Only last year, the National Rifle Association appeared to be on
the verge of losing its chokehold on Congress. The extremist pro-gun
group, peerless as a hardball lobbying force in Washington, found
itself fighting tough election-year battles on many fronts. Suddenly,
or so it seemed, the NRA was facing a formidable new foe: a predominantly
female, middle-class anti-gun movement driven by the appalling failure
of the federal government to respond to the spate of gun violence
that had erupted in suburban and rural schools.
The Million Mom March, the brainchild of New Jersey suburbanite
Donna Dees-Thomases, vastly exceeded organizers' most optimistic
expectations when it drew some 700,000 people to the National Mall
on Mother's Day 2000. "A lot of politicians looked at the crowd
that day and said, 'Oh my god. Here's the beginning of a real movement,'
" recalls Michael Beard, president of the Washington-based Coalition
To Stop Gun Violence.
The problem with the modern gun-control movement in the United
States, ever since it
was born with the Kennedy and King assassinations in the '60s, has
been its inability to assemble anything close to the kind of unified
national organization that might counter the NRA. Gun control has
been the domain of a few Washington organizations that have tended
to focus far more on issues analysis than political organization.
Their connections to state gun-control organizations, many of which
are shoestring operations in the homes of various brave souls, have
been weak. But the Million
Moms, with their state-by-state representation on the National
Mall, seemed poised to change that. Could the Million Mom March strengthen
gun laws the same way that Mothers
Against Drunk Driving toughened penalties for driving under the
& JANIEL ENGELSTAD/
While the NRA is a more formidable legislative foe than the liquor
industry--especially with its dubious claim that private gun ownership
enjoys constitutional protection--it appeared that the Million Mom
March would at least change the terms of the gun debate. And many
candidates who spoke out for stronger gun laws did emerge. Gun regulation
even arose as an issue in the platforms of Democratic presidential
candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley. (Bradley favored licensing
of gun owners and registration of handguns, while Gore supported
licensing but not registration.)
One should never make much of NRA alarmism--fear is the essential
tool the organization uses to extract money from its membership,
after all--but the pre-election rhetoric of the NRA did sound genuinely
fearful. And for good reason: A lot of anti-NRA candidates were
popping up and election-year polls were showing strong public support
for gun control. (Contrary to NRA rhetoric, polls consistently have
showed that Americans want stronger gun laws.)
When ballots were counted on November 7, the outcome was mixed,
but certainly no cause for pessimism among the gun-control forces.
While the NRA influence arguably may have kept Democrats from taking
over the House, gun control very likely stopped Republicans from
taking the Senate. Of the seven tight Senate races that the NRA
poured its money into, five of their candidates lost. The most humiliating
of these defeats was that of Missouri incumbent John Ashcroft, a
longtime NRA lapdog, who lost to a dead man. The NRA suffered other
embarrassing losses in Colorado and Oregon, where voters overwhelmingly
passed statewide ballot initiatives to close gun-show loopholes--which
exempt buyers at gun shows from the background-check requirements
of the Brady Law--despite massive infusions of NRA money to defeat
those efforts. And despite the NRA's efforts to defeat Al Gore in
the critical states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, he won both.
Of course, the NRA would go on to land its biggest prize, a George
W. Bush presidency, as well as the spectacular bonus prize of Ashcroft's
appointment as attorney general, but the election returns in general
contained a lot of troubling news for the NRA. The day after the
election, the Million Mom March's policy director, Eric Gorovitz,
issued a statement claiming that the election "demonstrated a dramatic
shift in the politics of gun laws. Eight years ago, few candidates
were willing to run on platforms expressly advocating the passage
of new gun laws. Yesterday, many candidates were elected after embracing
sensible gun laws in their campaigns. This shift demonstrates that
the once-powerful gun lobby can no longer control the agenda."
What, then, explains the congressional response in March when a
15-year-old boy at
Santana High School in Santee, California killed two classmates and
wounded 13 others, and an eighth-grade girl in Williamsport, Pennsylvania
was charged with wounding a schoolmate? Democratic Senator Charles
E. Schumer of New York, one of the strongest gun-control proponents
in Washington, called for only a voluntary "code of ethics" for gun
owners and their families.
The Million Moms marched
but the Democrats didn't follow.
And how does one account for congressional timidity on closing
the gun-show loophole? The Brady Law provides the FBI three business
days to complete a check, if it needs to go beyond the instant-check
database. (Since most gun shows occur on weekends, some buyers would
face the onerous burden of not getting their guns until the following
Wednesday.) The FBI has found that 95 percent of gun transactions
are approved within an hour and 73 percent within minutes through
the instant-check database. The 5 percent who must await further
investigation are, of course, questionable buyers who sometimes
turn out to be felons looking for instant firepower.
Nevertheless, a bipartisan compromise bill authored by Sens. John
McCain (R-Arizona) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) proposes
to cut the maximum wait to 24 hours--even though the FBI has stated
that if the background check had been 24 hours all along, some 17,000
transactions that were rejected on the second or third day would
have gone through. And the McCain-Lieberman bill would leave intact
a widely abused exemption that many gun sellers use to avoid scrutiny
by proclaiming their stock a "private collection."
How has it come to this? How has the NRA actually tightened its
control of the gun debate? For starters, of course, the president
himself is an NRA guy and the attorney general is so far gone that
he's trying his best to undo 62 years of federal legal precedent
on the meaning of the Second Amendment. (In May, Ashcroft told the
NRA that he supports their "individual rights" interpretation of
the Second Amendment, rather than the 1939 Supreme Court ruling
that the constitutional "right of the people to keep and bear arms"
was intended for state militias.) But many Democrats too believe
that gun control is a political loser. "The common view now is labor
people and white males went against the Democrats because of the
gun-control issue," Beard explains.
But Beard doesn't buy it. "The NRA successfully managed to spread
the myth that it was gun control that defeated Al Gore," he says.
"Most politicians now believe that gun control is a losing issue
for the Democrats --overlooking the fact that we got five U.S. senators
elected, that we passed the two statewide referenda by overwhelming
margins in the West."
The problem with the conventional wisdom--and polls conducted for
Beard's group by pollster Celinda Lake prove it--is that the rural,
blue-collar white males were voting against Gore regardless of his
position on guns. Beard argues that Gore's decision to stop talking
about even his mild gun control plans cost him the election. By
abandoning the gun issue, he lost the one demographic group that
gun control could have drawn into his camp: undecided and Republican
women from the suburbs. "Gore was way ahead with suburban Republican
women, and when he backed off--in the debate he couldn't even face
the issue--they lost commitment," Beard says. "The white males who
were going to vote against him no matter what, did. The white females
who were thinking of voting for him, didn't see any reason to any
Meanwhile, the new gun-control movement has been victimized by
its own expectations. Immediately following the Mother's Day march
in Washington, "a lot of people really went overboard thinking we
really had things in hand now," Beard says. After the march, the
number of Moms chapters proliferated, but when the Moms merged with
another new national gun-control group, the Bell
Campaign, the marriage proved disastrous. The organization deteriorated,
and in March, the NRA cheered the latest news from the Million Mom
March front office: 30 of 35 staff members were being laid off.
"We set the bar so high in terms of expectations that we couldn't
meet it," Beard says. "And when we couldn't meet it, people said,
'There's something wrong with the movement.' "
Americans have become numb to the astonishing levels of gun violence
in this country.
More than 30,000 Americans will die this year by gunshot and another
80,000 or so will be seriously injured. These are numbers that dumbfound
people from other industrialized nations, where death and injury from
guns is a tiny fraction of the American total. In 1996, 15 people
were killed with handguns in Japan, 30 in England, 106 in Canada,
211 in Germany--and 9,390 in the United States. Gun deaths among American
children are particularly horrifying. A 1997 article in Morbidity
and Mortality Weekly Report disclosed that among developed nations,
three-quarters of all murders of children under age 14 occur in the
This cover image was taaken
from Peace Signs: Youth
Anti-gun Violence Billboard Project. The Chicago project
paired six professional artists with six young artists to
design billboards against gun violence. The completed
billboards appeared throughout the Chicago area.
The other five billboards can be viewed here.
The NRA contends, with breathtaking cynicism, that this is the
price of freedom.
That price keeps going up. Last year, Professors Philip Cook of
Duke University and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University co-authored
The Real Costs, a book that aspired to tally all the direct
and indirect ways we pay for gun violence. They counted medical
costs, urban renewal-projects in areas devastated by gun violence,
taxes paid for protection of public officials, metal detectors,
loss of workplace productivity, etc. Their final tally on the annual
cost of guns in the United States: $100 billion.
But dealing with gun violence in the United States is a lot like
trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. By most counts, there
are more than 200 million guns in private ownership in the United
States, some 80 to 90 million of them handguns. The situation is
depressing. But there is reason for hope. For starters, the polls
still show that Americans want stronger gun laws.
What's more, the Moms--who now exist in some 230 chapters across
the country--have joined forces with the group known for 25 years
as Handgun Control Inc. The new combined group will be known as
the Brady Campaign
to Prevent Handgun Violence. Closing the gun show loophole tops
the group's agenda. But the Brady Campaign will also push for child-access-protection,
or CAP, laws--which would require gun owners to keep their guns
safely stored and inoperable, via trigger locks or other mechanisms--and
legislation that would give the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms the power to regulate guns
as consumer products. (Bizarrely, toy guns must meet certain safety
requirements established by the Consumer
Product Safety Commission, but real guns do not.)
The merger of the first nationwide grassroots gun-control movement
with the most established gun-control lobbyists on Capitol Hill
is cause for optimism. As of October 1, when that merger goes into
effect, the NRA will encounter an organization that has the potential
to be the most formidable opponent it has ever seen. The new activists
have a tough enough foe in the NRA, but their bigger nemesis may
be the congressional Democrats and other Washington insiders all
too willing to embrace the easy scapegoating of gun control for
the Democratic Party's own failures.
But the Democrats will look back on this retreat as a mistake.
"The polling all says it's very clearly not going away as a political
issue," Beard says, "and if the right people step up and push it
in the right way, it will move forward."