What’s next for the gun control movement? A Brady Campaigner lays it out

December 13, 2013

A year ago Saturday, the dialogue around guns in America changed: The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., mobilized more people in a more sustained way than any such tragedy had before it. At least, that's what gun-control advocates sensed. But it wasn't enough to get anything done on Capitol Hill, and since then, Brian Malte, mobilization director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has overseen efforts in dozens of states to strengthen gun-control laws and has more in the works for 2014. In the meantime, he says, work on the federal level is still very much underway. I spoke with Malte about those efforts. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


(Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images)

Lydia DePillis: What explains gun advocates' success in the states, when things failed so spectacularly in Congress? 

Brian Malte: First of all, starting at the federal level, we still feel like we have a lot of momentum. If you look at the vote in the Senate, the Toomey-Manchin background check legislation, we got 55 votes. Of course, Senator Reid switched his vote to a "no" vote to allow for reconsideration. And we need five more, and we're going after those votes. And that's a majority of the Senate, and of those who voted yes, six were A-rated NRA senators, including the two sponsors, [Pat] Toomey and [Joe] Manchin. So we've made a lot of progress, even on are what are considered to be the toughest votes in the country. Whether that vote takes place next spring or later, we'll win.

But a big part of the equation is going to the states. And the key states are those that are pushing for legislation to require background checks on all gun sales: Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota, you'll see resources from the national groups going to help these kind of states. They have well-organized groups already on the ground, and you'll see a big push this year and over the next couple years to keep that momentum going.

And I think what's really important, too, is some of the states that passed gun laws this year, some of them already have strong gun laws, and that's great, they passed stronger gun laws, in New York and California. But you also saw states like Colorado pass stronger gun legislation. Colorado's a state with a proud tradition of hunting and gun ownership, passed legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales. When states like Washington and Colorado act, it really sends a strong message to Congress that they need to finish the job and get it done at the federal level.

But in Colorado, a couple of the state senators who pushed that bill got fired

There were two state senators that were recalled. They actually tried to recall seven and ended up getting two on the ballot. Make no mistake, this was a very small minority of people trying to recall these two state senators, and most voters didn't even think it was about guns. And also, talk about voter suppression in these two races. I mean, typically, Colorado votes by mail, but they were successful in making these so that you had to actually come in and vote. It was not a regular election cycle, and it was very confusing what voters were asked to do. It's an effort we wished would've turned out differently. But, that said, the laws that Colorado passed are still on the books, and even the senators that were recalled said they would do it all over again for public safety. And when you have nine out of 10 Americans feeling strongly that background checks are the right thing to do, we will prevail. We'll do everything we can to protect those gun laws, and we don't think they'll be repealed. We think they're popular enough.

How much was Newtown a part of the messaging of these campaigns? 

Newtown, from my perspective of being in this movement for 18 years, and gone through a lot of high-profile tragedies like Virginia Tech and Columbine, this was different in that many, many more people got involved. And the difference now is that the people who got involved because of Sandy Hook, they're staying in the movement. Just because the legislation didn't succeed in the U.S. Senate in April, people didn't pack up their boxes and go home, they got really upset, reenergized, and are making a difference in their local community. The Brady Campaign chapters grew by 25 percent since Sandy Hook. And a lot of these advocates are in key congressional districts and states. I can't really identify one person who's come in since Sandy Hook who's left the movement, it was that big of a deal.

Here's something that you'll hear even Sarah Brady say: It took six years, seven votes, three presidential administrations to pass the Brady law. And we're not going away; we'll be here until we finish the job. We don't want it to be that long, but we'll do whatever it takes. We're going to see it through. You could definitely say that about all the advocates across the country. And I think that fights against the perception against a lot of those in the media, and on Capitol Hill, which is: "Well, it's been a year since Sandy Hook, I guess your window's closed. I guess you weren't successful. Now what?" Now what? What do you mean? We've just begun. This is just the beginning. Change, especially on Capitol Hill, does not come easy. It's not quick and simple. It's something we all realize, and just like the Brady law, we're going to see it through.

The $100 million that went to mental health, and related initiatives the administration announced recently, seemed like a small consolation prize after the failure of gun-control legislation. How did you think about that? 

We know there are lots of causes of gun violence, and there's no one solution. We've appreciated the administration's focus on mental health and that there has to be a conversation around that, but it's obviously a very complex issue and needs more money, more thought as we move forward. That said, we want to make sure that the severely mentally ill and other dangerous and risky people don't have access to guns. And we know that a surefire way to make sure dangerous or risky people don't get guns is to make sure that background checks are done on all gun sales. Forty percent of gun sales don't require a background check.

You had a lot of success in some states, but many other states passed laws loosening gun laws. Did you try to fight those battles, as well, or triage them out? 

I think there are a lot of folks on our side fighting against the "guns everywhere, anytime for anyone" thing that the gun lobby's doing. And in quite a few states our advocates have been able to defeat some of that stuff, like bringing guns on college campuses. But I think what you see from the gun violence prevention movement is while we certainly don't want the proliferation of guns in sensitive areas, we are focused on a proactive agenda. I think focusing on what we want is long overdue in our movement and is a big focus now. We don't want to see some bad things happen in states, but need to be proactive and pass strong laws. And also by doing that it focuses the gun lobby on our turf and our narrative, and fighting against us instead of us fighting against them. So I think you're seeing that shift in 2013 that we haven't seen in a while -- we were fighting on their terms in states across the country, now they're fighting on our terms.

So, offense instead of defense. 

Yeah, and I think that's what the American public wants. They want to see solutions, not just stopping bad things from happening, but what can be done to stop the 30,000 guns deaths every year in this country, the 90 people who die every day from gun violence. And the only way to do that is put out a very proactive agenda.

 What are you planning in terms of electoral races for 2014? 

Yeah, there's a lot of discussion about where the key races are going to be, but I think first things first, a couple things need to happen. A lot of these state legislatures that are going to push legislation for background checks on all gun sales are going to start in January or Feburary, and those are important states, and have short sessions. So we want to come out of the gate and show that states are moving this legislation, send a message to Congress. In addition, the background check bill that's Rep. Peter King's bill, HR 1565, now has 186 co-sponsors. The Brady bill, on the House side before it was passed, had 155 back in 1993. So we feel that we've made progress there. We need more Republicans on that bill, so we're going to continue to demonstrate the support in those districts, with polling, and a diverse coalition of people meeting with those legislators. So first, we need to get the Senate bill brought up again, get those five votes, get our co-sponsors on the House side. From there, organically, those districts and those key races will surface.

I think 2013 was incredibly successful. All of a sudden, you start to see congressional members think differently about this issue. Every time you take a vote, you're asking a member of Congress to take a stance on something that's really popular, like background checks. Every time the Brady bill failed over those six years, you got a few more votes. And a few more votes. If you are, you're pushing the rock up the hill. So the secret for us is, keep having momentum and co-sponsors, and if the Senate bill comes up, we want to pass it. But if we don't pass it, we want more votes. By increasing your votes, your list of targets starts to shrink, and your resources can go towards a smaller number of targets to have a greater impact. So for us, it's getting closer to 218 and closer to 60.

And then, [Sens.] Kelly Ayotte [R-N.H.] and Jeff Flake [R-Ariz.] are going to have to say to people in their states why they're not supporting something that 9 out of 10 Americans support. And that, we welcome.

RELATED: Not only Newtown: Beyond that massacre, 71 children were killed by deliberate gunfire in 2012

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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