Magazine

The Future of Gun Reform

By Jennifer Mascia Greg Jackson Jr. Po Murray Igor Volsky Garen Wintemute

Tagged CrimeGun ControlPublic Health

Maybe more than any other issue, the policy failures allowing horrific gun violence are illustrated to us constantly, whether in mass shootings on the front page or the staggering daily toll from murder and suicide. With some recent incremental legislative progress Democracy wanted to get a lay of the land, so we convened a group of activists and experts to lay out where gun reform stands, what’s possible with the current Supreme Court, how the movement has changed in the past decade, and what makes these experts hopeful but also fearful. This conversation took place on October 14, 2022, before subsequent shootings in Colorado Springs, Charlottesville, Chesapeake, and elsewhere.

The participants included Greg Jackson Jr., executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund; Po Murray, co-founder and chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance; Igor Volsky, co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America; and Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician and director of the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center.

The conversation was moderated by Jennifer Mascia, a senior news writer and founding staffer at The Trace. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Mascia: Earlier this year, for the first time in nearly 30 years, the federal government enacted gun reform measures. They enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, clarified who needs to obtain a federal firearms license, apportioned $750 million for red flag laws and crisis intervention, and instituted gun bans for abusive dating partners, albeit temporarily. With the political divide in Washington, and particularly in the Senate, being what it is, it’s unclear when federal gun reform might pass again. Has the gun safety effort gone as far as it can at the federal level? And if so, where should reform efforts focus next?

Po Murray: The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was passed after two horrific mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. It was certainly a step in the right direction, but it didn’t do enough to stop the type of mass shootings that occurred. Therefore, there is an opportunity for additional congressional action, including passing an assault weapons ban, passing legislation like Ethan’s Law that would keep kids safe from unsecured guns, and, of course, the universal background check bill that we have been trying to pass for a decade. These bills have been passed in the House of Representatives. What we’d like to see is the Senate gaining a few more gun safety champions during the midterms so that they can end the filibuster and pass these bills in the Senate.

Igor Volsky: I certainly agree with Po, and she’s really led the effort on so many of those initiatives and done such an incredible job building support for congressional action, particularly around the assault weapons ban and Ethan’s Law. The other piece I would add is, of course, the President could and should be doing more. There’s a series of actions he could take without congressional authorization. Chief among them is establishing an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and staffing it with experts on this issue and having that really be a permanent fixture of his Administration, hopefully administrations, moving forward. But your question also asks, have we gone as far as we could? And I think another factor we have to consider here is what the jurisprudence looks like in the aftermath of Bruen. [Ed.: This 2022 Supreme Court decision held that a New York law requiring people to show “proper cause” in order to receive a license to carry a concealed weapon violated the Fourteenth Amendment.] Because certainly, and you may come to this question, we’ve already seen, according to our count, over 70 challenges to gun laws all across the country. A key question our movement is going to have to grapple with, and our country is going to have to grapple with, is whether it is going to be possible to make the kinds of advances that everybody in this conversation is advocating for given the Bruen decision, the new test that the justices put forward.

Greg Jackson Jr.: There’s so much more that needs to be done. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, in our opinion, was the first gun violence prevention bill to look at this in a comprehensive way, and not only address access to firearms but also focus on the important health-based needs that are connected to violence, including the resources for mental health services, suicide prevention, and one that we’ve been most focused on, which is funding for community violence intervention. While we were excited that it took a more comprehensive view, it fell way short of what’s needed. As for gun violence, right now, the annual economic impact is $557 billion per year. And so for them to only put $250 million in there to support community-focused solutions is a very small percentage of the need that’s out there.

The Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which would invest $6.5 billion into violence intervention and strategic youth workforce programs, passed the House, 220 to 207, but now it’s sitting in the Senate and it’s stalled out. So I think this was, again, a strong step forward, and the first step in 30 years. But we know that this is really just a down payment on the large amount of resources we need to address this crisis.

JM: Many gun reforms are centered in the criminal justice realm, and they result in the imprisonment of people of color, which fuels the mass incarceration crisis. How can we reform gun laws without disproportionately burdening this population?

GJ: We have to start with just recognizing what this crisis is. This is not a crime crisis. This is a public health crisis. And for so long, the gun violence prevention movement, lobbyists, advocates have solely focused on the reduction of violent crime. I think that’s been a misstep. We have to think about what we are doing to address those other root causes and risk factors that lead to violence. I’m inspired, a lot of the activists and even the legislators now are starting to speak about this as more than just gun control. We just did an event in Oakland yesterday with Senator [Alex] Padilla and Representative Barbara Lee, and the entire City Council of Oakland, and every community member there talked about the need for resources for certain programs and efforts that they know are preventing violence. I think there’s a huge awakening that’s happening.

I think the other big thing is we have to accept the reality that the criminal legal system is biased. Every gun violence-related policy has to have protections to make sure that it’s not being abused and manipulated to negatively impact people of color. That’s something that we have focused on with many of the bills considered most recently, especially around gun trafficking, straw purchases, etc.

Garen Wintemute: Two brief comments, Jennifer. To your first question, I’ll add that whatever happens in Washington, states need to take up this challenge as well. It’s state laws that are being challenged under the Bruen decision—but we also know that the bold policy experiments that are under consideration in Washington originated in the states. Assault weapons bans, extreme risk protection orders, comprehensive background checks, were all pioneered in the states, not in Washington. And to Greg’s point about taking a broader view of violence, we need to remember that more than half of deaths from firearm violence in the United States are suicide. It’s still a hard sell at times to get people to accept that suicide is violence, but as an ER doc, I know that a bullet really doesn’t care whose finger is on the trigger. It’s a violent death. It’s also important that the demographics of suicide and homicide are completely different. For that reason, and because suicide is more common, first a plurality and then a majority of people who die from firearm violence in the United States, from age 35 on up, are white, non-Hispanic men. That’s not to diminish the tragedy of what happens with homicide, but a more comprehensive view leads to a more comprehensive approach. Everyone is affected.

IV: And just quickly to the question of how we avoid overcriminalizing the communities most impacted by gun violence. Legislators are hopefully thinking about how we rein in the abuses of the firearms industry, right? That every year produces weapons of ever-increasing lethality, that does its best to spread those weapons throughout our communities. I think they have some real culpability here as well. And we all know, of course, there are all kinds of laws on the books and liability protections that make it harder for us to rein in what I would consider criminal behavior, but I think certainly that needs to be part of the conversation.

JM: That dovetails into my next question. Gunmakers and sellers are still largely protected from lawsuits arising from the criminal misuse of their products, thanks to a 2005 federal law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. [Ed.: The PLCAA shields manufacturers and dealers from prosecution for crimes committed with their products.] But PLCAA has an exception for gunmakers that violate a state statute applicable to the sale or marketing of firearms. So several states have taken advantage of that, passing laws that require gun companies to impose reasonable controls on their distribution chains and more carefully monitor the way guns are marketed. Could this be what finally financially hobbles the gunmakers once and for all, as was the case with the tobacco companies in the 1990s? 

IV: I certainly hope so. It was seen as such a victory, the Sandy Hook settlement. Which was really historic. To the extent that that can create a template for future action, I think that’s incredibly exciting. The other piece here is the gun industry. I think this happened particularly after the Iraq War really tapped into a certain culture and a certain identity around gun ownership, and they have been able to really squeeze out and build up a real market. And so when we saw, in the early days of COVID, people rush to gun stores and buy guns out of panic, it really spoke to the kind of grip they have on American culture and American society. And so, yes, I think finding routes through the court is incredibly important to chip away at some of their marketing practices and maybe in some way get to some of the manufacturing. But I think part of the bigger challenge we face as a movement is thinking about how we change the cultural conversation and understanding of firearms. 

PM: The Sandy Hook families settled with the insurers of Remington for $73 million earlier this year, due to the protections Connecticut had. But unfortunately, many states do not have that, and I hope that many of the states will pursue changing their legislation to have those protections. 

JM: Earlier this week, a district judge in West Virginia cited the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision in striking down a federal law barring the removal of serial numbers from guns. An appeals court in Tennessee struck down bans on guns in public housing complexes. In September, a federal judge in Texas struck down a 54-year-old prohibition on buying guns while under indictment for certain crimes. Another Texas judge struck down the state’s ban on handgun carry for 18-to-20-year-olds. Legal experts say that some or all of these decisions ultimately might not stand, but how concerned are you that Bruen could be used to unravel long-standing gun laws that many Americans take for granted? 

IV: Very concerned, incredibly concerned, highly alarmed. Look, this is a real danger. The reality is you have a well-funded and coordinated effort on the other side that is methodically attacking and going after laws on the state level. There are lawsuits on the federal level as well. It’s a real challenge that’s not going to be easy to solve. Certainly, there needs to be a very serious discussion about how to reform our courts, from the Supreme Court on down, to ensure that we don’t allow unbalanced courts to completely undo the will of the people in democratic society. But I’m very concerned. There are no easy answers here. 

GW: It’s conscious, deliberate. Wacky decisions by lower trial courts may well not be overturned by higher-level courts, because the level of wackiness seems not to decrease as seniority increases. It’s also clearly not limited to firearm violence; look what’s happening with reproductive rights, for example.

I’m going to throw another rock in the pond. Igor made reference to a surge in firearm purchasing that began with the onset of the pandemic two and a half years ago. We track that monthly. The surge has not let up through September 2022. If we use background checks as a proxy, we are purchasing nearly 50 percent more firearms than we had been prior to the pandemic. So for me, the synthesis of all the lines of our conversation is, what happens when you take a society that is fearful of the future, mistrustful of its governmental institutions and of democracy as a form of government, increasingly polarized, and angry, and you throw an unprecedented number of guns into the mix? We’re going to find out. 

GJ: Black and Brown communities have already been saturated with firearms. And so trying to address this crisis amidst the reality that guns are already easily accessible has been our focus for a while, and I think reinforces the need for a public health approach that focuses on victims, survivors, and families that have been most impacted, as well as the resources that can help drive down the demand for a firearm just as aggressively as we are focused on the supply. I think that that work is starting to happen, and a lot of cities are starting to lean on that understanding that gun access is a challenge they can’t necessarily overcome, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make progress in reducing violence. 

JM: Mass shootings get a lot of media attention, understandably. The randomness of such events is a form of terrorism, and as such, it captures the public’s attention, but they’re less than 5 percent of annual gun deaths. Meanwhile, gun deaths reached an all-time high in 2021, nearly 49,000, and they show no signs of abating. That’s 133 people every day. It’s nearly impossible to report on them all. I know, we try. How can we get people to care about everyday shootings, and how can we get the media to care about everyday shootings? 

GJ: One big step is to stop calling them everyday shootings. I always kind of grit my teeth when you see a report after a mass shooting and it’s saying, “Well, this never happens here.” Well, in reality, it shouldn’t happen anywhere. It shouldn’t be a norm for any community or any neighborhood. Our children should be safe in school, but they should also be safe on their playgrounds, in their homes, and in their neighborhoods too. And so, I think a big challenge that we’re working hard against as an organization is addressing this normalization of violence, this normalization of Black death.

And then, on the flip side of that, this overcriminalization of what’s happening in our communities. The violence that’s happening in Black and Brown communities is very similar to what’s happening in other communities statistically. Only 11 percent of homicides in the Black community are connected to gang violence. Only 30 percent of Black homicides are connected to other felony crimes. Most of the violence that we’re seeing is interpersonal conflict between people, many times first offenders. It’s not this crime narrative that the media continues to reinforce and kind of shove down our throats. Anytime you look at the five o’clock news, when they do report on violence in our communities, they display yellow tapes, cop cars, red lights, and the only faces you see are mugshots, right? You don’t even see the pictures of the families, of the victims, of the life that’s lost, of the opportunity or the potential lost. I think that in itself, just telling the full story of what happens, will open people’s eyes to how traumatic this is, no matter where it happens, but also will push them to think about more than just crime reduction strategies. We have seen that the cities that have the highest levels of incarceration, the highest numbers of policing and law enforcement tactics, and the harshest sentencing still have the highest amount of gun violence. This is not a problem that can be incarcerated out of, or else states like Louisiana would be the safest in the country.

PM: We work with many survivors impacted by all types of gun violence, including mass shootings, therefore minimizing the impact of mass shootings has been frustrating. There is a significant ripple effect to these mass shootings. We now have 89 percent of Americans concerned about school shootings. That’s essentially everyone, in every community, across the country. So I think it’s really important that when we discuss gun violence, we look at it more holistically, because it’s impacting all of our communities in a very similar way.

GJ: This [recent] Raleigh, North Carolina, shooting, that was the 530th mass shooting of the year. The media likes to point to four or five incidents, but even the term “mass shooting” isn’t equitably reported on. And even school shootings, there have been school shootings at sport events that get very little or zero coverage that may have caused just as much harm or carnage, but because it’s at a sporting event in the parking lot at a football game, it’s being treated very differently. 

JM: There appears to be a voting bloc for whom gun rights is a motivating factor. Where’s the gun reform voting bloc? Do you think voters will ever be motivated by gun safety the same way they’re motivated by gun rights?

GJ: I actually don’t even know if it’s a bloc. I feel like for every American now, this is front of mind. The presidential campaign in 2008 didn’t even mention gun violence. Whereas this last presidential election, every single candidate had to answer to their strategy and share specifics and details about how they’re going to attack this problem, during the primary. We went from this being a fringe issue that’s too controversial to talk about, to now every candidate having to talk about it. I think the tricky part is the public doesn’t quite know what solutions they should be fighting for. They just know that something has to be done. But just the fact that that urgent call for change or action is so front of mind for voters is a huge win for advocates.

GW: Here’s a problem that we face. We all know that people buy firearms for personal protection, more than for all other reasons put together. Thirty-some years ago, the majority of Americans believed that bringing a gun into your home made the home a riskier place. That has flipped. Now a majority of Americans believe that bringing a gun into their home makes their home safer. The dynamic becomes, “I’m okay as a gun owner, but you all are not.” We’ve done some survey research here in California that confirms this.

The problem when it comes to voting, then, is that people may clearly perceive the size of the problem that is posed by gun violence, but what it raises for them is the question, “How do I stay safe?” And paradoxically, the answer to that question is often, “I’d better buy a gun.” For at least five years now, probably longer, the demographics of new gun purchasing have really changed. It’s by no means just older white men; purchasers are much more representative of the entire population.

There have been some really painful anecdotal stories featuring people being interviewed, even while in the act of buying a gun at a gun store, saying something along the lines of, “This runs contrary to everything I believe, but the time has come in my town, I need to buy one.” As policy advocates, we need to also think about how we create a climate in which the personal demand for guns diminishes. Because otherwise people are not going to be willing to vote for candidates who put that access at risk.

IV: And can I say, to that very point, part of the problem is that even some of our elected leaders, some of the champions on this issue, use language that reinforces the false notion that guns make you safer. So right before we started this conversation, I was looking at just some polling around how Democrats should talk about crime in the midterm elections, because they’re getting hit as being soft on crime. And the recommendation is that they should say, and this is supposedly all poll-tested words here, that we should ensure that guns don’t fall into the hands of criminals. Which is how we’ve been talking about this issue for decades, right? That we’ve got to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. I’ve always thought there are very big racial undertones to that kind of framing, whoever first poll-tested those phrases.

And here we are in 2022, using the same kind of language that implies that guns in the hands of criminals—who apparently you know immediately they’re criminals, it’s on their forehead somewhere—is a bad thing, but guns in the hands of these responsible gun owners that we’re constantly looking for and trying to mobilize is a good thing, when we know that’s not what any of the respectable research says. So, we’ve got to stop doing that, as people who want to build safer communities and communities with fewer guns. We’ve certainly since 2008 made some real progress in terms of how candidates talk about the issue, the specificity, the range of solutions that they offer. Because of Greg’s great work we now hear so much about investing in communities. But we need a lot more of that. I think part of it just starts with being honest with voters and with Americans that guns are inherently dangerous in almost anyone’s hands. If we want to truly solve this problem, I think we need to make them harder to get for everyone. We need to raise the standard of gun ownership.

PM: The gun lobby has effectively and unapologetically pushed their any-guns-to-everyone agenda. We have been countering their efforts for the last decade, and our movement is stronger than ever. And sadly, as more and more communities get impacted by gun violence, I think we will see more voters coming on our side and voting on this issue. I’ve met many Highland Park mothers who were voting Republican who are now changing their affiliation to Democrat and voting on this issue. I’m meeting families from Uvalde, which is a very conservative Trump district. They’re also gun owners as well, and they are changing their affiliation.

JM: This past summer, Dr. Wintemute and his team at UC Davis released a study that found that half of Americans think there will be civil conflict in the next few years. Nearly one in five say they will soon arm themselves in a situation where political violence is justified. We hear the phrases “civil war” and “civil conflict” a lot lately, where ten years ago such a thing would’ve sounded ridiculous. We also have 400 million guns in civilian hands. Many of them are purchased for self-defense, as you said. What role do guns play when we’re in this heightened political state? And can you see it really getting ugly out there?

GW: Let me give you a rhetorical question back as an answer to your question about it getting ugly, Jennifer. What do we all think is going to happen when armed voter suppression—and don’t tell me you don’t see that coming—meets armed voter support?

That might happen in November 2022. It might not happen until 2024 or sometime in between. But as I’ve been doing research on this, I’ve seen an important analogy between the current state of political violence and intimate partner violence where firearms are concerned. Firearms are weapons of intimidation and control. They don’t just kill people; they alter people’s behavior. What we’re seeing at the moment all too commonly is the threat of political violence, including from elected officials. I suspect that’s in the process of changing voter behavior now, which is its objective.

On the question of how likely we are to see things getting ugly, I’ve come to understand this about the people who’ve been studying the potential for civil conflict and terrorism in this country and around the world: The more they know about the topic, the greater is their level of concern about imminent and near-term risk in the United States. This is not fear-mongering. This is expertise, honed in the study of many civil conflicts right around the world, bringing that expertise to bear on events in the United States and concluding, in essence, “Oh my, we are in real trouble here.”

IV: This is where it gets a little scary. Four hundred million guns, a political environment that identifies anyone who doesn’t agree with you as the enemy and says that you have the right to use your firearms to intimidate, to sometimes do more than intimidate, because you are fighting for what’s right. You’re fighting to preserve democracy and American ideals, right? And so there are millions of people, according to these numbers, who believe that they’re upholding every value of our society and of our country. How do you fight back against that? I don’t know. But what I will say is I think we need to really take every opportunity we have. And one would be in the Bruen decision that we referenced, there was a recognition that guns should not be allowed in sensitive places, and certainly sensitive places would include polling places. I think right now there are maybe seven or eight states, maybe it’s up to nine now, that explicitly don’t allow guns at polling places. I think there should be a real effort in this country to ensure that other states pass such measures, not only at polling places, but also at vote counting centers, etc. I might be putting forth a small solution, obviously, to a much larger problem. It’s something that certainly keeps me up at night. 

GW: Let me share some information from our recent research. I’m going to get really dark with you all, and I’m going to tie this current topic to some of what we talked about earlier. One of the drivers of hate crime and some political violence, including the Buffalo mass shooting and others, is belief in the “great replacement” delusion, that there is a conspiracy to replace native-born white Americans with immigrants and people of color. Let me be clear about a distinction. The demographics of the country are changing, and the Census Bureau predicts that white non-Hispanics will make up less than half the nation’s population beginning in about 2045. That is simply going to happen. The idea that it’s happening as the result of some malevolent conspiracy, which is the core of “great replacement” thinking, is a delusion. We found that about 40 percent of American adults agreed, 20 percent agreeing strongly or very strongly, with the statement that “in America, native-born white people are being replaced by immigrants.” In other polls that have specifically mentioned a conspiracy, support runs about 30 percent. Either way, lots and lots of people. Now for the dark part. For decades, I as an advocate have been saying about violence that there’s no part of the country, no demographic group, that can say, “This is not my problem.” But someone who believes in the great replacement conspiracy can look at the demographics of interpersonal violence and conclude not just that “it’s not my problem” but that it’s not a problem at all. It’s the solution to a problem. For such a person, it’s eliminating their replacements. We may be encountering, behind opposition to gun policy reform, the kind of deep-set racist thinking that’s going to be very, very difficult to overcome. 

JM: So, are we already in a civil war? 

GW: There are experts in civil war who say, yes, we are. We’re just in the early stages.

PM: As a female minority immigrant, I am extremely fearful that there will be a civil war and people like me are in danger, because I believe that the root of the possibility of a civil war is based on white extremism, and I fear for my children. I have three daughters and a son who look like me. Many Americans are looking for a home outside of this country because we are scared that it could happen. I don’t think it’s hyperbole. We’ve seen January 6 happen, and then we’ve seen MAGA Republicans support the insurrectionists and a President that instigated the armed insurrection. With more and more white extremists arming up with AR-15s, we have asked President Biden to make that connection when talking to Americans about armed insurrection, because AR-15s are the weapons of choice for them to wield power over people like us. I think it’s really important for us to pass an assault weapons ban and also ban guns at polling places and start to counter the armed intimidation tactics that basically take away our freedom.

GJ: It’s also really, really important to acknowledge there’s a scary double standard with owning your gun for political protection or political opinions. In the Black community, we’re seeing folks being murdered for just the thought of maybe they had a gun. We just saw a 15-year-old who was shot and killed outside of a store because someone thought he had a gun, and they called the police, and he was fired on, on site. We’re watching young men being shot and killed in their bed, and just with the thought that maybe they have access to a gun. And I just think that that double standard is something that we have to continue to acknowledge, that even if there was a fear of some insurrection, me having a gun makes me more at risk to state-based violence or state-sanctioned violence.

JM: Po, this one’s for you. We’re coming up on ten years since Newtown, and many people might say not much has changed. But one thing I can think of off the top of my head is that the gun reform movement looks completely different than it did ten years ago. What are your thoughts on what’s changed in that time?

PM: Well, first of all, I think the gun violence prevention movement is larger. It’s also bolder. And the movement is looking at the issue more holistically and broadly than it had in the past. For the first five years after I joined the movement, we just talked about background checks. I’m really thrilled that we have moved beyond that and we’re making sure that communities of color are part of the conversation, and also survivors. We’re trying to do more to put survivors front and center, for them to push this issue. There was some progress, and then Trump was elected, and we lost some ground. But then Joe Biden was elected, and he pushed for the strongest platform for gun violence prevention in modern history.

He’s there trying to do everything that he can, and it’s just a matter of time before the voting bloc chooses to vote with us, because the public opinion is already there. The majority of Americans support many of the gun violence prevention measures that we’re supporting, and they will catch up in the future because, like I said earlier, more and more communities and families are being impacted by gun violence, and it’s going to be untenable for many of the elected officials to do nothing about it. That’s why we saw 15 Republican senators voting yes for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act against the NRA, against the NSSF’s desires [Ed.: National Shooting Sports Foundation]. And we also saw 14 House Republicans vote for it as well. It’s just a matter of time before they move forward and decide that it’s the right side of history, the morally right thing to do, and it will be the political high ground for them to do so.

JM: Igor, what’s changed in the last ten years?

IV: Well, I echo everything that Po says, and I think the fact that we, as Greg was mentioning, are now oftentimes leading with the need to invest in communities is just a gigantic change from even when I started in this movement in 2015. But I think what hasn’t changed is also what I pointed to, this notion of how we talk about guns ourselves, the very instruments of guns. I think we need more progress there. The fact that we are thinking of solutions in a far broader way, the fact that we are in many instances focusing on the communities most impacted by gun violence, even though we need to do far more in how the media talks about it and how we even in our movement talk about it, I do think it’s important to recognize that we’ve made some progress. 

GJ: I think that’s right. I think the biggest difference I’ve seen is that the movement has pivoted from professional nonprofit executives leading the movement to survivors and those impacted. We’ve always felt that those who are closest to the pain have the answers. And we’re seeing that more and more, we’re seeing kids who are in the schools being the ones speaking out for change, survivors who lost their father or child or mother or have been shot themselves advocating for change. When I entered the movement in 2013, I was seen almost as a prop as a survivor, it was like: “Oh, can you speak in this camera for this commercial? Wear this shirt. Thank you so much. We got it from here.” And I resented that, but that was kind of how the movement was designed.

I also think that we have gotten a lot smarter because there are some folks who have been around for a long time and have really learned how to be more aggressive. Like Po and I, we’ve been trying to see things happen in Congress for a long time, and we kind of got sick of watching other people do it and said, “All right, we’re going to do it,” and we’ve been way more effective, I would argue, than some other advocacy efforts because we learned from their mistakes, we have stronger stories, and we’re more strategic in our outreach and in our work.

GW: I’ll just add, the other thing that has changed is that there is now a rapidly growing body of scientific evidence to underlie good policymaking, as with climate change and other things. This field has been my primary commitment for 40 years, and for 20 of those years, there were fewer than 20 people nationwide who had made a career commitment to firearm violence research and stuck to it. There was almost no federal funding. But in the last ten years, that has changed. There are now hundreds of people committed to working on this long-term. There was a time when this field could have been put out of existence. We were an endangered species, but that’s no longer true. This work is here to stay.

JM: Okay. That was my last question, but I’d like to go around one last time. You can each tell me, what is something that you’d like to leave readers with? What’s something that they can do about this crisis? Po?

PM: I’m tired of hearing “I didn’t think that it could happen to us,” because we’ve been screaming since the Sandy Hook tragedy that if it can happen in Sandy Hook, then it can happen anywhere. I urge everyone to vote for candidates who will take action to stop these shootings. These shootings are preventable. We can do something about it, and we need to start doing something because 45,000 gun deaths and double the number of gun injuries a year is too much. And it’s too heartbreaking. I don’t want to meet another parent that lost a child due to gun violence.

IV: Greg mentioned we just lived through the 530th-something mass shooting of 2022. That’s a choice we make to allow for this to happen time and time again, or at the very least as frequently as it happens. Those who want to see safer communities with fewer guns far outnumber people who do not, even with those scary numbers that Garen was pointing to. And so we can act, we can choose to vote on this issue as opposed to tax cuts or whatever else we think is important, because what is more important than our ability to live and to continue living on this earth? 

GJ: I think the last thing I would just reiterate is that this is a public health crisis, and we have proven as a country that we can handle public health crises and effectively eradicate them. And so this issue is not too overwhelming or too complex. There are very concrete, direct things that we can do now to save lives. And if we just put the same level of energy into this as we did the opioid crisis, as we did with COVID-19 and other health crises, then I know we can get there because the solutions exist. I’m encouraged that at least we know how to attack it. We just have to keep building the political courage to do so.

JM: Garen, final word. 

GW: Two things. One is be hopeful and don’t give up, because if the good guys give up, the bad guys win. And the second, echoing what other people have said, is this: The next time it happens—whatever it is, a mass shooting in another part of the country, a shooting in your neighborhood, a suicide in your family—don’t ask, “Is this the time when somebody’s going to do something?” Ask yourself, “Is this the time when I’m going to do something?” That something might be voting, or making a commitment to say something when you see something, because that’s a great way to stop many forms of gun violence. We will not solve this public health problem unless each one of us makes the commitment to become part of the solution.

JM: Well said, all of you. This has been really, really insightful.

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Jennifer Mascia is a senior news writer and founding staffer at The Trace. She previously covered gun violence at The New York Times.

Greg Jackson Jr. is the Executive Director of the Community Justice Action Fund, and a community organizer, political strategist, and issue advocate. He is a survivor of gun violence.

Po Murray is a co-founder and chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance (NAA) and the Newtown Action Alliance Foundation (NAAF).

Igor Volsky is co-founder and the Executive Director of Guns Down America and author of Guns Down: How To Defeat The NRA And Build A Safer Future With Fewer Guns. He previously served as the Deputy Director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and as Vice President at the Center for American Progress.

Garen Wintemute is an emergency medicine physician at the University of California, Davis Medical Center and directs the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center.

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