Gun control is emerging. What’s next for its advocates?
The emerging movement that brought hundreds of thousands of youthful gun violence protesters to the streets across the country this weekend now faces a steep political climb to sustain momentum in the weeks and months to come.
With a GOP-controlled Congress unlikely to make major changes to gun laws, gun safety advocates say they are turning their attention to the mid-term elections this fall, hoping the energy inspired by the teenaged survivors of the massacre in Parkland, Fla., will carry into the voting booth. Activists see the election as the first key test of whether the renewed push for stricter controls can reshape Congress and eventually bring about political change.
Adding to the challenge: Many of the young people who took part in last weekend’s March for Our Lives are not old enough to vote. But teenagers who helped organize the marches say they plan to lobby lawmakers and register voters, adding they will not stop until lawmakers take notice.
“If youth are anything, we are persistent, and we are not going to get out of their hair until we see action taken,” said Laura-Luiza Gouvea, a 15-year-old from Somerville and spokesperson for the March for Our Lives Boston.
For example, she plans to lobby Beacon Hill for legislation that would allow family and household members to petition a court to temporarily remove a gun from a person who is considered a risk to themselves or the public.
The bill is a top priority for advocates in Massachusetts, which already has among the nation’s strictest gun laws.
Nationally, advocates say the movement is growing but they caution that Washington is traditionally resistant to quick change.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said that after the marches “everyone wants a cathartic moment in Congress.”
“But this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Watts said. “It is going to take several election cycles to get us to where we need to be.”
Still, her group — which is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, the organization founded by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — has added 140,000 new volunteers since the Parkland massacre on Feb. 14, and it has started a new group, Students Demand Action, which has added 33,000 volunteers.
Watts is focused on harnessing the energy from the marches to register and mobilize voters ahead of the mid-term elections and pressure state legislatures to toughen gun control laws.
“What the marches did was help us keep the national spotlight on this issue but also show lawmakers this is a movement, and we’re serious about this issue, and we are serious about making change,” she said.
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, attended the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday with her mother and surviving son. She was particularly moved by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s speech about black women who have fallen to violence, which has gone viral online.
“She is the age Dylan would be,” Hockley said in an interview Monday. “Personally, it was very touching and inspirational.”
Hockley, a founder and managing director of the gun violence prevention group Sandy Hook Promise, said she has heard the cynical refrain: If the nation didn’t do anything about gun control after Sandy Hook, then it never will.
“Every time you’ve heard it, I’ve heard it ten times,” she said. “But it’s completely wrong.”
People tend to measure change solely by the bills that Congress enacts, she said. But federal legislation is not the only metric. Since Sandy Hook, state legislatures have passed stricter gun-control laws, and public support has grown for measures such as stronger background checks.
“What happened at Sandy Hook was, for many people, the start of the movement,” Hockley said. “You need time to develop the grass roots. It is cumulative . . . the movement has been growing with people who are enraged that these shootings keep happening.”
John Rosenthal, a founder of the Massachusetts-based group Stop Handgun Violence, predicted that 2018 will be the first year that reducing gun violence will be a motivating issue for voters nationwide. Gun rights have been a key voting issue for decades, and the National Rifle Association has built substantial political influence on its ability to get its legion of enthusiastic supporters to the polls.
The NRA “is a passionate minority,” Rosenthal said. “If we’re a passionate majority, we win.”
Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminologist, said he was skeptical the marches would lead to tougher gun laws, given the influence of the NRA and other gun-rights groups.
“We have lots of people saying it was young people’s voices and the power of their work and their ideas, so this time may be different,” McDevitt said. “But we’ve heard that after Sandy Hook. We heard that after Pulse [nightclub shootings in Orlando]. We continue to see horrible events that don’t result in thoughtful and substantive changes that make guns less” accessible to people who would use them to kill.
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League of Massachusetts, the state affiliate of the NRA, said he is hoping the debate shifts away from gun control toward mental health, which he said is more important to address if the nation wants to prevent mass shootings.
“Good for them getting out there, taking part in the process,” he said of the marchers. “I just hope that the people who were organizing it, and the people who seem to be supporting them, are actually open to different ideas.”
Even if gun-control advocates succeed in passing the proposal, dubbed the “red-flag’’ bill, to take guns away from dangerous individuals, the recent mail bombings in Austin, Texas, and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma show killers “are going to find other means to commit harm,” he said.