Rallying for gun reform

Published Dec. 20, 2012

After the massacre of 20 Connecticut schoolchildren and six women who died trying to save them, plans are afoot for a parents' protest for stricter gun laws. More than a decade ago, we had such an event — the Million Mom March — and the lessons are instructive.

One of us devised the idea for the Mother's Day march, led the national organizing effort and remained involved as a volunteer; the other conducted a scholarly study of the march participants. Here's what we learned.

Parents will show up. Although inside-the-Beltway gun control advocates were initially skeptical of the idea, a mothers' march resonated immediately with everyday folks. Having sought a permit for 10,000 demonstrators, organizers were stunned when 75 times that number arrived — not including thousands more at 70 simultaneous events around the country.

Talking about child protection works. An analysis of surveys taken at the march and again six to eight months later found that participants motivated by child safety were significantly more likely to stay involved than were participants motivated by other reasons. These findings remind us that other social movements — such as those for tobacco and alcohol control and against abortion — also have successfully mobilized around child protection.

Marches are not enough. America has rampage shootings with numbing regularity, and lawmakers have grown accustomed to keeping their heads down, waiting for the inevitable outcry for stricter gun laws to fade. Enacting mainstream measures with majority support will take sustained, grassroots organizing in the districts where state and federal lawmakers live. In an especially polarized era, lawmakers aren't likely to lead, but they may follow.

Change happens from the ground up. Some pundits branded the Million Mom March a failure because Congress did not respond with sweeping gun control legislation. But most national policy reform happens incrementally, from the state level up. Working with their experienced allies, the moms enjoyed many early victories, including the defeat of two high-profile pro-gun lawmakers and the passage of referenda in Colorado and Oregon that closed the "gun show loophole" by requiring private sellers to conduct buyer background checks.

The National Rifle Association has perfected the "state by state" approach to nationwide policy reform, and pro-control groups have sought to emulate it. However, unlike the resourceful and well-coordinated gun lobby, state gun control groups have always been mostly volunteer-run operations, starved for sustained funding and tactical support. Hope arrived when the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence absorbed local moms' march groups, but they lost steam as politicians came to perceive, with little evidence, that even talking about gun control was a career-ender. The recent shootings provide an opportunity to change that perception.

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Movements work when old and new work together. Leaders of D.C.-based gun control organizations have been at it for decades, with little reward. But rampage shootings have catapulted new, authoritative voices onto the national stage, including Tom Mauser (whose son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine), Mindy Finkelstein and Joshua Stepakoff (shot soon thereafter at a California Jewish day camp), Colin Goddard (shot at Virginia Tech in 2007), and Lori Haas (mother of a student injured at Virginia Tech). History tells us that movements succeed when old-timers and upstarts agree to put aside their stylistic differences and share ideas and resources for common ends.

Whoever emerges to lead the post-Sandy Hook organizing would do well to listen to the veterans: Their experience in the political trenches is valuable, and they are more adaptive than were some of their colleagues a decade ago. Similarly, the veterans and their battle-weary volunteers need to respect the urgency that new activists bring, as experience tells us that the window for policy change slams fast.

After a spate of shootings and an inadequate response from lawmakers, we have reached a critical moment. Indeed, a Pew poll suggests that many Americans, especially women, see Sandy Hook not as an isolated incident but as the symptom of a broader problem. The emotion and energy flowing from the recent massacres should be channeled in a historically minded way toward policy reforms that the majority of Americans, stricken yet sensible, can embrace.

Kristin Goss, far left, is associate professor of public policy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and author of "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America." Donna Dees, a lead organizer of the Million Mom March, is a television publicist and co-author of Looking for a Few Good Moms.