When reports came in that a lone gunman had opened fire on a community college in southwest Oregon Thursday — killing nine and injuring nine before being shot dead by officers — an all too familiar wave of sadness and frustration swept the country.
“Why real gun control won’t happen in America,” read one headline on The Huffington Post. “Why does nothing get done about gun control?” asked another article in The Independent. And then, there was a chilling Daily News cover declaring “nothing’s changed.”
It’s easy to be pessimistic. Mass shootings this year in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, as well as earlier massacres in Virginia, Colorado, and Connecticut have left the distinct impression that the rampage Thursday at Umpqua Community College is simply the new normal. “Somehow this has become routine,” said a visibly angry President Obama Thursday, hours after the Oregon shooting. “The reporting is routine. My response here, at this podium, ends up being routine. We’ve become numb to this.”
But even though the political calculus in Washington has yet to shift in favor of gun control, and the National Rifle Association remains as powerful as ever, activists pushing for stronger gun regulations believe the winds are changing. With growing grassroots support, financial resources, and visibility that comes with each and every shooting tragedy, gun control advocates are optimistic they’ll soon follow in the footsteps of other successful social movements.
“We’re seeing a lot of encouraging signs, a swell of people getting involved,” said Ladd Everitt, communications director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “As with the recent debate about the Confederate Flag or gay marriage, I think a reckoning is coming to this country on guns and gun culture.”
Everitt is not alone in drawing a connection to the marriage equality movement. In fact, out of four gun control advocates interviewed for this article, three brought up same-sex nuptials without being prompted in any way.
“We’re taking a page out of the marriage equality playbook,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In the case of marriage equality, she explained, “there were activists working on the ground for years before Congress and the Supreme Court realized that this was the way the nation was moving.”
It’s an interesting connection to make, not just because of the similarities in grassroots support. As many marriage equality leaders will tell you, their victories in courts of law were attributed to a state-by-state approach of toppling same-sex marriage bans. Their success in the court of public opinion, meanwhile, came from decades of calls to come out of the closet.
On the state level, Watts said, the gun control movement is seeing tremendous progress. In the past two years, six states have closed loopholes that allowed for gun purchases without background checks — bringing to 18 the total number of states that now require background checks for some or all private firearm sales. Two more states, Nevada and Maine, look poised to follow.
“We’re close to a tipping point where half the states in the country have closed the background check loophole,” Watts said. “There’s a significant amount of momentum to show Congress that this is what Americans want.”
But the other factor working in favor of the gun control movement is visibility. In the fight for marriage equality, views evolved as more and more people started coming out, making it virtually impossible to go through life without knowing a gay person. Those positive relationships were what changed minds. And on the flip side, the same thing is now happening with gun violence — with every death, it’s becoming more difficult to go through life without being affected in some way.
“I think we’ve started caring a lot more,” said Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “How many times can people watch the news and just be grateful that this time, it wasn’t their community that was hit?”
Of course, gun control advocates still face many challenges. With almost five million members funneling cash into its Political Victory Fund, the NRA wields an enormous amount of influence over lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as candidates running for president. That power was on full display two years ago, following the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook that killed 20 children and six adults. While President Obama quickly responded by creating a task force to curb gun violence, NRA President Wayne LaPierre was unrepentant.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said in December of 2012. Months later, a bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases fell six votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to clear the Senate, which was then under Democratic control.
But gun control advocates have reason to be optimistic. In the past few years, they’ve developed their own wealthy organizations — such as the Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety — that allow them to compete on more of an even playing field with the NRA. They also have history on their side. After President Ronald Reagan and his press secretary, James Brady, were shot in 1981, it took Congress six votes over seven years before lawmakers passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated federal background checks on firearm purchases. If that episode taught gun control activists anything, it was that Congress doesn’t always get it right on the first try.
“It is so clear that we are in the middle right now of a tipping point,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, on a press call Friday. “Congress may not change overnight, but anyone who says it can’t be done is just giving them an excuse to continue on this deadly course of inaction they’re on.”
“We do not intend to let them off that easy,” he added.