Gun Reform Needs Grassroots Activists Not Astroturf

Talk of gun reform after the Las Vegas country music massacre has faded within just weeks.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has made a plea to regulate “bump stocks,” a marginal step, and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, has introduced gun legislation he predicts will fail. Conservative pundits are declaring gun reform will never happen. “Why do progressives and the media keep plowing this ocean?” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger. “The chance that the American people will ever disarm remains zero.”

Most gun owners want more regulation of firearms. Yet the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is arguably near their longtime goal of achieving expanded firearms nationwide.

There are several keys to the NRA’s success. Long before the term “fake news” became a common refrain, NRA officials already knew how to control their debate: Speak only when likely to win. Obfuscate as needed to impede dialogue. Deploy paid experts whose NRA funding is not disclosed. And skillfully attack elected officials who defy them one by one. They fund attack ads targeting candidates who favor gun reform, accusing them of being soft on crime without even mentioning guns.

The elusive and dirty messaging alone does not count for the NRA’s success. That hinges on the gun lobby’s army of grassroots activists.

But the combination of elusive and dirty messaging alone does not count for the NRA’s success. That hinges on the gun lobby’s army of grassroots activists. These are people who vote religiously and in blocks, supporting pro-gun candidates at every level. Much like NRA-leaning commentators on cable news who seem to follow a script, many gun rights activists can repeat pro-gun mantras by rote. And, unlike gun reformists, pro-gun activists speak up regularly at community and town-hall meetings and online.

Gun reform groups are more like “Astroturf,” as one pro-gun blogger has noted. No matter how much you spend on it, it never grows. After the shocking 2011 Tucson shooting involving Representative Gabby Giffords, and the unspeakable carnage of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a handful of new organizations have emerged.

These include Americans for Responsible Solutions now renamed with its founder’s namesake Giffords. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors against Illegal Guns, has now been rebranded as Everytown for Gun Safety. Another group, Moms Demand Action, was founded by a stay-at-home Mom and former public relations executive Shannon Watts, who has become a leader for gun reform on TwitterNewtown Action Alliance and Sandy Hook Promise are each quieter groups led by parents who lost children inside Newtown’s Sandy Hook school. An energetic news website has also appeared, The Trace, to help document gun violence.

They join other groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after the late White House press secretary, Jim Brady, who was severely injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The largest and most well-funded group is Everytown, which boasts 3 million members.

But how active are they when compared to NRA members?

What Bloomberg is likely defining as “supporters” are people who have gotten on his email list, noted the pro-gun blogger. That’s a vastly different animal than a dues-paying member. NRA actually has one of the strictest standards for membership of any interest group in Washington, D.C.

Where are the anti-gun blogs?, the same blogger went on. Where’s the anti-gun convention that turns out over 80,000 people, like NRA does annually? How does the NRA mobilize bigger protests ad-hoc than anti-gun activists can manage even with professional organizers and slick ad campaigns?

Two paid NRA experts, including a Golden, Colorado-based researcher and legal scholar, David Kopel, testified in Congress after the Sandy Hook tragedy without anyone mentioning their NRA funding. Kopel previously filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court, including before the benchmark verdict in the District of Columbia vs. Heller case, without ever disclosing his NRA funding. He has also published newspaper op-eds against gun control—his funding from the NRA unmentioned.

Only after prodding by done by me in The Progressive, other publications, first The New York Times and then The Washington Post, began referencing his NRA funding next to his byline or name when quoting him in news stories. But Kopel managed to run another op-ed without disclosing his funding, this one in response to the Las Vegas shooting, in The Wall Street Journal, earlier this month.

Recently a Cub Scout, 11-year-old Ames Mayfield, was dismissed from his pack for asking a Colorado state senator, “Why on earth would you want somebody who beats their wife to have access to a gun?”

Enacting gun reform would require an infusion of informed activists at every level to finally challenge the NRA’s longstanding monopoly of the debate. Recently a Cub Scout, 11-year-old Ames Mayfield, was dismissed from his pack for asking a Colorado state senator, “Why on earth would you want somebody who beats their wife to have access to a gun?” I wonder if the pack leader, who has since declined to comment, took offense at the scout’s question because direct challenging of any almost pro-gun politician is so rare.

Progressives have many reasons to prioritize gun reform. After suicides mostly by white men, much of America’s gun violence is concentrated among young urban minorities, as documented by the Violence Policy Centerwhose research has long been unassailable. The proliferation of firearms throughout our society contributes to police shootings of minorities and others. Many police in this nation are likely to encounter more armed suspects in the early years on the job than a comparable officer in the United Kingdom or Germany might encounter in their career.

Gun reform activists need to challenge common fallacies such as, “gun control leads to genocide like the Holocaust,” a claim belied by a body of scholarship. Or, “if guns are outlawed only criminals will have guns,” a myth belied by evidence at home and from the United KingdomGermany and Australia. Or, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” a claim disproved by the Las Vegas shooting itself.

Gun reform activists need to challenge common fallacies such as, “if guns are outlawed only criminals will have guns.”

Many hardline gun advocates falsely claim any gun regulation is unconstitutional, even though the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia himself wrote, “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” Many also claim that the Second Amendment affords citizens the right to amass high-powered weapons in case they might need to use them some day either against or for the government.

This belief, not yet ruled upon by any court, is the reason Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock was able to legally acquire so many high-powered firearms. It helps explain the presence of armed militias at the fatal White Nationalist rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia. And it is the ideology behind the so-called “Three Percenter” movement, based on another false claim, that just three percent of colonial American militiamen helped defeat the British in the American Revolution.

The moment seems urgent. The NRA has flip-flopped about whether it would support some regulation of “bump stocks,” the inexpensive, after-market mechanism that converts a semi-automatic rifle into a repeat-firing weapon.

The NRA said it might support regulating bump stocks under one condition—a monumental one that would, by any measure, alter the nation. The gun lobby is seeking either a new federal law or high court ruling that would make permits to carry concealed handguns in one state valid in every other, like a driver’s license.

Although now the push to limit bump-stocks already seems over, while the goal of carrying concealed handguns across states is only just beginning.

How weak is gun reform today? After our worst modern gun tragedy, no one is talking about regulating guns, only expanding their access across the country.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has covered the NRA for more than twenty years, writing for The Village VoiceThe Washington PostMSNBC.comand The Progressive. He won a Society of Professional Journalists national investigative award for his Mother Jones story, “Unmasking NRA’s Inner Circle,” after the Sandy Hook massacre.