Gun reformers must meet NRA at real battleground: state capitols

Gun reformers must meet NRA at real battleground: state capitols
© Greg Nash

Thousands of grade school students joined the “National School Walkout” on Friday to memorialize victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The demonstration caps the most extraordinary season of gun control action in modern U.S. history.

But this new wave of activism will succeed only if movement leaders drive for change the way framers of the U.S. Constitution intended it to happen.

Founders intent

There’s much focus these days on protestors exercising First Amendment rights, and the Second Amendment gets a lot of play, too. But neither amendment ultimately dictates how change happens. It’s the 10th Amendment that points to which way the gun policy pendulum will swing next.

The 10th Amendment puts the majority of power with the people and state governments, rather than the president, Supreme Court or Congress. It gives support and shape to which changes happen in this country, and which ones do not.

It was specifically designed to prevent broad federal shifts from occurring abruptly, favoring democratic state-based action.

Today’s gun safety advocates can take a page from recent successful movements. The sweeping social changes made since the Civil Rights Era — from smoking cessation, drunk driving reduction and LGBT marriage equality to gun rights expansion — occurred because reformers first advocated at local and state levels.

Take LGBT marriage: Its proponents carefully mounted court cases, supported electoral campaigns, lobbied and shifted social norms in each U.S. state — while postponing federal action. So by the time the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark 2015 same-sex marriage case, support across most states had already been won.

A similar approach worked for tobacco control; funders poured more than $500 million into grassroots state coalitions supported nationally by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. And that same incremental approach has worked for the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Facing history

Memorializing Columbine’s shooting victims offers a sobering moment to reflect on what changes have happened over the last two decades, and what changes have not.

One thing that’s certainly shifted is the policy environment. The Columbine massacre was carried out under the 10-year federal Assault Weapons Ban enacted in 1994. While opposing sides debate the merits of such bans, what’s most noteworthy is the United States had a strong federal law.

Why was the federal assault weapons ban a political reality in the early 1990s, but not today? The reason lies in strong grassroots coalitions: Gun control groups had them at the time, and the NRA did not — yet.

Turning grassroots gold

When the Assault Weapons Ban and Brady Bill became law, the NRA had a very small and loosely-defined grassroots office. This soon transformed into a full-blown grassroots division, as the NRA formalized and built out member-facing programs — a shift that would prove key to subsequent legislative and electoral successes.

By ratcheting up its membership to nearly 5 million and channeling gun owners’ passions and concerns into electoral and legislative results in municipalities and states, the NRA turned its grassroots gold. 

Since Columbine, the NRA has leveraged its grassroots membership to systematically and deliberately advocate in a majority of U.S. states to defend and expand Second Amendment freedoms, such as passing preemption and open carry laws in the majority of states.

Ever wonder why there’s never has been a major gun rights march on the U.S. Capitol? Because Second Amendment proponents recognize how the framers intended for change to happen. That’s why after #NeverAgain’s March for Our Lives last month, gun rights advocates responded with rallies in multiple state capitols — not on the National Mall. 

After Columbine, leading gun control groups focused less on grassroots, but that’s recently changed. In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, Everytown for Gun Safety was established and has since galvanized more than 4 million supporters through chapters in every U.S. state.

By investing heavily in grassroots state-based campaigns, Everytown and their gun safety allies have blocked the NRA on multiple fronts — from stymying concealed carry reciprocity and preventing guns from being allowed on campuses and in most K-12 schools, to passing laws in 25 states and Washington D.C. to avert domestic abusers from owning guns.

For the first time in modern U.S. history, the gun control movement matches the NRA in volume, intensity and state-based action. And now #NeverAgain students are adding more fuel to the fire.

They’re also applying their civics lessons as well. When Florida’s #NeverAgain young leaders made their first move, they didn’t march on Washington. Instead they boarded buses for Tallahassee, convincing their governor to tighten gun laws.

The students didn’t win every demand, but their early success bodes well for gun reform in other states in the wake of the recent National School Walkout.

But the walk-outs won’t matter unless students now walk in to state legislatures, city councils, town hall meetings, and into voting booths in November. To prevent more gun violence, advocates young and old must recognize #10A while exercising their #1A rights, just as #2A proponents have done of late, if they want to win—which is just as the Framers intended.

Leslie Crutchfield is author of, "How Change Happens: Why Some Movements Succeed While Others Don’t," and executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI) at the McDonough School of Business.