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What the gun control movement can learn from the antiabortion movement

Partial victories and diverse tactics are more critical to success than the support of majorities

Camila Alves McConaughey holds a pair of green Converse shoes similar to those worn by Uvalde, Tex., shooting victim Maite Rodriguez, 10, as her husband, actor and Uvalde native Matthew McConaughey, speaks about gun regulation at the White House on Tuesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
10 min

Each new mass shooting makes gun-control activists more passionate and more determined, but they grow understandably frustrated when their efforts don’t translate into policy reform. Their movement can learn something — and take encouragement — from an unlikely source: the antiabortion movement, which is now scoring major victories after a very long struggle.

Nearly 50 years ago, when Roe v. Wade was decided, antiabortion activists faced a political landscape at least as hostile to their aims as the one now confronting the gun-control movement. A 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision immediately changed laws across the country, explicitly blocking the prohibition of abortion. Although religious activists mourned the decision, organized opposition was initially limited. Building from a base in the Catholic Church and the National Right to Life Committee, which had fought the relaxing of state abortion laws since 1968, the movement formed a committed and resilient infrastructure, allowing for sustained activism and strategic and tactical innovation.

For decades, the movement lost far more than it won on its long and complicated path toward political influence. Some of its lessons are counterintuitive. Public support, for example, is an asset, but it’s not all that matters. The antiabortion movement never enjoyed majority backing in polls, yet it has won policy victories even while losing public support.

The first lesson, then, is don’t depend on public opinion. Majorities are often ignored or defeated; intensely dedicated activists and voters can win out if majorities don’t have as strong a commitment. Ending abortion became the most critical issue for nearly a third of potential voters who identified as “pro-life,” according to a Gallup survey. Far fewer abortion rights supporters, though, made the issue their top priority.

Gun-control activists can draw on a broader base of public support, but it’s more important to get people to act on their beliefs, organize, protest and deny votes to candidates who won’t deliver. Urgency and intensity matter. The major movements in our history — labor, women, civil rights — won policy reforms before achieving majority support.

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Successful social movements don’t limit themselves to one narrow set of tactics, either; they try almost anything to get what they want. That’s the second lesson the gun-control movement — rebranded now as gun safety — can take from the antiabortion movement. Many of the antiabortion activists’ tactics failed — or backfired — but activists kept innovating. The Committee for Pro-Life Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a harsh critique of Roe and called for taking strong action to overturn the decision, endorsing passage of a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution. Sympathetic legislators in Congress introduced versions of such an amendment over the decade following Roe and made little progress. About the same time, Nellie Gray, a lawyer and convert to Catholicism, began organizing what would become an annual protest in Washington to commemorate Roe. This March for Life can turn out hundreds of thousands of people, in addition to counterprotesters, each January.

I hid from the Texas Tower sniper. His successors have found us all.

Gray gave up her legal practice and became a full-time organizer. Other antiabortion fundamentalists ran for office, staging campaigns in both major parties. Still others launched a Right to Life Party. By the end of the 1970s, ambitious Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, found that they could activate strong partisan support by soliciting labor and money from abortion rights opponents. When Reagan won the party’s nomination for the presidency in 1980, abortion became a key wedge issue for the GOP in prying loose Catholic voters from the Democratic Party. Republicans with national ambitions got the message. Reagan’s running mate, George H.W. Bush, came out against abortion rights to launch his own presidential bid in 1988, even though he and his family had previously been strong supporters of Planned Parenthood. Donald Trump also favored abortion rights, until he decided to run for the Republican nomination.

When Reagan didn’t do much to end abortion, impatient activists found ways to escalate, bombing clinics and threatening — and sometimes killing — doctors and clinic staff. Even when most antiabortion leaders decried violence, terror raised the costs and difficulties of operating reproductive health clinics.

Antiabortion activists found other ways to target clinics without bombs or guns. Entrepreneurial activists published manuals with directions for sabotaging clinics — clogging toilets or jamming door locks, for example. Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue to deploy larger numbers to shut down clinics with their bodies, not guns. Operation Rescue staged large civil-disobedience actions and sustained campaigns in several cities, generating national headlines and keeping the issue alive.

Other tactics required much smaller numbers. A few activists could stage sidewalk counseling sessions outside clinics, which generally entailed yelling at women who were about to enter and trying to get them to change their minds. The protesters often displayed graphic pictures of fetal remains, intended to disturb. Nor did it take many people to staff “crisis pregnancy centers,” which offered ultrasounds and antiabortion counseling.

There’s no evidence that the protests or the pictures changed the minds of any women who wanted abortions, but they presented hurdles that made operating the clinics harder and more expensive; the antiabortion movement was maintaining a life in the streets as well as in institutional politics.

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Gun-control activists could continue to diversify their own tactics and targets, augmenting their political efforts with new approaches such as protests at gun shops or National Rifle Association conferences, school walkouts, boycotts, and educational programs. Finding exactly the right approach is far less important than trying a broad menu of strategies in as many different venues as possible. The messages must also be diverse, appealing to the intellect and to the heart. The faces of the children killed in Uvalde — or Newtown or Parkland for that matter — should be powerful reminders of the consequences of our current policies.

Already, the gun-control movement has done better than the antiabortion movement at mobilizing celebrity support to lend imagery to its message. Actor Matthew McConaughey, a Uvalde native, took to the podium at the White House on Tuesday and in front of the cameras described how some of the murdered children could be identified only by their clothing, so destructive was the gun used to kill them. He displayed a pair of green Converse high-top sneakers with a heart drawn on the toe of the right one, explaining that shoes like these helped 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez’s parents identify her mangled body. While some activists have suggested that pictures of the bodies themselves should be shown to drive home the true horror of what weapons of war do, describing such images while offering a powerful symbol, like the green shoes, can also deepen the commitment of activists.

Gun-control advocates must claim even partial victories, keeping in mind that they are the tortoise to the hare. Blocked from overturning Roe, antiabortion activists took incremental steps to make abortion more difficult and expensive and to nurture their own organizations. First, in 1976, they successfully pressed congressional allies to deny federal funding for most abortions through the Hyde Amendment. Abortion remained accessible for women who could afford it, but opponents notched a victory. At the state level, activists tested how much they could restrict access to abortion within the Roe framework by instituting parental notification laws; mandatory waiting periods, ultrasounds or counseling sessions; and strict licensing regulations for clinics. Each effort generated yet another legal opportunity for the Supreme Court to revisit Roe.

Partial victories matter because they give supporters a political focus — something to work toward — and help them stay engaged. Gun-control activists need similar commitment and creativity, pursuing incremental reforms such as waiting periods, background checks, and restrictions on particular weapons, ammunition or accessories. They can also innovate with new initiatives, like requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance.If a deeply divided Senate can agree upon very modest safety measures, like a slightly more expansive background check for gun purchases or encouragement to states to institute red-flag laws, it will represent one step in, rather than an end to, an increasingly contentious political debate.

Successful organizers will navigate the mismatch between the polemic and possibility that animate social movements and the slow grinding that characterizes institutional politics. They need to take their small victories gracefully while continuing to press challenges.

Persistence is critical. Antiabortion activists continued their efforts, often in the face of disappointment and defeat. They built organizations that welcomed and trained recruits, providing the social support needed to stay engaged and hopeful. Initial support was rooted in the Catholic Church, but organizers engaged a broader base in evangelical churches. Republican politicians encouraged, and benefited from, the movement.

The challenge of persistence is at least as difficult for the gun-control movement, whose opponents enjoy strong support from the firearms industry, a network of gun ranges and dealers, and a powerful, well-funded NRA. Gun-control activists, by contrast, have been stuck with a far more volatile landscape. Support surges in the wake of particularly horrific tragedies like assassinations and mass shootings, then often fades when results are slow in coming.

But tragedy forges activists and leaders. Carolyn McCarthy entered politics in 1996 after her husband and son were shot by a crazed gunman on the Long Island Rail Road. McCarthy served nine terms in the House of Representatives, pressing for action on gun safety, mostly unsuccessfully. Lucy McBath became a gun-control activist after her son was shot at a gas station when someone thought the boy was playing music too loudly. First elected to the House in 2018, McBath has introduced several gun measures that passed the House and stalled in the Senate.

The challenge is maintaining both an institutional infrastructure and a sense of urgency over the long haul it takes to make change. Alas, the tragic pace of mass shootings underscores and reinforces the need for action. In addition, some committed longer-term funding, and imaginative organizing from groups like Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives, can help.

The antiabortion movement offers a template, but also a caution. Victories aren’t final. Reversing Roe would be a milestone for the movement, but it’s not the end. Activists are planning the next steps in their campaign to end abortion, fighting battles on state laws and hoping for more help from the Supreme Court, and they will have to defend their wins against a newly antagonized movement for reproductive rights. For the first time in 50 years, reproductive rights activists are at least as energized and engaged as their counterparts.

Gun-control advocates need to dig in for what will be a long political struggle, one that is likely to be peppered with horrific events like the most recent mass shooting. It’s hard to change policy, but this movement is better positioned than the antiabortion movement ever was.