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The gay rights movement could take on the NRA — and actually win

The gay rights movement knows how to change the culture, not just the law.

Curt Merlo for The Washington Post
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It’s an all-too-familiar routine for Americans: mass shooting, dramatic calls for change, inaction. It happened when 20 schoolchildren were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When a dozen people were killed in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. When almost three dozen were slaughtered at Virginia Tech.

But this time, things might be different. Not because of the record number of people killed in Orlando or because this heinous act was a terrorist attack, a hate crime and a mass shooting. It’s because the victims were part of a social movement with infrastructure and political know-how largely unmatched within the gun-control movement. It’s because the attack targeted gays — and their community is organized.

Today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer coalition is made up of powerful groups able to mobilize at a moment’s notice, including the NOH8 Campaign, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG. This robust and multifaceted apparatus is one of the most effective political movements in recent American history. It has faced down obscene public indifference to gay lives (peaking with the AIDS epidemic), violence against LGBTQ people (who suffer more hate crimes than any other protected group), laws that criminalized gay sex (Bowers v. Hardwick was overturned only in 2003) and widespread intolerance.

Mourners in Orlando tell leaders and lawmakers in the nation's capital what the country needs to stop the next mass shooting. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

To attack these issues, queer people have focused not on transforming laws but on transforming culture. In the 1960s, gay rights groups organized “sip-ins” at bars that refused to serve “disorderly” homosexuals. Other picketers staged “zaps,” splashy, media-friendly protests that called attention to homophobic behavior. “Homophile organizations” sprung up around the country to fight for queer-only spaces. Their efforts led to the establishment of hundreds of pride parades, lesbian clubs and gay bathhouses — institutionalized “safe spaces” where people could meet and organize.

[What the gay marriage movement tells us about the prospects for gun reform]

After Stonewall, activists shifted their focus, working to build sympathy and support among straight Americans. They called on gay people to “come out” to family and friends, a social ritual that personalized the political (something gay rights groups learned from feminists). Organizers also broadened their message on important gay rights issues, selling things like same-sex marriage as the right to love. Efforts such as “kiss days” at businesses opposing LGBTQ rights have linked discriminatory policies to more relatable notions of romance and relationships.

It’s worked. According to Gallup polls, in the past 20 years, Americans’ support for marriage equality has jumped from 30 percent to 60 percent. Many people said they softened their attitudes because they knew a member of the LGBTQ community — what social scientists call the “contact hypothesis.” Today, gay groups have the organizational, financial and cultural resources to exploit political opportunities as they arise.

A similar cultural shift undergirds the country’s gun politics. Over the last 50 years, the National Rifle Association has convinced many Americans that gun ownership is a vital tool for self-defense and the key to serving as a responsible “citizen-protector.” The organization brought this galvanizing rhetoric to the national stage through its lobbying arm. But it exerted cultural pressure, too. Its ads, magazines and political paraphernalia reach millions. And the organization’s training courses — attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans each year — present defensive gun use as a civic duty and the NRA as a service organization.

Today, many Americans see a gun as something to be carried alongside a wallet or a cellphone. A majority say firearms enhance public safety. The shift is as striking as the change in sentiment on same-sex marriage: Over the past 15 years, the belief that guns make a home safer jumped from 35 percent to 63 percent. Even Americans who don’t own guns agree that they are objects of safety.

[The FBI was right not to arrest Omar Mateen before the shooting]

The gun lobby and the LGBTQ movement both understand that political change requires fundamental cultural shifts. It requires deep organizational ties and the ability to connect an issue not just to a set of beliefs, but to a sense of identity. Right now, gun control advocates lack these tools. If they can mobilize gay rights against gun rights, the NRA may have finally met its match.
It won’t be easy. The NRA has a track record of galvanizing a committed block of voters in key states. Meanwhile, the LGBTQ movement has largely focused on changing hearts and courts. In terms of electoral politics, it is unclear whether it can match the influence of the NRA to set national political agendas, especially in presidential campaigns. And those deep pockets of the NRA really are deep. The organization’s budget is more than seven times that of the Human Rights Campaign.

It’s also not clear that gay rights groups will take on gun control. Many gun proponents see gay rights as part and parcel of a broader libertarian cause. Meanwhile, some LGBTQ activists have vigorously embraced gun rights as a way to protect gay lives. The Pink Pistols group, under the slogan “pick on someone your own caliber,” explicitly advocates the exercise of Second Amendment rights for self-protection, especially against hate crimes. The LGBTQ community is highly diverse, and attempts to ally gay rights activists with gun-control proponents may undermine the diversity that defines the movement.

Still, some Democrats, gun-control supporters and gay rights advocates are already making the link. Actor, activist and author George Takei has described the fight for gun control as “the next chapter of LGBT history.” Many LGBTQ groups cheered the Democratic-led Senate filibuster this past week in favor of gun reforms. This outcry makes sense. This hate-motivated killing in Orlando is but one example of the broad culture of violent intolerance that LGBTQ people face. Until now, the NRA — not just because of its sheer organizational strength and financial backing, but also because of its cultural ingenuity — has been able to define the terms of the gun debate and the terrain of the struggle. The LGBTQ movement might just be able to change that.