How the Gun Control Movement Is Lurching Forward

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 25 2013 7:51 PM

Hope Against Hope

How the gun control movement lurches forward, after its biggest defeat.

Anti-gun activists hold up signs against guns and the NRA while in McPherson Square in Washington April 25, 2013.
Anti-gun activists gather in McPherson Square in Washington D.C. on April 25, 2013

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

In its heyday, Occupy D.C. spread like kudzu over most of McPherson Square, conveniently located right between the White House and K Street. The encampment was razed 14 months ago; the only evidence that dozens of humans used to sleep, book-share, and “mic check” there is the sad, randomly patchy state of the grass.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

On Thursday, the grass was trampled one more time, for a cause. Occupy the NRA was starting its marquee media event in the park. The collective handed out new Shepard Fairey-designed posters, which featured an ironic NRA logo of a bird with a target on its chest and a slogan slightly less catchy than HOPE:

AMERICA, the Land Where God Saves & Satan Invests in Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines

A crowd of 60 or so activists gathered in front of a stage, flanked by novelty-sized checks that thanked lobbying groups “for shooting down common-sense gun laws.” Two dozen reporters flitted around, making the most of a rally that had been scheduled to happen nine days earlier, before the Boston Marathon bombing Occupied the news cycle. It was up to “activist and teacher” Justin Wedes to explain the connection between the movement, the march, and the restless anger over gun control’s April defeat.

“I’m not speaking for Occupy Wall Street,” he said. “Nobody speaks for Occupy Wall Street. I’m a teacher, and a concerned citizen. I’m seeing the violence happening across this country. I’m seeing young kids die. I’m seeing mothers crying. It’s unacceptable, and to Occupy Wall Street, and to every Occupier, it should be unacceptable because these deaths are profitable. It’s profitable to the groups whose names you see on these checks here.” So he joined their march, walked as close as possible to the lobbyists’ offices, and shamed those names. “I consider this a form of economic vigilante justice,” he said.

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The recent gun control debate, which lasted roughly from the week of the Newtown shooting to last week, saw an oddly controlled spasm of political activism. The Obama administration and pro-gun bill Democrats basically got to pick their advocates—victims’ families, Gabrielle Giffords, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg’s bottomless checking account. The angry people let into the Senate gallery last week were siblings and mothers of shooting spree victims, not Occupiers. These were the people Joe Biden met with, just today, not far from the Occupy gathering.

But that didn’t work. The next gun control campaign is more anarchic. Democrats pulled their Senate reform package because doing so meant—theoretically!—tweaking it and winning a vote later in the year. But they haven’t updated their applause lines. Democrats still describe “background checks,” however constructed, as something supported by “90 percent of Americans.” That’s after the White House’s pollster Joel Benenson told them that the support was soft, and told them why. “The American people already think that these gun safety proposals are in place,” said Joe Biden last month. After the other pollsters moved on, Princeton Survey Research made the calls and found support for any kind of gun bill slipping to a 49-45 yes-no margin.

Any gun control advocate who was honest with himself had to expect that. The Newtown shooting was in December; people have short memories, even for most sorts of national traumas. Some Democrats whisper that another shooting, another media frenzy, could restart the clock. In the meantime, they’re aimless. On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns belatedly released a report fretting about the “terror gap,” the fact that people on terror watchlists can buy guns. But there’s no evidence that the Tsarnaev brothers were on such a list. In 2007, Wayne LaPierre smacked down one legislative version of a fix by warning that it would bestow upon “a future attorney general of the United States—think, a Hillary Clinton administration—power to declare anyone to be a ‘prohibited person’ on a par with a convicted felon or fugitive from justice, all done in total secrecy.”

The goal of the December-through-April gun fight was simply to win, on anything. “There’s a cultural problem you need to deal with first,” said one of the Thursday organizers, Steve Clermont, as leaders told the marchers with the novelty checks to head to the front. “Once you pass a bill, then people who are up for re-election in 2014 win anyway, the attitude changes.”

The grassroots and the White House agree on that, completely. The entire Thursday march was structured to accuse lobbyists of literally profiting from murder—no other motivation was possible. But where’s the proof that a top-down strategy, a Senate win on something called “the gun control compromise,” would change this? The month of Obama-Biden gun control speeches during the pre-Manchin-Toomey lull got incredibly specific about the NRA, with the president mocking anyone who would worry about losing an A-plus rating from the group.

Shaming rural state politicians who crib NRA rhetoric doesn’t move them. It freezes them in place. “I'm so frustrated by the tenor of this discussion that this will solve a problem that it won't solve,” North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp told the Williston (N.D.) Herald this month, before voting against the Toomey-Manchin gun compromise. “People who have always been opposed to guns are making this about guns, when we should be making it about mental health.”

I walked in the mix with the Occupy NRA crowd as they crowded the first of the targeted lobby shops. They didn’t get close; police, who’d kindly let the marchers walk freely on D.C.’s main streets, formed a line in front of the building, several floors below the target’s office. (Also, no one leading the march remembered who the target was—Crossroads Strategies, maybe.)

“We need to get clever, like the NRA,” said Leah Gunn Barrett.* She was the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, one of the speakers at the rally, right after a mother whose daughter had been shot in D.C. “They’ve been working away at passing concealed carry laws in the states for years. That’s how you win, not with something at the federal level. We have to change norms, and that starts at the local level.”

Just then the protest actually got underway, and drowned out our conversation.

Down with lobbyists! Down with the NRA!

Correction, April 26, 2013: This article originally misspelled Leah Gunn Barrett's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)