A Grass-Roots Movement Gets Gun Law Changes in Pennsylvania
With an unrelenting series of mass shootings and the steady rain of gun violence in our homes and streets, we lament the lack of serious efforts to address the problem of guns as a leading cause of death in this country. The National Rifle Association seemingly has a stranglehold choking off serious debate.
In Pennsylvania, among the most gun-friendly of northern states, the Republican-controlled legislature passed, and the Democratic governor signed, a significant law that tightens controls over access to guns.
Yet in Pennsylvania, among the most gun-friendly of northern states, scarcely a month before this year’s midterm election, the Republican-controlled legislature passed, and the Democratic governor signed, a significant law that tightens controls over access to guns by people convicted of domestic violence or under court order to block such violence.
There are two tracks in the law. The first addresses persons under court order, the second, persons convicted of domestic violence. The requirement to surrender firearms to authorities, rather than to friends or relatives, is strengthened in both contingencies. This law will unquestionably save lives.
It was a long time coming. An alliance of citizen groups including CeaseFirePA and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America have been assiduously lobbying the issue for years.
What were the keys to success? It’s not easy to pin that down on such a complex issue, but I suggest a few things.
- First, advocates (I’m thinking particularly of Moms Demand Action) worked hard to build a grass-roots organization throughout the state, including in the conservative center of the state) that could lobby individual members repeatedly, learning about their concerns and feed those back to those creating the legislation.
- Second, they also worked hard to win over popular support—collecting signatures at tabling events; writing letters to the editor and op-eds; and reaching out to media for radio shows and TV coverage of their events.
- Third, they were extremely careful to maintain a nonpartisan posture, not easy when the majority of activists were probably Democrats. But they avoided being written off as just another Democratic group.
- Fourth, they did not try to solve the whole gun issue in one bill. They decided on an issue (controlling domestic violence) that could potentially attract Republican as well as Democratic support, and stuck with that focus. They were even able to get the NRA to back off. The focus on people who are manifestly not law-abiding, who clearly pose a threat of violence, let most gun rights proponents vote for the bill without infringing the rights of the law-abiding citizens
Pennsylvania is not typically a state that leads on most issues, but it has led on this, with the help of some dedicated and astute activists like Moms Demand Action. We may hope that others can learn from this success.