In 1993, standing in the White House’s east room surrounded by city governors, Bill Clinton brought Melanie Musick to the microphone, where she told the story of her husband, who was killed in a food court by a mentally unstable shooter. He assured the public he wasn’t infringing on an all-American pastime, invoking his country roots with tales of shooting tin cans off fences with a .22. And then he signed the Brady bill—which required background checks and a five-day waiting period for people buying guns from licensed dealers—into law.
It is still one of the most wide-ranging gun control initiatives in American history, and all it really did was regulate the most easily monitored venue. Sections of the law were rolled back in 1997 by a lawsuit brought by the NRA. But like nearly everything related to who can carry and under what circumstances, the passage of the Handgun Control Act relied largely on highlighting the “moral authority” of a small number of powerful camera-ready survivors. But it was also a veiled statement about whose deaths really counted.
The Brady bill, Clinton said, had passed at long last because “grassroots America changed its mind and demanded that Congress not leave here without doing something about this.” Which was really only half-true. The public opinion that lended support to the bill was more anti-crime than anti-gun violence: This is the era of the Clintons’ campaign against urban gang shootings and “superpredators.” To this end, during the 1993 signing the then-president made sure to mention the racially inflected idea that “police have to go out on the street confronting teenagers who are better armed than they are.”
And the Brady bill wasn’t a “grassroots initiative,” because there has been no mass citizen movement based around gun control in America. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—a mutating non-profit lobbying organization that has gone by several other names in its 40-odd-year run—gained power through its eponymous figureheads, James and Sarah Brady, both of whom were career Republican operatives at some the highest levels of government. (James was permanently disabled by a gunshot wound during the Reagan assassination attempt in 1981; Sarah had worked for the RNC since 1968.)
Its resources, and thus political influence, increased exponentially during the ‘80s, in large part because John Lennon’s assassination shook the public. It’s always been easier for Americans to rally around celebrity icons than the 11,000 people killed by guns every year.
This Saturday, March 24, the Parkland students, a few of whom have become minor celebrities in their own right, will join a march that is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of people to Washington, D.C. In addition to possessing moral authority and a wonderful youthful exuberance (see: the excellent teenager yelling “eat my ass” on the capitol steps) they know what the press wants to see. This week, the activist students used their eerily prescient media savvy to create their own documentary about going back to school. Their target is, in addition to legislators and jaded grownups, the omnipresent NRA.
Some, like the adults behind Everytown for Gun Safety—an organization that combined factions of mayors and mothers against gun violence under an umbrella advocacy group in 2014—are hoping the infusion of young energy will be enough to create that long-sought-after mass movement. They have partnered with the Parkland students marching this week. Everytown’s spokespeople, often the parents of children killed in mass shootings, regularly show up on TV citing their moral authority on such matters. They have been called the “Other Gun Lobby,” and deliver combative quotes like “If we have to outspend the NRA, that’s what we’ll do.” But even all that, and the tragedy of their dead children, and cash infusions from Michael Bloomberg, Rosanne Cash, and Yoko Ono, has not been enough.
The social scientist Kristin Goss, who dedicated her book, Disarmed, to the question of why gun movements don’t stick, has called it the “gun control participation paradox”: Even as most Americans favor gun control—and have for decades—there has been no cohesive mass movement to turn sentiment into action. This was true even before the internal revolution in the late ‘70s that reimagined the NRA as the most powerful political lobbying organization in the country, and it explains in part why our anemic gun control measures have been so focused on protecting people who operate within the state.
In a country where so many people die annually from gunfire the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipsed the toll of every war we’ve ever fought, polls going back to the ‘70s consistently find that 20 percent of Americans have been personally threatened by a gun, or shot at. More than half of the surveyed by Gallup think we need stricter gun control, and only 30 percent of Americans say they own a gun themselves. They are increasingly white men who are stockpiling multiple weapons.
As the criminologist Tom W. Smith found after a review of 16 separate surveys way back in 1980, “one of the few constants in American public opinion over the last two decades has been that three-fourths of the population supports gun control.” And still, it has not been an issue around which people mobilize.
Gun violence is universal, but “polls alone don’t change policy,” writes Goss in Disarmed. “Political action does.” Goss’ book, which was published almost a decade ago, explains the lack of staying power as an issue of financial resources and donor networks, sure, but also as the result of a political strategy that’s not “well-suited to movement building.”
Some of the major lobbying organizations that have been operating in the last few decades don’t even see much of a need for state-by-state organizing. The pro-choice movement, for instance, combats powerful Christian lobbyists and a hyper-organized base, despite the fact that the majority of Americans support abortion rights. But it’s also a movement that’s pressured liberal-leaning lawmakers and created nationwide networks of protest groups and extra-legal actions, whereas until now gun control activity has flared up in moments of extreme loss or anxiety before fading away.
It’s difficult to create a single-issue movement out of something as shape-shifting as “gun violence,” which can be understood along the lines of domestic assault or suicide risk or crime. It certainly doesn’t help that our solutions, alienated from an emotional landscape, have been market-based. For many politically powerful Americans, like the Parkland students in their affluent suburb, gun violence is an abstraction or a TV trope until a mass shooting brings it suddenly into relief.
The problem with people like Sarah Brady, the wife and mother who acted as the engine for what would become the Brady law, was that she was one of many lone figures who have suddenly found a reason to fight for the cause, an example of the reactive posture of a “normal” American who finds themselves or their loved one at the other end of a gun. It’s not as if Brady ever was, or even became, a zealous pacifist—she grew up shooting, and she bought her own son a gun several years after the Brady Campaign had worked to make such an acquisition more difficult.
There has been no single-issue culture to combat the pro-gun movement, and its partisan lines have been blurry. As recently as the late ‘60s, weapons bans were used by Republican legislatures terrified of black men who carry. By contrast, the pro-choice movement has made access to abortion an emotionally and politically cohesive issue; on one end of the spectrum, organizations like Planned Parenthood take legal action and prop up candidates to change laws. On the other, underground clinics provide adequate care in the absence of the state. And in between, there’s feminism—for better or worse a recognizably marketable culture of hot pink girl power and Tumblr memes featuring pro-choice icons and intersectional, ever-handy slogans like “My Body My Choice.” Such multifaceted initiatives, and tireless organizing, are necessary to combat a gun movement which, in addition to money, has hobbyist meetups and magazines and common heroes, and thus a familiar cohesive heft.
“Don’t underestimate how gun owners are united by a hobby,” says Adam Winkler, whose book about guns in America popularized the once-obscure history of the origins of the modern gun control movement. “It’s easy for them to mobilize, to share information. They meet up on the weekends. You can’t underestimate how that helps to encourage an identity.”
While gun control was, before the 20th century, enacted on a state-by-state basis—even Western towns during the gold rush would sometimes have weapons bans—the first federal legislation was essentially written to keep cops from getting mowed down. In the years before the 1934 Firearms Protection Act, the “War on Bandits” and said bandits’ short, rapid-fire Tommy guns was what captured the public eye. In the era of Al Capone, a gun-runner told the Chicago Tribune that “it is no trouble to buy machine guns”; you just send someone to New York to pick it up. Then-president Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a “New Deal for Crime,” and five years after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven people died during a gang fight, a watered-down version of Roosevelt’s vision was passed, and taxes on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns went up to a prohibitive level.
There wouldn’t be another federal restriction on firearms until the assassinations of the late ‘60s; a few days after the death of Robert Kennedy, a Democratic senator introduced legislation that would restrict mail-order sales. (Political support was also bolstered by the sense of upheaval, brought by Civil Rights and anti-war protesters; a 1968 federal report blamed societal “unrest” on the easy availability of guns.) The next major break came with the Brady campaign, and Clinton’s signature on that law more than a decade after Reagan’s would-be assassin pulled an Uzi from a briefcase at a speaking event.
That so many tepid victories have come from bloodless legislators concerned with the lives of state figureheads—rather than the 96 Americans killed by guns every day—shouldn’t surprise us. At the very least it’s an honest reflection of whose lives matter to American politicians. Violence has been racialized in this country so much that it’s been difficult to create lasting coalitions. With our collective blindness to this kind of violence it’s been nearly impossible to connect the grief of a suicide or a mass shooting of a violent crime to the same problem.
The pushback from America’s nebulous gun culture has been a deterrent since the beginning: Even during the ‘30s commentators complained that taxing sawed-off shotguns would put law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage. And none of this is to minimize the lobbying influence of the NRA, only to ask what else has kept a movement from growing to combat it. It’s another complicated story that broaches traditionally drawn lines.
Winkler does think the students at Parkland are changing some things, if they can create single-issue anti-gun voters the way the gun lobby has created its own bloc. What he doesn’t say, but what I inferred, is the troubling reality of what it will mean if the students manage to do so: That the only way to build coalitions around gun control is by finding a common denominator among the hundreds of people in America who now know exactly what it’s like when a lone gunman opens fire in a crowded room.