Terri Rousseau is a member of what she calls “the saddest club in the world”. She was forced to join it on 14 December last year when her daughter, Lauren, a teacher at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was shot dead along with all 14 of the young children in her classroom.
On that day, Rousseau was thrown together with the other members of club: the families of 26 children and educators who died in Newtown, along with survivors and victims’ relatives from previous mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Oak Creek and Aurora. The group acts as an informal self-help resource, providing mutual support, advice and consolation.
Almost six months after the Newtown tragedy, a new and far more significant phenomenon has begun to emerge from this unique collective. Out of its shared suffering, a political movement is beginning to coalesce that is changing the nature of the gun debate in America and posing a formidable challenge to the country’s leading pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
After decades in which the NRA was assumed to hold a vice-like grip over gun policy in the country – its will pointless to resist by politicians in state assemblies, Congress and the White House alike – an alternative voice has suddenly surfaced, with the potential to redress the balance. At its front and centre are the Newtown families, who are turning grief into a political force to be reckoned with.
President Barack Obama drew on that force as he sought to introduce a new bill that would have extended FBI background checks to all gun sales. The attempt failed in a vote in the US Senate on 17 April that fell six votes short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster.
But contrary to the general impression that the gun debate has yet again stalled, with the NRA winning the day, the struggle for new gun safety laws has in fact been taken up a notch since the April vote. In the short term, the Newtown families and their allies hope to secure a second Senate vote that might break through the 60-vote ceiling and put universal background checks on the statute books. But even if that fails again they have their eye on a long-term goal: to achieve nothing less than a sea change in America’s attitude towards gun safety and end forever the NRA’s stranglehold on the issue.
That determination was on display recently in Dayton, Ohio, where Rousseau, who had travelled from her home in Danbury, Connecticut, addressed a hall packed with local people, politicians, gun control advocates and police chiefs. She handed out photographs of her daughter, printed with an appeal: “In her memory, please be a persuasive voice for peace on Earth.”
Rousseau began her brief, tear-filled comments haltingly, explaining that as a copy-editor for a local Connecticut newspaper she was not accustomed to public speaking. But then she unleashed the emotion of Newtown. “Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. I was forced to do this with my only daughter, Lauren, when she was brutally murdered in the classroom in front of her little students. You cannot imagine the searing pain until it happens to you.”
From the visceral impact of that terrible experience, Rousseau then delivered a political punch:
Why can’t we pass gun legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales? There’s no good reason for not doing this – it can only make all Americans safer. It wouldn’t bring my daughter back, but nothing will.
In an interview with the Guardian, Rousseau explained that the urge for action became an imperative for her very soon after her daughter’s death. Within a week of Adam Lanza’s rampage through the school with a military-style semi-automatic assault rifle, she had begun to attend meetings in the homes of other bereaved Sandy Hook parents. Within a month, families from mass shootings in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Seal Beach and Aurora had arrived in Newtown to attend a private group meeting of the “saddest club in the world”. Organisers were appointed, plans laid, strategies devised and connections made to high-powered lobbyists, campaigners, lawyers and fundraisers, all volunteering their help for a cause that had suddenly found its time.
“We have become a tremendous political force partly because of all the people who care and who are donating their skills. Goodness is coming out of evil. What happened was so unspeakable you try to push it out of your mind by doing everything you can to make the world a better place in Lauren’s name,” Rousseau said.
The impact that the Newtown families have brought to the gun debate has been enhanced by the speed with which they organised in the wake of the tragedy, rendering their message to the American people all the more poignant because it was almost in “real time”. As Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, observes: “The turn around from bereaved parent to super-activist has shortened with each tragedy, from years to months and now with the Newtown families to just a few weeks.”
Newtown gave the movement for gun control a new focus – “parents aren’t supposed to bury their children”, in Rousseau’s iteration – every bit as dynamic as the NRA’s relentless banging of the Second Amendment drum. It also gave the gun control movement something that it lacked before Newtown – organisational strength.
Until 14 December, the NRA had the unrivalled upper hand, operating as it does a well-oiled network of millions of members who it enthuses through a constant round of conventions, publications and political campaigns. The NRA also had the advantage of an in-built recruiting ground for members, through the thousands of gun shops and firing ranges that are scattered throughout the country and are natural NRA sympathisers.
No such entry point existed for advocates of safer gun laws. There are no “victims shows” where support can be mustered.
That’s where the internet has come into its own. The post-Newtown gun control movement is consciously drawing upon the lessons learnt by recent political campaigns, including Obama’s presidential runs, in terms of the extraordinary uplift that can be gained through online organising, both in terms of cash and volunteering.
While the Newtown families are the emotional face of the movement, behind the scenes a sophisticated nationwide infrastructure is in place, spreading the message in a cohesive and co-ordinated fashion. Individual citizens who are passionate about gun safety can now find an outlet for their energies through the internet in a way that was never open to them before.
Established gun control advocacy groups such as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign have been joined by a plethora of new internet-fueled start-ups popping up across the US. They include Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by the former Democratic Congress member Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head in Tucson, and One Million Moms for Gun Control, which was set up by a woman in Indianapolis. The beating heart of this new network is Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), an advocacy group formed in 2006 by the New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Its director, Mark Glaze, believes that, finally, the gun control movement has found its voice and shed its long-lasting subservience to the NRA.
“For a generation the NRA had this issue all to itself. They had more grassroots supporters, more intensity, and a political operation that was not all it was cracked up to be but was better than nothing,” Glaze said. But now, he added:
We are putting in place a grassroots operation that’s capable of tapping the public passion for this subject and channeling it in a useful direction.
The NRA likes to boast about the 4 or 5 million members on its subscription lists, a number that has invoked hushed reverence in commentators on the gun debate. For the first time, the opposing gun control movement can now claim with justification an army of supporters every bit as great as the NRA’s.
MAIG has 1.5 million grassroots supporters signed up on its website. On top of that, there is the massive email list that Obama compiled during his two presidential campaigns and that has been used in its new guise – Organizing for Action – to deliver more than 1.4 million signatures to Congress, calling on members to pass a law expanding background checks to all gun sales. In addition there are a number of progressive online campaigns that offer their support, such as MoveOn.org with 7 million members and Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, with 1 million.
Money too is no longer the huge weakness that it used to be. As the New Republic points out this month, the gun control movement has until this moment been woefully outmatched by the NRA and other gun rights groups, which can draw on the largesse of gun manufacturers.
But with the bottomless resources that flow from Bloomberg’s vast wealth, put at $27bn, the inequality is fast closing. Bloomberg has openly stated his objective: he will use his fortune unashamedly to back “candidates who will stop people from getting killed”, and obversely to oppose those who do the bidding of the NRA and block new laws to promote public safety. The full scale of his vision is likely to become evident in the mid-term elections in 2014, by which time Bloomberg will have vacated the post of New York mayor and will be able to devote himself to the challenge. His aides have already indicated that through Independence USA, the political action committee or Super PAC that he created, he will target political races from Louisiana to Alaska.
So far, Bloomberg’s hit rate looks pretty good. Last year, Independence USA spent $10m on a blitz of TV advertising to support pro-gun control candidates and unseat the NRA’s favourites. That didn’t quite match the sum the NRA invested trying to do the opposite: $17m. Yet Bloomberg came away with arguably more palpable successes: he helped remove an NRA mainstay, Joe Baca, in California, and assisted Kathleen Kane to become attorney general of Pennsylvania, among other achievements. By contrast, the NRA spent $12m of its war chest on a failed effort to force Obama from the White House, and of the eight US Senate races it tried to swing, it won only one.
In his gun control activism, Bloomberg is fighting the NRA at its very own game: he is applying the same kind of pressure on politicians that the pro-gun lobby has long made the cornerstone of its advocacy – by holding them to account for their voting records.
“It’s going to take a campaign-style drive to get us to the number of votes we need to enact universal background checks, and we now know how to do this,” Glaze said.
It’s a matter of banging home the fact that background checks do not damage the Second Amendment and save a lot of lives, and over time with 90% of the public wanting this to happen politicians will ignore this at their peril. Finally we’ve reached the point where the human cost of a cavalier attitude to a crucial public safety issue has come home to roost.
In the short term, the new gun control movement hopes that the heat will be felt by several of the US Senators who voted against universal background checks, including four Democrats. A concerted and tightly co-ordinated push is being made in several of their back yards, including that of the Republican senator Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, where Bloomberg has taken out a $700,000 ad buy in an attempt to change her no vote.
“We are telling politicians: don’t fight these battles by the rules of the old war, don’t think about the NRA – the rules of the engagement have changed,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is spending $150,000 on TV and newspaper ads in Montana and North Dakota in an attempt to persuade senators Max Baucus and Heidi Heitkamp to switch their no votes.
The same ambition to find those missing votes and put universal background checks back on the floor of the US Senate brought Terri Rousseau to Dayton. In her case, it was the desire to turn up the temperature on Rob Portman, one of the 41 Republican Senators who voted against the bill in April. A life-sized photograph of the Ohio Senator was posted on the wall of the conference hall where the rally was staged, its caption saying: “Senator Portman, take a second look at comprehensive background checks.”
“The NRA are very powerful now, but I think we are making some progress,” Rousseau said, after the rally. “I think as people become more aware of how the NRA works and what its ties are to the gun industry, eventually they will come to understand that their motives are not so pure.”
Rousseau said that she is minded to remain active in the movement for greater gun safety for a number of years, “until something is done. I’ll keep at it until the laws are strengthened.”
She is clear about this: all her labours are for Lauren. “Just the idea of all those children being slaughtered. I’m just really glad she went first, that she didn’t watch that happen to the kids. Lauren would be in favour of anything that I or anybody else can do to make the world a safer place for children. She loved them so much.”