News of gun violence flashes across our screens daily and America's answer is to make guns easier to get, conceal and carry everywhere, from public schools to McDonald's. We're told, and many of us believe, we need even more guns to make us safer although Americans already own half of all the world's guns, some 300 million, and violent crime is at historic lows. Most Americans now believe owning and flashing our guns is a Constitutional right though few people saw it that way, including the U.S. Supreme Court, until a few years ago.
Step back in time for a moment to the year 1990. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans favored stricter gun laws. The Supreme Court Chief Justice, Warren Burger, a staunch conservative, described the idea that the Second Amendment guarantees us an unrestricted right to a gun as "a fraud on the American public."
Today, slightly less than half of all Americans still favor stricter gun laws and an individual's Constitutional right to a gun is widely accepted as fact. Even the Supreme Court changed, ruling in a landmark 5-4 ruling in 2008 that the Second Amendment does guarantee a right to own a weapon. In fact, many of us now believe guns define us as the rugged individualists we Americans like to see ourselves as.
So, how is it we Americans, alone among wealthy, educated nations, have developed this unique--some would say, counter-intuitive--culture of guns over the last 25 to 30 years?
The answer is of course the National Rifle Association. A group that started out to promote marksmanship and safety morphed into a single-minded juggernaut of policy and perceptual change. They raised tens of millions of dollars and organized millions of gun owners into a powerful, collective voice that transformed the way Americans now react to gun deaths, interpret the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and allow guns to define who we are. They were able to do this, in part, because the gun movement became one, collective, well-financed voice while gun control advocates remained underfunded and fractured.
Today, a search on Wikipedia for "gun control groups in the U.S." reveals 17 different organizations ranging from the Brady Campaign to the Children's Defense Fund. When you search "guns rights groups in the U.S.," Wikipedia yields one result in this "subcategory," as they call it, and that is the NRA.
It's not as if gun control groups don't try to unite. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence claims to comprise 47 national organizations working to reduce gun violence, but clearly they have yet to create a cohesive national voice for gun control as they compete with higher profile gun control groups like the Brady Campaign, the Million Mom March, etc. With so many voices, the gun control message gets blurred while the NRA's messaging is disciplined and focused. As the old Greek adage says: "United we stand, divided we fall."
While the sort of cultural and legal changes wrought by the NRA's cohesive voice don't happen overnight, they don't need to take decades, as they did in the case of the NRA's cultivation of a gun culture--not in today's hyper-connected, instantaneous 24-hour news cycle. The increasing speed of information makes the creation of a collective voice for change possible within years rather than decades. Consider gay marriage.
The group Freedom to Marry is credited with forming the pro gay marriage movement only a little over 10 years ago. Freedom to Marry just didn't launch a campaign, they partnered with organizations across the country such as the Courage Campaign in California, Equality Maryland and Marriage Equality Rhode Island to create a national, collective voice for the legalization of gay marriage. Ten years ago, nearly 6 in 10 Americans opposed gay marriage; today, 6 in 10 Americans support it and that support is increasing faster than ever before. Ten years ago, gays were unable to marry in the U.S.; today laws banning gay marriage are being struck down across the country.
All it takes is building a collective voice and doing so remains one of the most elusive tasks in public debate. Everyone wants their hand in the proverbial pie, even and particularly people on the same side of the debate. We see it in the plethora of gun control groups and lack of a national voice; even in the recent creation of former Mayor Bloomberg's $50 million gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety. Hopefully Mayor Bloomberg's resources and determination can make a difference in this debate, but one can only notice with little surprise the unilateral nature of the group's creation.
Another area where establishing a strong, collective voice for change has been a challenge is public education. Our public schools rank near the bottom internationally and while there are pockets of excellence throughout the system, overall our schools struggle, particularly those in the least affluent areas. So-called education reformers are trying to tackle this issue and have successfully pushed forth the national dialogue on improving K-12 public education in America. However, even more so than gun control advocates, education reformers are splintered into dozens of groups across the country, ranging from advocacy groups such as Student's First and Student's Matter to policy-driven grant makers like the Broad and Gates Foundations to charter groups to teacher-driven advocacy organizations like Educators for Excellence and The New Teacher Project. Even the Department of Education and the current Secretary, Arne Duncan, are part of this national reform voice.
However, those fighting to help kids get the public schools they deserve today have a unique opportunity to change this. There is a critical election in California that offers reformers across the country a historic chance to speak with a cohesive voice and to make a decisive shift in the paradigm that shapes the debate over the course of public education in the U.S.
In California, where the public schools rank among the worst in the nation, and where the forces against change in public education are among the most powerful in the country, the race for the state's top education office pits education change agent Marshall Tuck against the entrenched powers that have presided over the decline of California's public schools over the last several decades.
According to the most recent polling, the race is a statistical dead heat with Tuck slightly ahead of his opponent, 35-year veteran Sacramento politician who has been in the back pocket of the ed bureaucracy from the time he first got to the state capitol. It s a classic engagement of the leviathan-like powers of the education establishment--the forces of the status quo--against an agent of real change.
Across the country, those who stand for improvement in public education might want to look at this race and recognize this opportunity to push forward a transformative and powerful national voice for change. If this race in California can be won, and it can, reformers have the unique opportunity establish a decisive, cohesive voice for change in the largest state in the Union. As mentioned in the beginning of this blow, "When Many Speak as One, Anything Can Change."