New site, new audience, same poignant message
John Rosenthal's new gun control billboard won't occupy the same prime real estate as his previous one did along the Mass. Pike, but the message is no less important, perhaps even more so after two mass shootings in the span of a week.
"We're not anti-gun. We're for life," the new sign will read. "Massachusetts Gun Laws Save Lives."
There won't be a digital counter like the old one near Fenway Park — which provided a running tally of lives lost to gun violence in the United States. But the new campaign will promote the hashtag #GunLawsWork.
The billboard — really a 90-foot-long banner that will hang on a Back Bay garage on the corner of Boylston and Dalton streets — will get unfurled on Monday, the third anniversary of the killing of 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn.
Rosenthal, a real estate developer who has been trying for years to get a massive project in the Fenway off the ground, is also the cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence, a nonprofit that pushes for tougher gun control laws.
When he put up his billboard next to the Pike in 1995, the goal was to push Massachusetts lawmakers to pass stricter regulations, and we did. Our state has some of the toughest in the country.
Now Rosenthal and his supporters say the new billboard is for everyone else — from those in Congress to legislators in other state houses. The not-so-subtle message: Use Massachusetts as a model on how to curb gun violence.
Our record is enviable, with the second-lowest per capita death rate from guns in the country, according to an analysis of data by the Violence Policy Center, a research group.
The concept of spreading the Massachusetts model packs more of a punch today after 14 people died in San Bernardino, Calif., and three were killed in Colorado at the hands of shooters. It's why even with good laws here, House Speaker Bob DeLeo keeps up the pressure.
"They are not going to do anything," said DeLeo of the federal government. "Let's see if the states can step forward."
For anyone who thinks it's easy for liberal Massachusetts to pass these kinds of laws, DeLeo says think again. His point: Stick with it.
"In all my time, this was probably one of, if not, the most difficult pieces of legislation to pass," said DeLeo, who has spent a quarter of century in the House.
Rosenthal's original billboard stretched 252 feet across a garage he owned, but when he sold it in 2013 to Fenway Sports Group, he was told the sign must come down. Fenway Sports Group is owned by the Red Sox, whose principal owner John Henry also owns the Globe. The sign came down in June, and the Sox are using the space to promote the charitable work of its foundation.
Rosenthal, a gun owner, has struggled to find a site, and he will tell you it's because his group's in-your-face marketing "is the NRA's worst nightmare."
The National Rifle Association has tried to quiet Rosenthal. When Clear Channel Outdoor donated two dozen billboards to Rosenthal's cause, gun-rights advocates mounted an online protest. The signs were removed in April, up for only a few days.
Rosenthal settled on the current, temporary location. No other property owner stepped forward to help.
Rosenthal declined to reveal the group that owns the garage, out of fear that the NRA may launch intimidation tactics. But the owner is someone Rosenthal has known for a while and graciously agreed to a multiyear lease. While it's a public record, I am also choosing to withhold the name.
The city needed to bless the arrangement, and Rosenthal approached Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Of course, was the mayor's response. Not only that, but Walsh tells me that if the NRA tries to take down the banner, he's got Rosenthal's back. "If need be, I'll put it on top of City Hall," said Walsh.
The Gun Owners' Action League of Massachusetts, the local affiliate of NRA, isn't happy about the new billboard, but stopped short of saying it would force it down.
The group disagrees completely with Rosenthal's message, saying the state's regulations haven't been as effective as he makes them out to be.
"Massachusetts gun laws are absolutely horrible," said Jim Wallace, the group's executive director. "They are so convoluted nobody understands them."
Rosenthal has heard this all before. "There is no way our laws haven't had an impact on reducing gun violence."
Does gun control work? Of course it does. But it's not enough that Massachusetts understands that. Everyone needs to.