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Gun control is one of the most divisive issues in the U.S. A small group of Conn alums is striving to detoxify the debate while seeking reasonable solutions to halt gun violence.
By Amy Martin
n the morning of June 14, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords stared at her television, unable to look away from the eerily familiar scenes she had hoped she’d never see again.
Bystanders running to safety. First responders rushing to help the injured. Confusion. Fear. Terror.
Four people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., had been shot at a congressional charity baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. They were now members of a club no one wants to be in: the more than 114,000 Americans shot each year.
“In the days and weeks to come, I know from personal experience what to expect,” Giffords wrote in The Washington Post.
Six years earlier, a few weeks into her third term as the Democratic representative for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, Giffords was shot in a mass shooting outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson. Six of her constituents were killed, 12 more were injured.
“As a nation, we will debate violence and honor service…We will debate the availability and use of guns,” her piece continued.
“We know, as always, that no one law could prevent a shooting like this. But we also know that we must acknowledge a problem: an unacceptable rate of gun violence in this country. And we must acknowledge that a deadly problem like this brings a responsibility to find solutions.”
Giffords, herself a proud gun owner, never intended to make gun violence prevention her life’s work. But just shy of two years into her recovery, 20 children and six adults were killed on Dec. 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Giffords and her husband, retired Navy Captain and astronaut Mark Kelly, met with the victims’ families.
That January, on the second anniversary of the Tucson shooting, Giffords and Kelly founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a nonprofit and super PAC to lobby for stricter gun control in an effort to prevent violence.
“[Giffords and Kelly] decided they had had enough,” said Bettina Weiss ’15, one of four Connecticut College alumni to have worked for ARS.
“They thought, ‘There has to be some sort of common-ground, bipartisan solution to gun violence.’”
As a communications associate for ARS, which recently merged with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Weiss spends much of her time raising awareness about gun violence. She’s grown accustomed to rattling off the startling statistics.
“Ninety-one people are killed every day by a gun in the U.S.,” Weiss said. “American women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in peer countries.”
Mass shootings garner the lion’s share of media attention, but the vast majority of America’s gun violence takes a different form: domestic violence, urban violence or suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 percent of the 33,000 gun deaths each year are self-inflicted. Guns are used in more than two-thirds of all homicides, and a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found women who have suffered abuse are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm.
“One law can’t stop all gun violence,” Weiss said, echoing Giffords’ op-ed. “But there are some commonsense steps we can take to save lives.”
At the top of ARS’s list is instituting universal background checks, which prohibit convicted felons, domestic abusers and people with certain mental health histories from buying or possessing firearms. Despite overwhelming support among the general public—a June 28 Quinnipiac University poll found 94 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers—federal law doesn’t require background checks for private gun sales, which account for an estimated 40 percent of all gun sales in the U.S.
“Licensed dealers need to run background checks. But if you buy a gun from an individual at a gun show? No background check. Convicted felons can buy guns off the internet, no questions asked,” Weiss said.
The last major national effort to pass universal background checks came in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting when ARS was in its infancy. A slate of stricter gun control measures was proposed; the bill included an amendment that would close most background check loopholes. Polls showed the amendment, crafted by a Democrat from West Virginia and a Republican from Pennsylvania, had the support of 90 percent of the public. Yet the measure failed 54-46 in the Senate, six votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
Giovanna Gray Lockhart ’02, who has worked as an independent consultant for ARS since 2014, was serving as a special adviser to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., at the time.
“It was really disappointing,” Lockhart said. “We had a Democratic president and Democratic legislature and we couldn’t get it passed.”
In response to the bill’s failure, President Barack Obama gave an impassioned speech in the White House Rose Garden.
“This is a pretty shameful day for Washington,” Obama said. “The American people are trying to figure out—how can something that has 90 percent support not happen?”
One answer is that the bill was opposed by the National Rifle Association, one of the most influential lobbying organizations in Washington. Initially founded in 1871 to advance rifle marksmanship, the NRA has been directly lobbying for gun rights since 1975. The organization opposes efforts to expand background checks, often arguing that they don’t prevent criminals from getting firearms through theft or illegal trade.
“This one topic holds up major legislation time and time again,” Lockhart said. “Background checks are used as a political foil.”
The NRA’s influence is considerable: the year the background check amendment was defeated, the organization took in $350 million in revenue. But as Americans struggled to come to terms with the Sandy Hook shooting, average citizens and donors began paying more attention to gun-related issues. ARS gave them somewhere to turn.
“It was really a grassroots movement,” said Megan Nashban ’09, who was the organization’s second hire. Nashban served as ARS’s development director before leaving in 2016 to work as a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Of the first $30 million raised—a big milestone for the organization—about half came from donations of less than $1,500. And while many of the donors were Democrats, there were Republicans too. And gun owners. Today, ARS boasts approximately 30,000 gun owners among its membership.
The NRA often argues that gun control advocates want to outlaw guns. But that is not what ARS is trying to do.
“We have a culture of gun ownership that was established very early on with the Second Amendment—it’s literally in our Constitution,” Weiss said.
Instead, ARS focuses its efforts on what it calls “commonsense” legislation at both the federal and state level, lobbying for expanded background checks, stronger laws against gun trafficking, and stricter prohibitions on gun ownership for violent offenders and those most likely to commit violence.
Weiss is particularly interested in how new legislation can prevent domestic violence. At Connecticut College, she served as a peer educator for the Office of Sexual Violence Prevention and Advocacy. Since graduation, she has volunteered as a crisis hotline counselor for victims of domestic and sexual assault.
“The link between sexual violence and gun violence is so strong,” Weiss said. “When a woman is in an abusive relationship and a gun is present, the chances of her dying go up exponentially.”
Federal law prohibits anyone who has been convicted of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence from possessing a firearm. But the law, passed in 1996, has several loopholes. For example, it only applies to abusers who victimize spouses, cohabitating partners or those with whom the abuser shares a child; it doesn’t apply to those who are merely dating.
“About half of all domestic violence deaths occur in couples that aren’t actually married, so closing this ‘boyfriend loophole’ is a big priority,” Weiss said.
Lockhart, who left the Senate in April 2014, has been using her connections to help ARS build consensus around gun violence prevention as a women’s issue, and not an antigun movement. Her ultimate goal is to change the national conversation. That means moving away from the familiar “us versus them” narrative.
“Unfortunately, the discussion and the debate over this issue has been driven by the NRA and the opposition,” she said. “If we ever want that to change, and if we ever want commonsense laws, we can’t demonize gun owners. We have to work with them.”
Even language matters, which is why ARS avoids the phrase “gun control.”
“It implies we are trying to take away your gun,” Lockhart said. “We aren’t. We believe in the Second Amendment. We are trying to prevent violence.”
Much of ARS’s success has been at the state level. Since its founding, nearly 200 laws supported by the organization have passed in 45 states and Washington, D.C. Measuring the impact of individual laws is difficult, but research has shown a correlation between stronger gun laws and lower rates of violence. One 2013 study by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health found states with the most gun laws had 42 percent fewer fatalities than states with the fewest number of laws.
But on Nov. 8, 2016, the gun control movement suffered a major setback. Republicans, who already had a majority in the House of Representatives, took control of the Senate. Republican Donald J. Trump was elected president. The NRA spent more than $50 million on the election, investing heavily in six Senate races and winning five of them. A total of $30 million was spent on Trump.
Almost immediately, ARS was on the defensive.
On the first day of the new congress, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., introduced the National Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would allow people with a state-issued concealed carry license or permit to conceal a handgun in any other state that allows concealed carry, regardless of local laws. Twelve states don’t require a permit at all, meaning a resident from a permit-less state like Vermont could conceivably carry a concealed gun into any other state in the country with nothing more than proof of residency.
“It’s a dangerous law that would wipe out strong laws in states where we have worked hard to pass higher standards for background checks, mandatory training and probable cause,” Weiss said.
Another looming battle: silencers. These devices, also called suppressors, attach to the barrel of a firearm and reduce the amount of noise generated by firing. Since 1934, they have been as tightly regulated as machine guns under the National Firearms Act. Now, lawmakers are considering proposals to ease or eliminate those regulations. Proponents argue silencers protect hunters and sportsman from hearing loss; opponents argue they could make it more difficult for people to recognize danger and get to safety in an active-shooter situation.
The latest bill, the Hearing Protection Act, was introduced by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., in January. A hearing to consider the bill was scheduled for the week of June 13; it was cancelled after the shooting at the congressional baseball practice, at which Duncan was present. The hearing has yet to be rescheduled, but Weiss knows the issue isn’t going away.
“It has everything to do with gun lobby profits,” she said. “Right now, gun sales in the U.S. are down for the first time in two decades. The gun lobby is looking for a way to sell more, and silencers are an easy way to do it.”
At the federal level, ARS and the Law Center are working to educate the public and lawmakers alike about the potential impacts of both proposals. At the state level, the two organizations are celebrating some moderate successes in 2017. They released a midyear report in early July citing the passage of 10 gun violence prevention laws in nine states. Also, by mid-year, legislators in 20 states, including entrenched red states like Alabama and South Carolina, rejected proposals to allow guns in public without a permit. In Iowa and Nebraska, efforts to repeal state laws requiring private sale background checks failed, as did an effort to repeal Washington’s 2014 universal background check law.
Lockhart is hopeful that those state victories will eventually set the stage for major national legislation. But if Congress is ever going to vote against the gun lobby, she says, the impetus must come from the general public.
“Our country has done it before with laws around smoking or drunk driving or wearing seatbelts or even gay marriage—those weren’t driven by the government, they were driven by the people,” Lockhart said.
“It may take a long time, but I think in our lifetimes we will see commonsense legislation passed.”
Editor’s Note: This story went to press prior to the shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017.