Washington State voters last month defied the gun lobby and approved a measure extending firearm background checks private transfers. For the gun reform movement, the victory was not only a policy success but also potentially a strategic one, offering a roadmap for activism to come.
That gun reformers see a path forward is significant, because for at least two decades they have lost much ground to their better-funded and better-organized opponents. Firearms laws at the national level and in many states have loosened; the public has grown more supportive of guns in the home and more skeptical about gun regulation; grassroots cadres have arisen to normalize firearms in public life; and political partisans have hardened in a way that makes compromise on the issue very difficult.
Against these strong headwinds, the gun control movement struggled to keep moving. But after a spate of mass shootings — Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, among others — pro-reform groups are mobilizing on a scale not seen in more than a decade and doing so with resources and tools that their predecessors lacked.
As the mighty gun lobby meets a resurgent gun control movement, now is a good time to take stock of the seismic pro-gun shift that happened largely under the radar in every branch of government and at every level – and how gun reformers are taking lessons from their opponents in how to change laws and culture.
Most Americans know that gun rights advocates are a force at the polls: They turn out their voters and occasionally swing tight races. But perhaps more important, gun rights groups have capitalized on their electoral advantages to secure policy gains between elections. Besides advancing gun rights, these measures have hobbled gun control advocates by shutting them out of policy arenas where they might have had influence or drawn support.
First, consider the federal bureaucracy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, public health researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control sought to apply public health research and interventions to the problem of gun injury and death. The National Rifle Association (NRA) feared that these efforts would make the case for stronger gun laws and persuaded its Congressional allies to strip the funding. A similar dynamic played out in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which Congress for several years barred from publicly sharing aggregate data about the origins of guns used in crime.
Gun reform groups have taken back some of this lost ground — for example, some gun-trace data sharing is now allowed, and after Sandy Hook President Obama directed the CDC to conduct or sponsor gun-violence research. But these and other data-suppression efforts hindered gun reformers’ ability to answer basic policy-relevant questions (does a gun in the home make it safer, or less safe?), to formulate evidence-based policy, and to forge alliances with potential institutional allies.
Consider another venue: the courts. Guns are exempt from federal consumer-safety laws, and many guns used in crime appear to come from a few “bad apple” dealers. In response gun control advocates filed or supported lawsuits on behalf of cities and individuals affected by gun violence. Pro-gun activists fought back, and 33 states quickly enacted laws banning such lawsuits. In 2005 Congress pulled the plug nationally by providing immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers (with some important exceptions).
This slammed the courthouse doors shut for gun control advocates. Indeed, the 2005 law probably had a bigger impact on the gun control movement than did the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 ruling that the Constitution protects an individual right to a gun for self-protection.
Perhaps the most important focus of the gun lobby’s between-elections activism has been state legislatures. Responding to strategic campaigns led by the NRA and its affiliates, most legislatures over the past several decades have stripped law enforcement authorities of their discretion to decide who may carry a concealed weapon and have eliminated or severely restricted the authority of localities to regulate firearms. These laws deprive gun control advocates of opportunities to organize and shape policy in urban areas, where gun violence is most severe and where citizens’ voices are loudest.
Looking at gun control activism in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I termed it a “missing movement.” That period turned out to be, in retrospect, a relatively organized and active period compared to the decade to come. With some important exceptions, including a 2007 federal law that incentivizes states to provide records to the national background check system, the gun reform movement lost ground during the Bush and first Obama administrations.
But the gun reform movement that coalesced after Sandy Hook looks very different than the struggling movement I first studied 15 years ago. For one, today’s movement has a steady source of significant funds. Bloomberg pledged to spend $50-million on the cause this year alone, mostly through his Everytown for Gun Safety lobbying organization and related campaign spending group. Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, spent at least $23-million this election cycle.
Under the banner of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, self-styled “badass moms” are using social-media tools not available to their foremothers to facilitate old-time grassroots activism – testifying, phone banking, petitioning, campaigning, demonstrating, and boycotting. Survivors and family members, working through groups such as Everytown and Sandy Hook Promise, are assuming a high-profile advocacy role in numbers unprecedented in the gun control movement. Social media are helping these geographically dispersed advocates to create the shared identity, common language, camaraderie, and mutual accountability so vital to sustaining collective action.
Gun control activists will still have a hard time undoing the gun lobby’s progress, in part because the country has shifted in the pro-gun direction over the past two decades. They face the challenge of maintaining their current momentum over more than a few years — something that the earlier movement struggled to do.
Kristin Goss is an associate professor of public policy and political science at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University. She is the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America and co-author (with Philip J. Cook) of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know; firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.