were able to narrow the gap, the NRA would benefit from an organized and passionate constituency adept at communicating its preferences to politicians. Scholars of gun politics note that the NRA and affiliated groups boast “millions of dues-paying members with glossy magazines, facilities for sportsmen, and opportunities to socialize.” While shared enthusiasm for, say, hunting understandably presents opportunities for like-minded people to socialize, there’s no similar community likely to spring up around people whose shared interest lies mainly in not getting shot.

Yet in a depressing sign of how endemic this problem has become, Everytown “recruits and leverages survivors personally affected by gun violence, both among its paid staff and in its massive volunteer network” through a growing “Survivor Network”—a practice, the Post suggests, which may be unique among gun control groups. In addition to uniting people who are passionate about gun control, the Survivor Network provides training for those giving testimony and appearing in the media. These steps may help solve another problem that has long faced gun control advocates: namely, to quote a Scholars Strategy Network brief, that advocates have often “flailed about looking for a compelling narrative.”

The Survivor Network is not the only group that Everytown has marshaled in favor of new gun laws. According to the Post, it has also “borrow[ed] a strategy from Mothers Against Drunk Driving”: “Everytown has recruited hundreds of volunteer mothers across the country, called ‘Moms Demand Action,’ to act as their surrogates to testify before local legislators, hold events and rally support.”

Like Everytown’s other initiatives, this one could have been drawn directly from scholarly research, which cites “the changing priorities of women’s organizations” as another cause of the gun control movement’s weakness. This has not always been the case: “When Congress first considered gun control in the 1930s, for example, the two-million-member General Federation of Women’s Clubs spoke for everyday citizens fed up with gangland violence.” Today, such “large women’s federations with a presence in every state and community have gone into decline…replaced by smaller, professionally run advocacy organizations offering specialized expertise on behalf of women’s rights.”

Of course, steps such as those taken by Everytown will not, alone, break the hold of the NRA and its allies on state and federal lawmakers; it will take a wave of electoral wins to enact broad changes in the regulation of firearms. But gun control advocates seem to be building their resources strategically and learning from the mistakes of the past. They are applying, step by step, each of the major lessons that can be gleaned from research on gun politics. It may not be naively optimistic to start betting on them.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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