Are you a socially conscious, motivated individual who wants to get involved in the movement to stop gun violence but doesn't know where to start? I've been there.
I am about to earn my Master of Social Work degree from New York University and I have worked in several underserved neighborhoods plagued by gun violence in recent years. I've counseled students mugged at gunpoint on the way to school in Brooklyn and supported a woman as she mourned her murdered son in Harlem. Unfortunately, most of my clients have been affected by gun violence.
Yet, I recently realized that I have done nothing to address this epidemic. In fact, I felt constricted by defeatism, numbed by the notion that no-legislation-after-Newtown meant we would never secure meaningful laws to prevent gun violence. After the mass shootings at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood and a San Bernardino holiday party, I decided I had to take action.
But I didn't know where to start.
So I immersed myself in the movement to stop gun violence in order to identify concrete steps that individuals can take to challenge gun culture, promote responsibility and advocate for effective laws. Here's what I learned:
First, I had to recognize gun violence as a manmade public health crisis, shake off my defeatism and get educated
Each year, 117,000 people are shot and 33,000 are killed by guns in the United States. Gunshot victims could fill every seat at the University of Michigan's massive "Big House" and there would still be about 9,500 corpses piled on the field.
Fortunately, our country has tackled many other public health crises. We have deglamorized cigarette smoking, condemned domestic violence and shamed drunk driving. We recognized problems and alleviated them. So why surrender to the notion that we can't significantly reduce gun violence?
My defeatism enabled my ignorance and complacency. I allowed myself to retreat from bouts of fury following prominent mass shootings and I never educated myself about guns.
Conviction grounded in information drives activism. When I called Toni Wellen, founder and chair of the Coalition Against Gun Violence, a community-based organization in Santa Barbara, CA, she encouraged me to get started by learning the laws and facts about gun access, ownership and violence.
"Get informed. What are the gun laws in your state? Learn about that. When they talk about large ammunition clips, what do they mean?" Wellen said. "People need to get educated. It takes some research and conversation."
After I spoke with Wellen, I reviewed New York's gun laws at SmartGunLaws.org, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence's user-friendly, legislative encyclopedia. I learned that New York bans large-capacity ammunition magazines that either hold more than seven rounds or that can be converted to accept more than ten rounds. New Jersey caps ammunition magazines at fifteen rounds. Meanwhile, Georgia, Texas, North Dakota and several other states have no such restrictions.
The lack of state regulations astounded me. I had always heard about meager gun legislation, but I had never investigated until I visited the Gun Law Scorecard, a great infographic that assigns a grade to each state based on the strength of its gun laws. Six states, including New York and New Jersey, received an A- (no state received an A). In contrast, twenty-six states, including every state south of Virginia, got an F. The failing states do not regulate the number of firearms an individual can purchase at one time, a discovery that led me in my next direction
I had to learn how lax laws generate crime-guns.
I did some qualitative research by asking one of my clients, a man who served twelve years in prison on gun-related charges, about firearm access in Brooklyn. "There are more people selling guns around here than you can even imagine," he answered before describing a guy who hocks pistols nearby.
Where does the guy get the guns? I asked.
People take a bus to Texas, "buy a bunch of guns without even having to do paperwork" and travel back to New York City, he explained.
My client captured the behavior of "Bad Apple" gun dealers. According to the Brady Campaign, 90% of crime guns come from just 5% of gun dealers who enable straw purchases or who sell guns without necessary paperwork and report them as lost or stolen. Illegal guns are easily trafficked from the Bad Apples to the Big Apple. For example, 70% of crime-guns recovered in New York traveled up the "Iron Pipeline" from Southern states, like Georgia.
Nevertheless, gun advocates often assert that restrictions don't work because gun violence continues to ravage cities that regulate firearms. That argument fails when we consider how easy it is to import guns from laissez-faire dealers. It's not a coincidence that crime guns come from unregulated places.
Armed with information, it was time for me to get involved.
Did you ever start something new, process a torrent of exciting information and grandiosely think of yourself as an expert? The material is new to you so you fantasize that you discovered it? When I first started researching gun violence, I thought I was getting in on the ground floor, or at least, like, the third or fourth floor. Something walkable.
Ha! I had merely parachuted onto the observation deck of a well established activist tower. People have dedicated their lives to this work. Wellen, for example, started the Coalition Against Gun Violence more than twenty years ago. Chad MacDonald, an activist and writer in New York City, said he committed to stopping gun violence when his wife was pregnant with their son in 2012.
"My life is no longer my own," MacDonald said. "I had to get out there. I had to start busting my ass to make change happen."
MacDonald encouraged me to join three prominent national organizations, the Brady Campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety and its affiliate Moms Demand Action, to learn about major initiatives and local events. He also recommended the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. I had heard of these organizations before, but I had never taken the time to visit their websites and review their initiatives. In the past, before I started to seek information, it was easier for me to just dismiss their efforts.
I encountered MacDonald by searching Facebook for anti-gun violence groups and reaching out to members. I quickly discovered a huge network of grassroots activists online and on social media beyond the more mainstream organizations.
Facebook features a ton of campaigns. I started following Sandy Hook Promise, Gun Contol. Now., Take Aim on the NRA and One Million Moms and Dads Against Gun Violence for fresh information and ideas delivered straight to my newsfeed.
I'm a redditor so I subscribed to r/GunsAreCool, which is stuffed with articles and commentary on firearms. The sub's moderators built the oft-cited Shooting Tracker, the first website to compile a list of all mass shootings in the United States.
"Social media is currently the best way to engage the most people," r/GunsAreCool moderator J. Jones said in an email. "If a community started on reddit can make an impact like we have, there is no telling what the next thing will be to bring more people over to our side."
Finally, I added TheTrace.org to my bookmarks bar. The Trace is an independent, nonprofit media organization dedicated to coverage and research about guns in the United States. The well designed site has great articles and information about the gun violence epidemic. My favorite is their handy guide for debunking pro-gun myths like the famous "Guns don't kill people" argument:
Lawnmowers don't mow lawns, people mow lawns. But if you want to efficiently and quickly mow a lot of grass, you are going to need a lawnmower. In other words, the tool matters. Firearms make it easy to kill people, efficiently, effectively, and at a distance.
Now I hope to educate others. But how?
"Bring it up in the calmest setting you can," Jones advised. "Find the red herrings of the anti-control argument and learn to discuss them patiently. Do it over drinks or while playing video games."
I believe it is my responsibility to reach out to family, friends, clients, classmates and colleagues in order to help them join the movement against gun violence. We all have an individual role to play in reducing violence and challenging irresponsible gun ownership by committing to non-violence in our personal lives and by sharing information with the people who respect and care about us.
"Work on conflict resolution," Wellen said. "Find ways to resolve conflict without anger or violence."
Wellen also encourages individuals to discuss gun safety with people in their lives.
"If your kids go to a relative or a friend's home to play, you ask the parents, 'Do you have gun and if you do, how is it stored?'"
Meanwhile, I will keep Tweeting and writing my members of Congress and other local lawmakers.
"People call it 'slacktivism,' but it's actually quite effective," MacDonald said. "It's an accurate voice of what [constituents] are really thinking."
Join me. You can find your member of Congress here and their Twitter handle here. Find your governor's contact info here and your state lawmakers here. Tweet at them and send them an email demanding they take action to address gun violence
Let's educate ourselves, share our knowledge and commit to stopping violence.