“It’s almost impossible not to relive your own trauma when a mass shooting occurs,” said McNeil, 40, who spent the next several hours overwhelmed by fear, laying down on the floor at times to quell flashbacks. “You can’t help but to feel for the victims because you know what it’s like to lay on the floor wondering, ‘Is this what it feels like to die?’ ”
McNeil did not simply relive his horrifying experience — he did something about it as part of a growing group of volunteer activists for Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s highest-profile gun-control group, largely bankrolled by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Around lunchtime, he began checking his Facebook messages, where fellow gun-violence survivors were sending him notes. He learned that a vigil was planned that night, in the parking lot between gay clubs in downtown Mobile.
“That’s the moment where it clicked,” McNeil said. “I knew if there was any way I could speak about my experience, I have to do that. . . . I felt touched by this twice. It doubles my call to action.”
McNeil forms part of Everytown’s “Survivor Network,” a 1,000-strong army of activists in 46 states who are either survivors of gun violence themselves or who know or are related to someone who was killed that way. Many of them describe it as a club that nobody wants to be a part of.
The Survivor Network is just one component of Everytown’s aggressive crusade to change the gun-control debate in the United States. As mass shootings unfold with increasing frequency, Everytown is seeking to disrupt the debate with a richly funded, rapid-action and unconventional lobbying campaign that is starting to reap some results at the state level, though federal action is stalled.
After Orlando, many survivors spoke out against gun violence at vigils and rallies across the country.
In San Francisco, it was architect Alan Martinez, whose nephew was killed in the 2014 Isla Vista, Calif., rampage. In Washington, D.C., it was lawyer Miya Tandon, whose father was gunned down in Minneapolis in 2012. In South Bend, Ind., it was music instructor Stephen Miller, whose brother was fatally shot in 1972. In Las Vegas, it was therapist Linda Cavazos, whose brother killed himself with a gun.
But Everytown also is focused on Washington. Lawmakers planned to vote Monday on a series of proposals to bar those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, but all were likely to fail, as have previous attempts to restrict gun sales after violent events.
Within 24 hours of Orlando, Everytown’s lawyers and lobbyists were on the phone with the office of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to throw their support behind legislation to deny firearms to terrorist suspects. Next was a call to the office of Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to embrace his proposal to prevent people convicted of hate crimes from buying guns. The group also began working with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), probably Republicans’ biggest advocate for changes to the law.
At the same time, Everytown’s digital team began sending e-mails and social-media blasts to some 3 million followers, urging them to tell their lawmakers to step up gun control.
And, as they do after every mass shooting, the group started addressing postcards to friends and family members of Orlando victims, expressing their condolences and offering Everytown as a resource. If history is any indication, many of them will eventually join the Survivor Network.
Recruiting survivors to the cause
Everytown views itself as a counterweight to the powerful National Rifle Association, which has historically dominated the gun-control debate.
“The gun lobby has had its way in state legislatures for decades, had its way in Congress for decades,” said Everytown Executive Director John Feinblatt, a former aide to Bloomberg in the mayor’s office. “They wanted to convince the American public of their invincibility, to convince the American public that what America stood for was guns anywhere, held by anyone, at any time. There has been no friction in many ways.”
Feinblatt’s group is seeking to provide that friction. Since its launch in April 2014, Everytown has grown from about a dozen employees to 130.
Its spending has also exploded. Headquartered in midtown Manhattan, the group spent $37 million in 2014, the most recent year for which there are publicly available tax filings. That included $4.6 million on political campaign activities; $3.5 million on advertising and promotion; $2 million on travel;$1.7 million on lobbying; and $580,000 on polling. When the group launched, Bloomberg pledged $50 million to support the effort.
By comparison, the NRA in 2014 spent $345 million, including $57 million on advertising, $5.8 million on political campaign activities and $1 million on lobbying, according to the group’s tax filings. The NRA says a more comparable figure to Everytown’s $37 million, though, is the $20 million the NRA’s lobbying arm spent in 2014.
Everytown’s tactics do not sit well with everyone. The NRA calls the group’s use of survivors exploitative and says it seeks to restrict Second Amendment rights to further the political agenda of “an anti-gun billionaire.”
“They use tragedy and exploit victims to push their policy agenda because they can’t win the argument based on facts,” said Jennifer Baker, director of public affairs for the NRA’s lobbying arm. “The tragedies Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control group exploit to push their agenda would not have been prevented by the gun-control policies they want to enact.”
Baker countered Everytown’s claim that they are a counterweight to the NRA, citing the NRA’s larger grass-roots network.
“They have a lot of financial resources — that’s why their voice is being heard,” Baker said. “But they will never be able to replicate what the NRA does, because the NRA represents 5 million dues-paying members across the country who believe in the Second Amendment. They have Michael Bloomberg’s checkbook.”
Everytown blends the elements of a national political campaign with traditional shoe-leather lobbying, celebrity endorsements, a volunteer network and digital outreach. The group’s leaders say they get money from about 100,000 donors, many of whom give in $10 or $25 increments.
Most unique to Everytown is the way it recruits and leverages survivors personally affected by gun violence, both among its paid staff and in its massive volunteer network.
That is mainly through its Survivors Network, which is growing.
Last year, the group launched a fellowship program — which has since nearly doubled from 35 to 61 fellows — to train survivors of shootings in public speaking, testifying before lawmakers and doing interviews with the media. McNeil, the shooting survivor in Mobile, completed the fellowship this spring.
A number of Everytown’s paid staffers have been personally touched by gun violence, viewing their professional purpose as inextricably intertwined with those experiences.
Colin Goddard, a senior policy advocate in Everytown’s Washington office, was shot four times during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The mother of Ashley Cech, a program associate for the Survivor Network, was a librarian during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting who barricaded a door to keep the shooter out.
Goddard and Cech essentially function as grass-roots lobbyists, knocking on doors to try to persuade voters to support stricter gun laws or vote for supportive candidates. Both were part of the group’s 2014 canvassing effort in Oregon that helped elect two state senators who back universal background checks.
Perhaps more than anyone, Goddard represents the passion and purpose — and, at times, frustration and disenchantment — of being on the front lines of the gun-control movement. Working as an advocate has been therapeutic but not always easy.
“This work is difficult,” Goddard said. “You feel like you make a lot of progress, but then you hear of a shooting and feel like you’re back at square one. . . . I don’t want to do this forever.”
Recruiting survivors to the cause is a delicate dance that, tragically, is often spurred by mass shootings.
To date, Everytown’s most successful growth campaign came in 2014, immediately following the shooting in Isla Vista, where a man killed six people, including 20-year-old Christopher Michaels-Martinez. In the days after, Michaels-Martinez’s father, Richard Martinez, made an emotional plea to the public.
“Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: ‘Not one more,’ ” he said in an interview with The Washington Post after the shooting. “People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough.”
Feinblatt was watching Martinez speak and thought out loud: “Can’t we do that? Can we make a tool that you can put your name on and it spits out your address?”
So they did — Everytown’s digital team created an online postcard people could fill in their name on and send to lawmakers. They ended up delivering 1.2 million signed postcards to the White House, Congress and governors’ offices and drew 300,000 new people to join Everytown.
Focused on the states, with an eye on Washington
Everytown’s primary legislative goal is to enact more comprehensive background checks in the states, particularly those where sales — at gun shows, over the Internet, or private ones — can skirt them.
The group runs legislative campaigns in about 30 states at any given time, which include lobbying in state capitols and pushing to elect candidates whose positions echo its own. The effort is gaining traction, but the wins are incremental, labor-intensive and costly.
Since Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., states have collectively enacted 242 new firearms laws. About 40 percent of them strengthen gun laws, and 36 percent weaken them; the remaining have had minimal impact, according a 2015 analysis by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The group adopted its state-based strategy from the marriage equality movement. And, borrowing 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.
Everytown has successfully lobbied for the passage of stricter gun laws in five states over the past three years — Oregon, Washington, Connecticut, New York and Delaware — and earlier this year led efforts in Maine and Nevada to get initiatives on the ballot in November. The NRA is fighting both.
But the other side claims just as many victories. The NRA takes particular pride in the outcome of November’s Virginia state Senate race.
Everytown invested $2.3 million in trying to defeat two NRA-backed Republicans and gain a Democratic majority in the state Senate. They defeated one, but Republicans held on to the majority. West Virginia this year enacted legislation that allows people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, despite Everytown’s staunch lobbying against the policy.
Everytown’s campaign also goes well beyond the legislative realm — the group wants to shape the debate in popular culture. It is partnering with celebrities and pushing major retailers such as Chipotle and Target — with some success — to prohibit customers from bringing guns into their stores.
Last Christmas, Everytown partnered with the NBA to produce television commercials featuring Stephen Curry and Chris Paul speaking out against gun violence.
In January, Feinblatt flew to the Sundance Film Festival to help promote three documentaries about gun safety. The following week, the group hosted a show at Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan, headlined by “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch and featuring Fred Armisen.
And in February, it worked with actor Julianne Moore to launch the Everytown Creative Council, a group of 120 actors, directors, comedians and other celebrities.
“It’s very important to show that you can win legislatively,” Feinblatt said. “But you have to give people in this country a way to stand up and talk about gun safety.”
“In so many respects, the gun lobby was just given the turf for decades and that was the only voice you heard,” he said. “I think it’s very important that people have multiple ways of raising their voice and saying: ‘We want to live in a different world. We want to live in a world that’s safe.’ “
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of actor Julianne Moore.