Over the last year, I have been doing some research about gun laws in the United States as part of a chapter I agreed to write for an edited anthology on the 21st Century Motherhood Movement for Demeter Press, forthcoming in summer 2011. My research led me to speak with Million Mom March co-founder Mary Leigh Blek. The writing project had me following numerous political races in which gun rights, gun control, NRA campaign contributions, and gun laws all played some sort of role.
In a twenty four hour period over this last weekend, I found myself – along with the nation – first reacting to the shooting tragedy involving Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona. Then, in my local community, just hours later, I received word that a Florida State University college student, Ashley Cowie, had died from an accidental shooting at the hands of a friend.
In the hours that ensued, I found myself turning back to the research as I wondered how policymakers and advocates – both for and against – gun control would react to and subsequently legislate in the wake of the Arizona tragedy.
I’m including a selected excerpt from my ongoing research in today’s post. The book chapter is in the revision stage and recent events will certainly impact the conclusions I draw as I write the closing words and finally hit the send button to my editor.
From “The Million Mom March”, 21st Century Motherhood Movement, Demeter Press, 2011, forthcoming.
In the United States, gun control is a partisan issue that tends to divide along political lines. The Republican Party supports the rights of gun owners as written according to the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Members of the Democratic Party tend to favor stringent gun control. In 2010, political newcomers in the form of the Tea Party also became a force in the arena of gun rights discourse.
The origins of America’s longstanding love-hate relationship with firearms are rooted deeply in this young nation’s colonial past. The right to bear arms was codified in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Revolutionary era patriots who would become the nation’s forefathers after independence had been won with guns. An inherent part of the American national identity is based on the historical foundation of hard won independence from imperial tyranny and the perception that the firearms of patriots carried the day.
Fast forward over two centuries later to the United States of the present day. Gun control has become a polarizing political issue. Organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) influence national elections and public policy with strategic financial infusions and well-organized media efforts to lobby for gun owners’ Second Amendment Rights while gun control advocacy groups such as the Brady Campaign organize and lobby for stricter regulation and stronger government oversight.
In 1999, victims of gun trauma launched a national campaign that offered a grassroots solution to the American gun epidemic. The Bell Campaign, modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), was created to prevent gun death and injury, and to support victims of gun trauma. To support victims of gun trauma, the Campaign offered information, education, and victim advocacy to survivors of gun trauma. As chapters developed, members offered compassionate support through self-help groups and resource referral.
In recent years, political campaigns and politicians expanded the gun control versus Second Amendment rhetoric in the wake of well-publicized shootings and proposed ballot initiatives. Since 2006, a global movement to limit the trafficking of small arms has gained impetus in the form of the International Arms Trade Treaty via the United Nations. Under President Bush, the United States cast the lone dissenting vote (172-1) against a measure that would implement tracing and controls to limit the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. In 2009, under President Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced a reversal of United States’ policy and issued a statement in support of the treaty.
The treaty is opposed by American gun rights advocacy groups such as the conservative U.S. think tank the Heritage Foundation, which said that it would not restrict the access of “dictators and terrorists” to arms but would be used to reduce the ability of democracies such as Israel to defend their people (“U.S. reverses stance on treaty to regulate arms trade,” 2009). The National Rifle Association, one of the most influential gun rights advocacy organizations and a powerful lobbying group in its own right, has also opposed the treaty. While the treaty addresses the illicit global trade of small arms, it does not limit the ability of sovereign nations to regulate gun ownership within its borders – as opponents seem to fear.
In Pennsylvania, gun control briefly dominated the public discourse in the 2010 governor’s race after a shooting in Philadelphia made national headlines. The shooter in the September 12, 2010 murder held a Florida gun permit that had been obtained via an Internet application – an application procedure that would be identified as the “Florida Loophole” by gun control advocates.
In Florida, where gun permitting is administered by the Commission on Agriculture and Consumer Services, the gun rights issue was not addressed by either candidate for that seat – even though crimes committed with Florida gun permits were making headlines in Pennsylvania and other states. However, the Republican candidate and ultimate victor in the race, Congressman Adam Putnam, had been endorsed by and received a sizable campaign contribution from the NRA. Speaking as the current executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida and past president of the NRA, Florida resident Marion Hammer stated, “Adam’s solid pro-sportsmen, pro-Second Amendment, pro-freedom record has earned him our endorsement and our gratitude. No other candidate in this race has the background of dedicated legislative service that he has demonstrated to the cause of freedom, the Second Amendment and protection of constitutional rights” (“NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida Back Adam Putnam,” 2010). Putnam’s stated stance assured Floridians he would be a staunch advocate on behalf of gun owners, “I have always fought to protect the Second Amendment, the rights for self-defense and have sponsored anti-crime legislation throughout my career. As commissioner, one of the most important responsibilities is protecting Floridians’ right to carry, and I will ensure that eligible citizens who seek a concealed weapons license receive the most efficient service possible” (“NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida Back Adam Putnam,” 2010). Elected on the same ticket in 2010, Florida governor Rick Scott also assured gun owners he would advocate for their interests, “As a member of the NRA and a hunter, I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. I will protect our fundamental right to keep and bear arms” (“Our Second Amendment Rights, 2010).
While Florida’s governor and the Commissioner of Agriculture enjoy the support of the NRA and the hunters, a number of Florida’s mayors have joined a national coalition for gun control, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The policy gap between the stance adopted by local leaders and the executive branch of the state is emblematic of the American cultural and political divide on the gun issue. The Mayors’ coalition, like the Brady Campaign and the Million Mom March, advocates for responsible gun ownership via government regulation,
“As mayors, our highest responsibility is to enforce the law and to protect the people we serve. One of the most difficult challenges we face in meeting this responsibility is preventing criminals from illegally obtaining guns and using them. The issue of illegal guns is not conservative or liberal; it is an issue of law and order — and life or death. We support the Second Amendment and the rights of citizens to own guns. We recognize that the vast majority of gun dealers and gun owners carefully follow the law. “
(“About the Coalition,” 2009).
The impetus for what would eventually become the Million Mom March began in 1994, on the streets of New York City, when Mary Leigh Blek’s son Matthew, a nineteen-year-old college freshman was murdered on a street in Manhattan (Kelly 216). Mary Leigh Blek, a continent away in California, was a former nurse and stay-at-home wife prior to her son’s death. Her son’s death motivated her to work for sound public gun policy while she learned to adjust to life without Matthew.
She would later learn that the fifteen year old who killed her son Matt got the gun via a street purchase. It was determined that the gun had been first purchased in a Southern state with more lenient gun laws and then sold illegally out of a car trunk in a New York City neighborhood. She wanted people to know, she said, “If it happened to me, it could happen to you.” (Blek, 2010, personal communication).
What she said next, though, and what she has done in the sixteen years since her son’s murder, however, has been remarkable.
Mary Leigh explained her motivation to turn her personal tragedy into a national movement to advocate on behalf of victims of gun violence, “The idea – the death of your child – is so sudden, so senseless, you want to stand on rooftops and shout so somebody else’s child gets to live.”
Blek, supporting what she terms “common-sense gun laws”, rather than a total gun ban, began to organize locally with other parents who had lost children to gun violence (Kelly 216). Her organization, modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), would eventually grow into the Bell Campaign, as an organization devoted to preventing gun death and injury, and to supporting victims of gun trauma (Bell Campaign, Kelly 216). Early group activities included aiding victims after the Columbine shootings in Colorado. The group expanded its efforts nationwide in 1999 with the aid of a $4.3 million grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.
She first organized the Bell Campaign with the intent of organizing mothers against gun violence. The organization would later join forces with Donna Dees-Thomases’ Million Mom March group – Thomases’ own response to the mass shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California.
Later, the organizations would merge with the Brady Campaign. Today, Blek’s ongoing advocacy goals and work include bringing accountability into gun ownership and having a background check for all guns.
Following the Roadmap Created by Mothers Against Drunk Driving
The mothers who coalesced to form what became the Million Mom March used a grassroots strategy modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is an organization considered to be one of the greatest grassroots organizing successes in the United States and was also started by a grieving mother (MADD, 2005). In May 1980, Candy Lightner’s thirteen year old daughter Cari was struck and killed in a hit and run accident by a drunk driver while she was walking to a church carnival. In the aftermath of Cari’s death, Candy Lightner and her friends would learn that there were no laws to address drunk driving in California and few legal avenues for victims to pursue in the court systems. MADD’s first office was located in Cari Lightner’s old bedroom (MADD, 2005).
As would happen twenty years later with the Bell Campaign and the Million Mom March, a movement that began on one side of the nation developed a face and a presence on the other side of the country when Cindy Lamb, the mother of Laura, a 5 month old drunk driving victim, the nation’s youngest paraplegic, started a MADD chapter in Maryland (MADD, 2005). In October 1980, Candy Lightner and Cindy Lamb became the national faces for Mothers Against Drunk Driving after speaking together at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Since 1984, economists, policy analysts, and the American Medical Association have expressed differing opinions on the effectiveness of the series of laws that became known as MLDA21s (American Medical Association, 2010; Miron and Titelbaum, 2009; National Highway Traffic Safety Association, 1989). However, regardless of differing viewpoints about the association between the reducing teen alcohol consumption and reductions in traffic fatalities, the influence of MADD as an advocacy organization that changed how an entire nation’s legal system and concomitantly, its culture, addresses the issue of drunk driving, is undeniable. The effectiveness of MADD’s advocacy efforts, including their role in shaping national discourse on drinking and driving has been a model for other social change campaigns.
The Growth and Evolution of the Million Mom March
Like Mothers Against Drunk Driving two decades earlier, the organization that first began as the Bell Campaign as a way to address grief and to advocate for the victims of gun violence grew state by state and chapter by chapter. After the Million Mom March in the United States’ capital with concurrent marches around the country, the organizers utilized early forms of social networking via the Internet and late night conference calls that fit into the busy schedules for working and stay-at-home mothers around the nation.
Lawyers, Guns, and Money
President Clinton, in the wake of the 1994 midterm elections, may have summed up the challenges faced by the Million Mom March when he stated, “The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the house” (Homsher, 2001). While the pendulum of public opinion swings from election to election and the rhetoric varies annually and state by state with each legislative session, the message of gun control advocates has remained constant. For the women who continue to organize and advocate under the auspices of the Million Mom March, gun control continues to be “about reinforcing a norm of responsible gun ownership and use” (Jacobs, 2002). The NRA, however, bills itself as, “as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights” (“A Brief History of the NRA, 2011). The organization, with nearly four million members, views attempts at government regulation as an encroachment upon Second Amendment Rights and has a successful track record of effectively mobilizing members on the state and national level.
Dr. Manny Shargel, FSU professor emeritus of Education philosophy, in response to the Arizona tragedy shooting, asked, “What would happen if everyone who wants sanity in our gun laws were to join the NRA and change its direction?” Good question, Dr. Shargel. What if we could somehow flip the paradigm on the current political discourse surrounding guns in this country and managed to shift away from the dominant “us versus them” polarization to a more community-minded collective perspective on how to find a middle ground between the protection or limitation of constitutional freedoms and the potential prevention of senseless acts of violence?
Between 2007 and 2010, the United State Supreme Court heard cases related to gun rights and the Second Amendment for the first time since 1939.
In United States v. Miller, the 1939 decision “suggested that the right should be understood in connection with service in a militia” (“Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Gun Control Case, 2007). In 2007, a case related to the Washington, D.C. handgun ban appeared before the Court and the ban was struck down. Subsequently, the McDonald v. Chicago ruling nullified “many city and state bans on handguns, but left the door open for carefully worded legislation that restricts gun ownership” by clarifying Second Amendment rights related to self defense for non-militia members (“Supreme Court Rules on gun control, Second Amendment,” 2010).
Other writers will argue about mental health issues and the stability of the shooter. Still others will discuss how to protect elected officials and what security measures should be implemented. Recently, a shooting incident in a Panama City, Florida school board meeting made national headlines. Similar concerns were raised.
Regardless of the twists and turns that the national discourse will take over the coming months, America’s long love affair with gun ownership will remain a salient issue. Proponents of gun rights often say that guns do not kill people, that people kill people. Okay, fine, I will accept that premise. If people kill people, and they can use a gun to do it, how do we determine which people should have access to guns?