Two years after Parkland shooting: NRA no longer runs the show

Two years ago today, 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Since that shooting, states have passed 137 new gun safety laws and rejected 90 percent of new legislation backed by the National Rifle Association. What is more, the first significant gun control bill passed at the federal level in more than two decades, The Bipartisan Background Checks Act, cleared the House of Representatives. 

This remarkable progress for gun safety policy represents a significant departure from legislative trends of years past, when calls for change stalled in the wake of similar mass shootings, including the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, and the Las Vegas shooting in 2017. 

In fact, in the 6 years between the Sandy Hook shooting and the Parkland shooting, two — thirds of the 600 new state — enacted gun laws were backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA).  

If history was any indication, observers predicted that laws introduced in the wake of the Parkland shooting were going to loosen, not strengthen, gun safety laws. Instead, politicians have embraced gun safety cause like never before. What changed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting to explain this progress?

A movement’s capacity to influence policy depends on the size of its membership, the availability of financial resources, and whether or not their members are an influential block of voters that mobilize for elections. 

Historically, the gun violence prevention movement has been deficient in each of these areas. But this has changed significantly since 2018. 

Shortly after the Parkland shooting, survivors organized the “March for our Lives.” Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Washington D.C. and over 800 sister marches across the United States to demand gun law reform.

Students from Parkland catalyzed the gun violence prevention movement, emphasizing how we could turn protests into actionable change through the upcoming midterm elections. In addition, new grassroots networks — established in response to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 — helped to bolster the movement.

In 2018, more and more candidates running for office began advocating for gun safety laws, while gun safety groups poured newly available resources into these races.  

Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords Law Center — organizations that were either founded or expanded significantly after Sandy Hook — invested serious financial resources into the 2018 elections, significantly outspending the NRA for the first time ever. 

The Brady Campaign endorsed over 100 gun safety champions — their largest electoral effort in over a decade — and students who organized “The March for Our Lives” toured the country to increase voter registration and mobilize young voters in an effort to boost election day turnout.

These new electoral efforts paid off. Polling from the 2018 midterm elections showed that gun policy was a top issue among Democratic voters, ranking higher than climate change, immigration, and the economy. More importantly, those who prioritized gun policy at the polls overwhelmingly voted Democratic.

In February of 2019, after Democrats gained forty seats and took control of the House of Representatives, the newly elected gun violence prevention majority passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act. Although this bill is currently gathering dust on Senator Mitch McConnel’s desk, it is the first gun control bill passed in the House since the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994. 

The momentum of the gun violence prevention movement continued through 2019. Gun safety became a key issue in Democratic presidential debates. In November elections last year, Democrats — vocally championing gun safety — won control of both the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate for the first time in 25 years, in an election where Virginia voters ranked a candidate’s position on guns as their number one issue overall, ahead of the economy and health care.

In 2019 alone, the gun violence prevention movement saw Democratic presidential candidates hold a 6—hour forum on gun violence, hundreds of mayors urge the Senate to pass background checks, Congress agree to a historic deal to fund $25 million in gun violence research, and 23 states pass 70 gun safety bills

The Parkland survivors galvanized the gun violence prevention movement. Assisted by the financial and organizational resources from national gun violence prevention groups like Everytown, Giffords, Brady, and growing grassroots networks across the country, gun safety advocates will continue to put pressure on legislators to act. The NRA no longer runs the show, and with 40,000 people have died from gun violence just in the last year, that’s a much-needed change.

Sophia Young is a fellow at the Brady Center for Gun Violence Protection. Her research on recent developments in the gun violence prevention movement is published as a chapter in the book, “Upending American Politics” (2020, Oxford University Press). 

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