Gun-control groups focus on changing the conversation at the state level and with new allies

Faced with well-funded opponents and an unfriendly Congress, gun-control groups are bringing new advocates into the fold as they find more success in state capitals than at the national level.

After nearly every mass shooting – and there have been 10 in the past year alone – Americans renew the debate of enacting stricter gun laws versus defending the Second Amendment.

This time is no exception. After the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history last Sunday at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Americans are again paying attention to the gun-control debate. Politicians have spurred some of the media coverage by ramping up the focus on guns, such as Sen. Chris Murphy’s (D-CT) 14-hour filibuster to urge Republicans to vote on two gun bills in Congress.

Gun-safety and anti-gun-violence groups have also ramped up their messaging and lobbying following the shooting. Organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence are putting out extra calls to action, encouraging gun-control bills in Congress, and distributing information about gun violence and gun safety.

Their biggest challenge: the other side is equally vocal – and well-funded.

"It really is the ‘David versus Goliath syndrome’ going up against the NRA and other lobby groups with better funding," says Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The NRA spent $3.6 million on lobbying in 2015, compared with Evertown's $1.4 million, according to data sourced from

There have been more than 100 bills related to guns introduced in Congress in the past year, covering issues from gun violence research to defending gun rights. However, even in the past five years, in which mass shootings have killed scores in places from Newtown, Connecticut, to Aurora, Colorado, very few of those bills are signed into law.

Part of the problem for gun-control groups is that the issue generally splits lawmakers along party lines, with Republicans, who hold majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, largely in support of protecting gun rights.

"The challenge is the Republicans are largely beholden to the gun lobby," explains Matt Canter, SVP at Global Strategy Group.

One way around Congress is to aim for the state level, where people are closer to their government and tend to have a bigger impact on it, says Stacey Radnor, deputy director of communications for Everytown for Gun Safety.

She cites success with a bill in Georgia, a reliably red state, where Everytown activated its supporters on the ground to speak out against a bill allowing guns on college campuses. The bill passed the legislation, but Governor Nathan Deal vetoed it after constituents were organized and supported by Everytown’s vocal opposition.

"People always say, ‘Nothing is happening on the gun-safety issue,’ but if you turn to the states, you can see a real shift when it comes to gun politics," Radnor says.

Gun-safety groups say grassroots work is where they shine. Everytown for Gun Safety has more than 3 million supporters and a chapter in every state, she adds. The group activates these supporters after events like the Orlando shooting, when gun laws are top-of-mind for most Americans.

Polling by The Huffington Post and YouGov found that the number of respondents who want stricter gun control increased from 48% before the Pulse shooting to 55% afterwards.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has two goals for its supporters: get the facts and be bold, Everitt says. The group wants to give boosters confidence that what they are saying is correct and that they can go up against gun-rights supporters, he adds.  

"We try to reframe gun culture to make [gun-rights supporters] who appear threatening an object of ridicule and take away the fear," Everitt says. "More often than not, they’re guys in their underwear in their mother’s basement, and we have to remind people of that."

The NRA is the best-known pro-gun-rights group in the U.S. with more than 5 million members and vocal leadership. However, Canter contends many NRA members support common-sense gun laws, like not allowing people on terrorist watch lists to buy firearms, while Radnor says the group’s leadership is often swayed by its "extremist leadership."

"The NRA is able to leverage an advantage in this debate because they are very rooted in American life outside the political sphere, providing services to people like gun permitting," Canter says. "Rather than responding to the concerns of NRA members, who are law-abiding gun owners and who favor these kinds of common-sense reforms, they are trying to cater to the extremes."

The NRA and the National Association for Gun Rights did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Canter contends that the tide in the gun debate is changing. As gun-control groups such as Everytown, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence gain supporters, the more powerful their message is becoming.

"Too many politicians and political observers still think we're in 1994, and the politics are the same, but the politics on this issue have changed dramatically," he says. "Now it’s a movement that's gaining victories and gaining messengers. Politicians at the highest level, like Hillary Clinton, are talking about his issue proactively and talking about in a new way."

Canter notes that gun-control and gun-safety organizations are bringing new voices into the fold, such as retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who launched a group called the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense with retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly last week. Kelly is the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

Congress has not voted on any gun bills since the Orlando shooting. In the meantime, Everytown and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence are working to get supporters to contact their lawmakers.

As of Thursday afternoon, Everytown’s supporters had made more than 47,000 calls to legislators since the Pulse shooting and nearly 100,000 people had signed a petition asking Congress to take action, Radnor said.

"The groups have addressed the problem in a whole new way, appealing to the middle, providing inspiring leadership that transcends party, and offering common sense solutions to this problem," Canter said. "They’re emphasizing this is not an intractable problem, but something we can make progress on."

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