In 2015, Evan Wolfson had the rare pleasure of witnessing the culmination of his life’s work when the Supreme Court affirmed his constitutional vision of nationwide marriage equality. For many Americans, the battle for same-sex marriage rights appeared to have been fought and won in just a few years. But Wolfson began advocating for the freedom to marry in 1983; he spent the next several decades pushing past a series of crushing losses before finally seeing his goal come to fruition.
Since the marriage-equality victory, Wolfson has advised other progressive causes, including the gun control movement, to help them strategize and mobilize most effectively. On Thursday, we spoke about what gun control advocates can learn from the marriage-equality campaign in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Our interview has been edited and condensed.
What would you tell gun control advocates who feel despondent that, after so many gun massacres, they still have not achieved any success in Congress?
I would tell them not to be despondent and not to ever say that you feel stuck or immobilized, or that it will never happen, or that we can’t make it work. Every time you say that, you augment people’s sense of helplessness—and you give an excuse to those who don’t want progress to occur.
Instead, we have to constantly say that we expect Congress to act, that we expect the courts to get this right, that we can beat the NRA, that we can correct the wrong that the Supreme Court did, and that we can get political actors to act. We have to create a sense of expectation to which decision-makers will rise, rather than an excuse for inaction.
After the Newtown shooting, many progressives concluded that if Congress would not act on gun control following the slaughter of 20 children, it would never act. Can you speak to the sense of hopelessness that follows a high-profile defeat?
We took many hits and many losses. There were long stretches when we thought we were going to win and didn’t. We took blow after blow. We had difficult, painful patches and missed opportunities. And yet, here we are—we won.
You never say you can’t do it. You never say it can’t happen. You never the give the opposition the satisfaction of walking way from the fight. You always have to be creating space for the decision-makers to rise to fairness, and to not have an excuse for inaction.
Newtown was terribly painful, and Congress’ inaction was appalling. But look at the momentum we’ve seen this week. Something worked. At least we got senators to have the resolve to mount a filibuster. We’ll see what comes of this—but either way, we will continue the pressure, and we will mobilize. Meanwhile, there is a cumulative effect. And if it didn’t crest after Newtown, it will keep accumulating.
What else do you think gun control advocates could learn from the marriage equality movement’s highly effective strategies?
I am not claiming to be an expert in gun control or to know all the answers. Having said that, there are some relevant parallels and relevant lessons to be adapted. For instance, we worked on all tracks, all at once. We didn’t buy into a false “either/or”—the courts or the legislature? Public education or the inside game? State or federal?
We rejected that and mapped out a strategy that entailed working on synergistic tracks that employed multiple methodologies of social change, to borrow Dr. King’s language. We consciously wove a strategy and mounted a campaign to drive forward on all of these tracks and reinforce one with the other wherever necessary. When we were stuck on any one, we pushed on the other.
Marriage equality proponents faced many adversaries, but no single group as powerful and well connected as the NRA. Does the NRA’s dominance pose a special burden to gun control that the marriage equality movement never faced?
Not at all. If anything, it gives reason to hope that, with the right combination of investment, action, and inspiration—which I think gun control advocates are beginning to bring to bear in a much more concerted way—we should be able to move this. The fight for the freedom to marry had to build public opinion to change what most people saw as unattainable, and even an oxymoron, into something attainable and worth fighting for.
We already have massive public numbers in favor of most of the actions that gun control groups are prioritizing. What we also have, unfortunately, is a dysfunctional political system, and one highly capable political entity that’s built and wielded political power. That means we need to build a political entity that can build and wield political power just as effectively.
And that’s totally doable. The gun control groups in the last few years have really ratcheted up their efforts to show political power in action. That encourages decision-makers to move in the right direction. They just need to stick with it—and encourage people to join in and not fall prey to cynicism and despair.