Gun Lobby Goliath

The NRA Has a Head Start Against Newly Energized Gun-Control Advocates

David Freedlander reports on the disjointed effort to fight for stricter gun laws in the wake of Newtown.

Imagine you live in Connecticut, not far where the Sandy Hook massacre took place. Or, say, Oak Creek, Wis., where a gunman shot and killed six at a Sikh temple in August. Or in Denver, near the Aurora movie theater, where 12 were shot in July.

Fed up, and maybe a little scared for your safety, you decide that something needs to be done. But what? You check out the nation’s most prominent gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, hoping to find an organization to join or at least some simple steps you can take immediately to join the fight—a march to attend, a congressman to pressure, news of legislation coming up before key committees in your local state legislature. For each state, the website gives you a generic form to fill out to contact your state chapter, which may be several towns over, a button to donate money to the group, and a link to learn about local gun laws.

Compare this with the National Rifle Association, which for years has been reaching out aggressively to would-be supporters everywhere from college campuses to CPAC by culling conservative email lists and by catching people at the point of sale of a firearm. Indeed, if you are thinking about joining the NRA, it is probably because the group has already reached out to you.

The discrepancy in organizing capacity between the opposing sides of the gun debate has been underscored in recent days, as many Americans have found themselves anxious to join the fight against the NRA and to start pushing for stricter gun-control laws.

The problem is, there isn’t much of a fight to join. Besides the Brady Campaign, dozens of groups are fighting for gun safety, all of which have different agendas, leadership styles, and supporters. The most prominent group of the moment is the Mike Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But if it wasn’t clear from the name, that group is focused mostly on mayors and other elected officials, and less on building a mass movement.

In its six years in existence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns has had a decent run. The group defeated a bill that would have forced states to honor out-of-state concealed-carry permits. It also racked up a handful of victories over pro-gun lawmakers in the 2012 elections after pouring millions of Bloomberg’s money into a super PAC. The group has launched a new ad campaign, and the New York City mayor has pledged to keep his wallet open in the next round of elections —“shame on me if I don’t,” he said at a press conference Monday, surrounded by dozens of family members of shooting victims—but the group hasn’t done anything yet to approach the organizing power of the NRA.

“We thought that what was needed in this broken debate was an outsider,” said Arkadi Gerney, who as a City Hall aide was one of the original organizers of MAIG. “And those outsiders, the core of them, are mayors. If you are a mayor, you can’t ignore the crime issue. And instead of fighting these battles city by city, we bring these ideas to Washington. I think it has helped change the discussion.”

But the group has fewer than 20 full-time employees, with most working out of New York and the rest in Washington, D.C, or in field offices around the country. And although Bloomberg has been taunting the NRA as “vastly overrated,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns has mostly avoid taking on the gun lobby directly, focusing instead on enforcing laws that are already on the books in one way or another.

“I don’t see [it] as being against the NRA at all,” said one coalition operative who asked not to be named because he wasn’t cleared to speak on the record. “Polling shows that a substantial number of members of the NRA agree that common-sense gun-control measures should be taken.”

In many respects, taking on the gun lobby shouldn’t be a particularly heavy lift. The American public is extremely concerned about public safety—witness how hard it is to walk onto an airplane or the seasonal hysteria around whatever flu strain is about to migrate to our shores. Operatives and organizers with long experience working on environmental or civil-rights issues say they are surprised that many in the gun-control movement have never quite able to tap into this fear. Make the face of it, they say, police officers and sheriffs, who can go on TV and warn of the threat to come.

“It’s not the time to have conferences and think about it. It’s in the best interests of the other side to drag this out. Everybody with a stake in this should get together and figure out what legislation they want to pass. Then you can start talking about the strategy around specific legislation.”

But conversations with anti-gun organizers around the country reveal that many are not quite ready to capitalize at a moment when so much of the country is on their side.

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“The first thing I would do is sit down with the other side,” said Joe Grace, the former executive director of Cease Fire Pennsylvania. “I think it is very important to understand that there are millions of law-abiding hunters and sportsmen, and people who have the right to protect their homes and businesses.”

Asked about possible plans to reach out to newly enraged and energized gun-control advocates, the leader of one prominent anti-gun group said: “I don’t need to reach out to anybody. They are reaching out to us. We have got more traffic over the last 72 hours, on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, than we have ever gotten.”

Experts on social movements and on gun control say there has always been a disparity between the gun lobby and gun-control advocates. Although it is hard to find anyone but the most hardened gun fan who doesn’t want to keep the mentally ill from buying high-capacity magazine clips, the energy around the issue remains on the side of the Second Amendment.

“The NRA has been around a long time, and it is totally grounded in people for whom guns is the No. 1 priority, who vote on gun issues, who give money and write letters when asked,” said Robert J. Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control. “On the other side, most people favor gun control, but it is a not top priority.”

With an eye to the future, however, gun advocates are working to begin the long process of changing people’s minds.

Spitzer suggested that gun-control advocates should try what in political-science circles is known as “socializing conflict.” That is, he said: “You rip it out of the committee back rooms and the legislative chambers, and throw it on the front page of every newspaper. This shooting was unforeseen and terrible, but politics can arise from terrible events.”

Spitzer also suggested that gun advocates should take a page from international relations and treat negotiations much like the Americans did when trying to disarm the Soviet nuclear threat.

“You are not going to have disarmament, but you could have arms control,” he said. “So one side says, ‘Not only are we not going to take away your guns, we guarantee that we won’t. But in return, we need to get better handle on better regulation.’”

In 2000, the gun-control movement seemed finally to gain some traction when 750,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., in the wake of another spate of shooting rampages. Organizers of that rally tried to parlay the energy from the march into a full-scale grassroots lobby organization, but it soon collapsed under its own weight.

Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, conceded that the movement has been too focused “on policy, and not enough on grassroots organizing.”

“We have allowed this debate to stray from American values, and we have allowed the Tea Party and the far-right wing to define what those values are,” he said. “We have to change that. We have to talk about the Second Amendment, we have to talk about the Constitution, about freedom and liberty, in a gut level way.”