Three Strategies to Beat the NRA
On Wednesday, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero, led a sit-in of fellow House Democrats on the House floor to demand action on gun control legislation. Lewis strode to the lectern and called on his colleagues to “occupy this floor.” Soon, about two-dozen lawmakers gathered around him as he spoke. As more Democrats came into the House chamber, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, they joined him, sitting with their legs crossed on the blue-carpeted floor. They carried picket signs with photos of the victims of gun violence and sang “We Shall Overcome,” changing the words to include “We shall pass a bill someday.” Some members cried. The protest lasted 25 hours. By sitting down, they were standing up to the National Rifle Association.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to shut down the insurrection, even going so far as to declare a recess to cut off the official television feed. But the protesters used Twitter’s Periscope service to film the rebellion and fed it to C-SPAN, which in defiance of House rules that prohibit cameras on the floor when the chamber isn’t in session, broadcast the sit-in anyway.
The protesting politicians were saying “enough is enough.” They used this dramatic action to express what many Americans feel: We can no longer tolerate the obscene levels of carnage in our streets, schools, universities, houses of worship, shopping centers, and other sites. We need to join the rest of the civilized world in enacting reasonable measures to keep military-style weapons (like the AR-15 that Omar Mateen used in the Orlando nightclub massacre) out of the hands of civilians, and to prohibit the sale of guns to people with criminal records, mental illness, and terrorist affiliations.
By resorting to civil disobedience, the House members were acknowledging that traditional efforts to push for stronger gun laws haven't worked. Although polls show that a significant majority of Americans support tougher gun laws, their voices have been drowned out by the NRA. Along with gun and ammunition manufacturers, the NRA is responsible for the United States having the weakest gun laws of any modern democracy. In fact, the NRA only represents a tiny proportion of all gun owners, and most of them don't even agree with the fanatic views of the group’s leadership—especially those of NRA head Wayne LaPierre, who earned $985,885 in 2014. But the NRA is able to mobilize a small but vocal number of people to support its extremist views, with the financial support of the gun manufacturers who profit from weak gun laws.
To successfully release the NRA’s political choke-hold on Congress and on state legislatures, Americans need bold new strategies like this week’s House floor sit-in. Until now, gun control advocates have largely stuck to one strategy, what I call polite moral outrage and lobbying. This strategy has made some inroads, but has failed to force enough politicians to vote for tougher laws. A second approach—a movement of reasonable gun owners for reasonable gun control—could have a huge impact by creating an alternative to the NRA. Finally, gun safety advocates need a mass movement of civil disobedience. That’s what Democrats were demonstrating on the House floor this week. To be successful, this third strategy must include divestment from gun manufacturers.
These three approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, the nation won't break the back of the NRA, and win stronger public safety measures, until all three strategies are at work at the same time. Here’s how this one-two-three strategy would work:
Polite Vigils, Prayers, and Lobbying
Americans are tired of the carnage created by gun-related violence. In 2013, there were 33,636 deaths from firearm violence in the United States, including 11,208 homicides—31 a day. Firearms were used in 69.6 percent of all homicides that year. Many more individuals are injured—some seriously and permanently—by gun violence. America’s gun death rate is far above that of other Western industrialized nations. This epidemic of gun violence is tied to the easy availability of firearms and weak gun violence prevention laws.
By now the cycle of outrage has become predictable. After each mass killing—in Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Aurora, Roseburg, Phoenix, and now the deadliest of all, Orlando—people come together to express their sympathy for the victims, their anger at the senseless violence, and their determination to bring about change.
Often led by the families and friends of the victims, citizens organize prayer services, candlelight vigils, and marches. Clergy, law enforcement officials, and community residents pledge to bring about change. They write emails to and visit their elected officials—city council members, state legislators, and members of Congress—some of whom promise to take action. Some newspapers publish editorials voicing sympathy, criticizing the NRA, and demanding tougher laws.
These events often spawn new local groups. One of the most effective is the Newtown Action Alliance, a volunteer grassroots organization formed after a gunman killed 20 school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It brings members to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and sponsors an annual vigil for the victims of gun violence at the Washington National Cathedral. Po Murray, one of its founders, says that its goal is to “change the culture, change the conversation, and change the laws in order to end gun violence.”
In between these upsurges of activism, local and national gun control organizations continue to do the hard and important work of keeping their cause in the news. Groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Violence Policy Center, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence conduct valuable research on the causes of gun violence, lobby public officials, educate the public about policy solutions, and alert people about pending bills so they can contact their political representatives. Compared with the NRA, these organizations operate on shoe-string budgets.
Recently, they’ve been joined by some influential new players. In 2014, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, pledged to spend $50 million to jump-start a nationwide gun safety movement. He invested in strengthening existing groups and started Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which soon joined with another new group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to become Everytown for Gun Safety. Bloomberg is pouring money into political races to defeat candidates who oppose reasonable gun safety laws and are in bed with the NRA. He has recognized that the battleground over gun control is primarily at the state level and has spent big bucks trying to get states to adopt stronger gun rules and to stop efforts to weaken existing laws. The effort has included some major successes, including Colorado’s passage of universal background checks and other gun control measures, and some defeats, including Everytown’s failure to stop the Maine legislature from passing a law to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
This year, Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC is gearing up to try to defeat Republican Senate candidates who voted to oppose federal background checks and other gun control measures. Also emerging as a political and organizational gun safety powerhouse is Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by former House Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, of Arizona, after she was shot by a would-be assassin in 2011. Earlier this month, Giffords’ husband, retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, teamed up with retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus to to launch yet another new group, Veterans Coalition for Common Sense.
This strategy built around moral outrage, lobbying, and media can be effective. Certainly it has influenced public opinion. A CNN/ORC poll released this week found that 92 percent of American voters support “a background check on anyone attempting to purchase a gun,” with only 8 percent opposing. The same poll found that 85 percent of American voters supported “preventing people on the U.S. government’s Terrorist Watch List or no-fly list from owning guns,” with only 14 percent in opposition. Polls also consistently show that a significant majority of Americans support laws to prevent people with mental illness or criminal records from purchasing guns, the creation of a federal database to track gun sales, a ban on semi-automatic weapons, and a prohibition on the sale of assault-style weapons to civilians.
But public opinion, on its own, has little political influence. It has to be mobilized and organized—not just during episodic upsurges of moral outrage but on an ongoing basis. In this arena, these groups have until now been outgunned by the NRA, which drowns them out because it is better organized and more fanatical. Yes, in recent years, some cities and a handful of states have adopted stronger laws, but more states, like Maine, have actually weakened their existing laws. And in terms of getting something done in Washington, the strategy of traditional lobbying and media campaigns has been almost a complete failure. That’s where the two other strategies come in.
Gun Owners for Reasonable Gun Control
Few activists within the mainstream gun control movement are themselves gun owners. But guns are a large part of American culture. Most Americans don’t object to the manufacture and sale of rifles used in hunting, a sport that millions of Americans enjoy in relative safely. That’s why strategy two is built on leveraging the influence of gun owners who think the NRA is too far outside the mainstream. A growing number of gun owners and enthusiasts want the services that the NRA offers—such as safety courses and consumer information about guns—but don’t like the NRA’s extremist agenda. So the time is ripe for an organization of reasonable gun owners for reasonable gun control.
The NRA was founded after the Civil War to advocate for hunter training, marksmanship, conservation of nature, and gun safety. It was a sportsmen’s club, not a political lobby group. In 1977, extremists within the NRA hijacked the organization, strengthened its ties to gun manufacturers, and vowed to fight all gun regulations.
That’s when LaPierre joined the organization. He’s worked for the NRA since 1978 and served as its top official since 1991. He is the organization’s hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials to oppose any kind of sensible gun control laws. The NRA even defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons in bars, churches, schools, universities, and elsewhere. This poses a huge threat to police and civilians alike. For example, one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty is killed with an assault weapon.
The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to the epidemic of gun violence. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds—not just hunting rifles, but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership are, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms. The second is the cliché that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” To the NRA, weak gun laws have nothing to do with America’s exorbitant number of gun-related killings. This contradicts research compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence documenting that states with stronger gun laws have fewer gun-related deaths. States with the weakest laws are also the source of the most crime guns, even in those states with tougher laws.
Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to access guns is due to lax gun ownership laws. The NRA’s job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far it has been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn’t enacted any major gun regulations.
Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA has strengthened its ties to the gun manufacturers. The NRA’s board includes many gun industry representatives, like Stephen Hornady, whose company, Hornady Manufacturing, sells armor-piercing bullets under the slogan “Accurate. Deadly. Dependable.” The profits of these corporations (such as Remington Outdoor, Beretta, Sturm Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and Olin), and the profits of Walmart (the nation’s largest seller of guns and ammunition) and other retailers, grow when there are few restrictions on the sale and ownership of guns and ammunition.
“There is a lot of profit to be made for all of this sorrow, all of this death, and all of this destruction,” explained Dr. Sheldon Teperman, director of trauma surgery at the Jacobi Medical Center in New York City, who routinely deals with gunshot victims.
LaPierre has also linked the NRA to the far right, including the Tea Party. LaPierre is a regular presence at gatherings of extreme right-wing groups, whose paranoid warnings about the threat of tyranny and Obama’s secret plan to confiscate all guns are meant to scare Americans into buying more guns and joining the NRA. For example, in a speech at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, LaPierre said that Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.” Obama’s plan, he said, was to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution.” Donald Trump is echoing this NRA mantra on the campaign trail with his attacks on Hillary Clinton as a Second Amendment foe.
LaPierre speaks for the ultra-right-wing “survivalist” wing of the NRA, whose members and activities overlap with racist hate groups who believe they need to prepare for an armed struggle against their own government. He is a brilliant tactician and strategist who is able to marshal the loud voices of a relatively small group of people to stymie reasonable gun control laws.
“We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing,” LaPierre said at an NRA meeting. “You’re with us or against us.”
In fact, only a tiny proportion of the nation’s gun owners are NRA members. About 90 million Americans own guns. The NRA claims to have about four million members. Even if they aren’t exaggerating, that is less than 5 percent of all gun owners.
A national Public Policy Polling survey of gun owners, conducted last November, found that 83 percent support criminal background checks on all sales of firearms, while only 14 percent oppose them. Gun owner support is strongly bipartisan, with 90 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans endorsing background checks. Among gun owners, 66 percent say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports background checks. Only 29 percent feel that the NRA represents their thinking when it comes to background checks. Gun owners also say the NRA is out of touch with them on these issues. The NRA’s positions, in fact, are not only at odds with those of most Americans and most gun owners, but even of many NRA members. The poll found that 72 percent of NRA members support background checks.
So why is the NRA so powerful? Gun ownership is highly concentrated. Twenty percent of gun owners possess about 65 percent of the nation’s guns. The NRA is able to mobilize a small but very rabid and vocal group of gun owners—as well as owners of gun shops—to attend rallies, write letters to newspapers and comments on blog sites, and contact elected officials.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, says that the NRA’s most vocal members are no more than a quarter of its members—perhaps 750,000 people—for whom “guns are their life.” They can make lots of noise but they don’t represent most NRA members who don’t fall for LaPierre’s extremism.
Many gun owners are fed up with the NRA, but efforts to create an alternative gun organization have met with little success so far. One such group, the American Hunters and Shooters Association, began in 2005 and lasted for five years. Its president, Ray Schoenke, a one-time Washington Redskins football player and a successful businessman, had wanted AHSA to bridge the gap between urban liberals and rural gun owners. But the group focused almost entirely on supporting pro-gun control political candidates, did not provide services to its members, and could not sustain itself financially.
Last October, two days after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Mark Carman—an evangelical Christian, former police officer and military veteran, and a Republican from Nashville, where he now works as a music producer—posted a video on his Facebook page titled, “I Love My Guns—Responsible Gun Owners.” He dangled his Ruger SR9 in front of the camera. “I like it,” he said. “I love firearms. I do.” Then he called for the expansion of background checks and the creation of a gun registry.
Within 10 days, more than 1.8 million viewers had watched Carman’s video. So he created a website and a Facebook page called the American Coalition for Responsible Gun Ownership (ACRGO)—to challenge the gun lobby. According to its website, the group seeks ”responsible gun ownership legislation to assure that firearm owners shall engage with reasonable due diligence in the purchase, sale, possession and/or use of all firearms.”
The following month, a delegation from ACRGO—along with members of Gun Owners for Gun Control, organized by the progressive Netroots group MoveOn.org Civic Action—came to Washington, met with White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and members of Congress, and delivered 1.1 million signatures on a petition calling on Congress to take bold action in closing some of the loopholes in the firearms purchase process.
The response to Carman’s video suggests that there is a potentially large constituency of gun owners for reasonable gun control, but Carman isn’t interested in building a new organization. “I was totally unprepared for what happened,” he explained. ACRGO, he said, “is just me, a website, and a Facebook page.”
A moderate group could not only steal some members from the NRA but, more importantly, recruit unaffiliated gun owners who don’t support the NRA’s close ties with the gun industry and don’t think the NRA speaks for them. It could grow into a kind of AARP for gun owners—one that provides services (such as gun safety courses) as well as mobilize its members to support reasonable gun laws and candidates who voice similar views—and poses a challenge to the NRA.
In fact, the NRA’s incendiary rhetoric has alienated many of its members. David Taylor, a retired Army officer and a two-time All-American in rifle shooting from Roswell, Georgia, was part of the delegation that met with Valerie Jarrett last November. “I was a member of the NRA for more than 10 years,” Taylor explained, “but resigned my membership when its agenda turned from promoting gun safety and responsible ownership to one of uncompromising opposition to any kind of gun control.”
Taylor follows in the footsteps of President George H.W. Bush. In 1995, Bush withdrew as a Life Member of the NRA after LaPierre sent an incendiary fundraising letter sent to the group’s members, claiming that if assault weapons were banned, “jack-booted government thugs” would “break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us.” We need more NRA members to publicly follow the example of David Taylor and Poppy Bush.
Civil Disobedience and Divestment
Throughout American history, all successful movements have included both reformers and radicals. Reformers work “inside” the system to bring about modest but important changes. Radicals work “outside” the system to push for more dramatic improvements. In truth, both are needed and, in most movements, reformers and radicals work together. In fact, ideas that were once considered dangerously radical—women’s suffrage, Social Security, the minimum wage, and consumer protection laws—later became considered common sense. Radicals not only have bolder ideas but, in addition to such established tactics as voting and lobbying, they employ bolder actions like civil disobedience and boycotts. The successes of the women’s suffrage, labor, environmental, civil rights, and LGBT movements all utilized these audacious tactics.
Last week, in the wake of the Orlando massacre, The Nation published an editorial entitled, We Need a Radical Movement for Gun Control. “When the normal political system fails,” the editors wrote, “it’s time to act up!”
House Democrat John Lewis, now 76, knows something about this. During the 1960s, as a young college student, he risked his life in the cause of civil rights. As an elected official, he has continued to put his body on the line for social justice. He is both a reformer and a radical, an insider and an outsider. He understands that there are times when candlelight vigils, prayer services, and well-mannered lobbying aren’t enough. That’s why he persuaded a number of his House colleagues—most of whom had never before engaged in any kind of protest—to join him on the House floor to express their frustration and anger at the failure of the Republicans (and a few Democrats) to embrace even modest gun safety legislation.
Lewis clearly hopes that this high-profile protest—which generated enormous media attention because of its dramatic and unusual show of conscience—will catalyze a wider protest movement that includes civil disobedience. Surely Lewis has in mind the four African American college students who, on February 1, 1960, sat in at a lunch counter at the Woolworth’s five-and-dime story and refused to leave in order to protest Jim Crow racial segregation. They had no idea if their sit-in would work, but they had faith that their action would encourage others to join them. Their action inspired students at other colleges across the South to follow their example. By the end of March 1960, sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace. One of them was Lewis, then a student at Fisk University in Nashville.
At the time, even many liberals—black and white—thought that the protesters were too radical. But their actions galvanized a new wave of civil rights protests. That April, several hundred sit-in activists formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became the “radical” wing of the civil rights movement. Its growing base of supporters played key roles in the freedom rides, marches, and voter registration drives that eventually led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We need a comparable nonviolent protest movement now to stir things up on gun safety and challenge the influence of the NRA. There are already signs that a radical wing of the gun control movement is taking hold. On Tuesday, 18 activists affiliated with the peace group Code Pink were arrested after protesting outside the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. The event came hours after the Senate had rejected proposals from both parties designed to keep extremists from acquiring guns and to require background checks for many firearms purchases.
The Orlando shooting has catalyzed the LGBT community to get more involved in the gun issue. It is likely that their involvement will inject new energy and its passion for civil disobedience into the gun control movement. We could soon see more civil disobedience actions at NRA’s offices as well as similar protests at gun shows, the headquarters of major gun manufacturers, the homes of the CEOs of major gun makers, NRA board members, and NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, and at the offices of Congress members and state legislators who are under the thumb of the NRA.
Elected officials would be welcome to participate, but for such a strategy to be effective, it has to enlist ordinary Americans, including people who own guns, people who have been injured by gun violence, and the families of those who were killed in mass shootings and by the more mundane but still-deadly rash of daily street murders.
As with all social justice campaigns involving civil disobedience, such actions might invite criticism that they are “going too far.” But such protests force people to pay attention, to think about an issue they had previously ignored, and often to revise their views. They also galvanize more people to take action so that the political snowball gets bigger and bigger. Such actions, which sometimes involve some people getting arrested, help give issues a sense of moral urgency. They state clearly that we can’t continue with business as usual. The crisis has gotten too serious. It is time to act.
For those reluctant to participate in public protest, civil disobedience can take another form. Many movements have employed boycotts and divestment strategies to challenge powerful institutions to change their policies. The most famous boycott took place in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to comply with that city’s segregated bus seating laws. For over a year, citizens boycotted the buses, which eventually helped dismantle the city’s segregation law. In the 1970s, many Americans boycotted grapes, wine, and lettuce produced by non-union workers to put pressure on big agricultural growers to improve working conditions and wages for migrant farmworkers, a campaign led by Cesar Chavez.
Divestment is another boycott strategy. The idea is to get pension funds, universities, churches, and other institutions to remove their investments from corporations engaged in socially irresponsible activities. In the 1980s, divestment from companies doing business in South Africa effectively helped dismantle that country’s racial apartheid system. Today, many environmental activists—including students at over 300 colleges and universities—are pushing their institutions to unload their stocks in energy companies that promote fossil fuels that are destroying our planet. Several major institutions—including Stanford, Columbia, and Syracuse universities—have already done so.
The same strategy can exert pressure on the gun lobby. A group called the Campaign to Unload has been working in the trenches with people affiliated with universities, churches, union, and government pension funds to promote gun industry divestment. The effort has won some significant victories.
In 2013, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), both large public pension funds, moved to divest from manufacturers of assault weapons. That year, a pension fund for Chicago public employees (the Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund) voted to withdraw its holdings in three companies—Freedom Group, Sturm Ruger, and Smith & Wesson—that manufacture assault weapons, while the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, which has $9.5 billion in assets, voted to divest its investments with gun makers. Last December, Letitia James, New York City’s elected public advocate, sought to pressure TD Bank—which provided $280 million in financing to Smith & Wesson—to cut its ties with the gun manufacturer. In a letter to the bank, James wrote, “If you want to do business with New York City, you can’t be in bed with companies that manufacture the agents that kill our children and families.”
In 2014, at the urging of faculty and students, Occidental College in Los Angeles became the first higher education institution to pledge to stay away from any investments in companies that manufacture military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines for general public sale. Students at the University of California—which has an endowment of $88 billion, one of the largest in the country—have asked the university’s board of regents to follow Occidental’s example. The regents have never voted on an official policy, but according Dianne Klein, media director for the University of California’s Office of the President, the university has sold all is stock in firearms manufacturers and distributors.
Earlier this year two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs—Keywon Chung and Michael Shilman—created a new tool, Goodbye Gun Stocks, that makes it easy to find out if a retirement fund or investment portfolio contains stocks from gun and ammo manufacturers and retailers. The tool covers more than 12,000 stock funds (and Thrifty Savings Plans for federal employees) based on Securities and Exchange Commission data, which amounts to $5.9 trillion in investments. Over $17 billion of those assets are invested in the consumer gun industry—about 35 percent of U.S. stock funds. You can type in the name of an investment fund, and it will show the percentage invested in nine public gun-associated companies—Olin, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Vista Outdoor, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabela's, Sportsman's Warehouse, and Walmart. The tool also helps find alternative funds (with comparable or even better performance) that have no—or fewer—gun stocks. It provides side-by-side comparisons of different funds in terms of their investment in gun stocks. The Vanguard funds, for example, hold $5.7 billion in these stocks compared with Fidelity’s $791 million.
A parallel group, Unload Your 401K, lets you enter your 401K provider to see whether it contain gun stocks. The group urges Americans to demand that the managers of their 401K portfolios (such as Fidelity, Prudential, Vanguard, and Merrill-Lynch) divest from gun stocks. Since it launched its divestment campaign against manufacturers of assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips, ten hedge funds and money managers have divested their gun holdings, valued at $170 million.
If more institutions and individuals withdraw their investments from gun and ammo manufacturers that profit from the violence that is destroying our communities, particularly low-income and minority neighborhoods, it would pressure these corporations to change their practices. It would also compel more elected officials to side with the views of ordinary Americans and not the gun lobby.
“For years, the NRA dominated the political playing field on the gun issue,” said Mark Glaze, president of the Campaign to Unload. “It will take years—and several election cycles—to dismantle the NRA’s influence.”
The Orlando massacre may be a turning point in galvanizing a stronger movement for sensible gun control. Three strategies—traditional advocacy, mobilization of sensible gun owners, and civil disobedience—point the way. Even as we grieve, we can move forward. We can stop the madness.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).