Grief, photos no longer inspire change in gun debate
PUBLISHED MAY 30, 2014
All week, the videos of the father — red-faced and shouting, or speaking deliberately as tears streamed into his salt-and-pepper beard — made it seem as though Richard Martinez's anguish might turn him into the new face of the gun-control movement.
Since last Friday, when Elliot Rodger murdered University of California-Santa Barbara student Christopher Michaels-Martinez and five others in Isla Vista, Michaels-Martinez's father has publicly processed his grief and rage on viral videos by calling for gun control and blaming "craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA."
But even as the videos racked up views on YouTube, political journalists across the country spent the week writing soberly about how Martinez's grief won't affect the gun debate.
Thay is why gun-control advocates are already experimenting with new tactics after grieving fathers like Daniel Barden (Sandy Hook), John Green (Tucson) and Tom Teves (Aurora) failed to spur action at the federal level.
They are encouraging people to use their investments as an economic lever, reframing the conversation from the pulpit and writing new kinds of gun legislation. And they are giving up on national solutions, shifting their focus to local applications of background checks and other firearms limits.
This reset comes because, even after the December 2012 murder of 20 children and six staffers in Newtown, Conn., when a USA TODAY/Gallup poll said that 58 percent of Americans favored stronger gun laws — the highest percentage since 2004 — Congress chose not to pass legislation that would have extended background checks for gun sales, banned assault weapons and limited the size of magazines.
Martinez has become the latest in a long line of desperate dads searching for meaning. Yet since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, almost every state has enacted at least one new gun law, according to the San Francisco-based non-profit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Nearly two-thirds of those laws eased restrictions or expanded the rights of gun owners.
"People in opposition to gun control are really well organized and really vocal, and trying to combat that, even with common sense, is a big challenge," said Bill Burton, executive vice president and managing director at the Global Strategy Group and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "But every time the country does something hard — and this is a hard thing — it's never overnight."
Gun-control advocates say they have an uphill fight — even though 87 Americans are killed with guns during an average day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — because of National Rifle Association lobbying. The NRA, with about 4 million members out of 90 million U.S. gun owners, spent almost $3.5 million on lobbying in 2013, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Contributions to the NRA from the gun industry total $19.3 million to $60.2 million, according to a September 2013 study by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
"This industry is not going to respond to moral sentiments, that's clear. They will respond to economic pain," said Eric Milgram, a father of two Sandy Hook survivors.
Milgram appears in a short film that is part of one of the new strategies gun-safety advocates are pursuing. The film was released in April by the Campaign To Unload, an initiative backed by 20 to gun-violence prevention groups that encourages 50 million Americans with 401(k)s to check whether their retirement funds invest in gun companies.
A December 2013 CBS News poll said 85 percent of Americans and 84 percent of gun owners favor federal background checks on gun buyers.
The website UnloadYour401K.com is inspired by anti-apartheid and anti-tobacco divestment campaigns, said Jennifer Fiore, who founded the effort after Sandy Hook.
"The fact that Congress couldn't close that loophole, that 40 percent of guns are sold without going through a background check, that's appalling," Fiore said. "If there's not a political path forward, then we will create an economic path forward."
At Grey advertising agency, Rob Lenois led the team that created the site's three-minute video featuring family members of those killed or wounded at Columbine, Colo.; Virginia Tech; and in everyday gun violence.
"We really wanted to steer clear of the sad story," Lenois said. "We've heard the victims' stories; that's the portion we've heard over and over and over, and maybe that's why it's losing its kapow.
"We wanted focus on a solution. That's the news. Parents of gun victims had no idea that every day, some of them had been giving their hard-earned money to gun companies."
Look to civil rights
Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., said society isn't going to "wake up one morning after a devastating event and say, 'What were we thinking?' "
Budde, a leading religious figure in the post-Sandy Hook conversation, said that the cumulative grass-roots work is making a difference but that social change is slow.
"I look to the gay-rights struggle, the civil-rights struggle, for inspiration," Budde said.
The civil rights model has four steps: a group must self identify; establish leaders; create a public face, including marches, acts of civil disobedience or message-filled art; and it must promote its goals by electing members to political offices and creating institutions, such as magazines, newspapers and academic programs.
"Taking the long view can be helpful. There are times when it seems like it was inevitable that there was going to be change in society, but they had hours that were just as dark as this one. The month after Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, four girls were killed in a church. The up and down like this is part of how social change happens."
In 2011, when former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, her friend and colleague, then-Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. raced to the hospital in Tucson to pray for her.
Two years later, he voted against the bill to expand background checks, which was supported by the advocacy group Giffords runs with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Stories like that turned Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America away from federal efforts and instead push for expanded background checks through city, county and state governments. Moms partners with Everytown for Gun Safety and received $50 million from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in April.
"The bottom line is mayors and state representatives interact more with constituents than members of Congress do," said Moms founder Shannon Watts.
A poll released Thursday by Everytown said 83 percent of Arizonans and 88 percent of the state's women support criminal background checks on all gun sales. Results also indicate that more than 65 percent of Arizona voters would be less likely to support a candidate who opposes background checks.
Everytown polling led cities like Tacoma, Wash., and Austin to require background checks on gun sales conducted on city-owned properties, such as convention center gun shows.
"How do we get them to be brave enough to vote for common-sense gun laws? We have to show them that if they vote this way, their jobs will be safe," Watts said.