America has a problem with gun violence. After
three high-profile mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in August 2019, the nation has been grasping at anything to try to find a solution. While politicians talk about red flag laws, background checks, and mental health, Americans around the country are asking what they can do. Well, take it from the people who have done it. Elite Daily asked for advice from gun policy activists who have advocated for change at every level, from getting started with their local organization to building a national movement — and they shared what they think are the most important things to know and to do.
On Aug. 31, the month began much as it ended: in tragedy, when a
shooter killed at least seven people near Odessa, Texas. In August 2019, at least 53 people died in mass shootings around the country, according to The New York Times, with 31 of those killed in two back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 and Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4. And even that is a drop in the bucket compared to the annual deaths involving firearms. According to gun safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, more than 36,000 Americans die from gun violence every year — an average of more than 99 a day.
But the troubling scale of the violence doesn't mean there's nothing you can do. Activists around the country are stepping up to motivate their schools, their communities, and all of America to take action on gun safety. For some, that means organizing within their schools and motivating fellow students to lobby or demonstrate. For others, it means pushing their representatives in government through phone calls and voting activism. For many, it means learning as you go and not being afraid to mess it up. For all, it means having the confidence to believe that your voice should be listened to.
Here's what these activists, from the grassroots level to the leader of a national movement, really want you to know about getting involved with gun activism.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Jessica Jin, 28, Organizer of Cocks Not Glocks
Jin is the founder of 2016's Cocks Not Glocks protest at UT Austin, in which thousands of college students openly carried dildos, which were banned from open display under the state's obscenity laws. The demonstration was in protest of concealed carry of guns on college campuses. The protest started as a joke Facebook event, and overnight, it turned into a protest with nearly 10,000 RSVPs.
Overnight, I became a gun control activist. Reporters were asking me why I did this and what my stance on gun control was, and I actually didn’t have a very good answer at first because I thought it was just a joke. I really had to dig deep and do my research. Because I found myself on a platform, I realized that I couldn’t just blow it off as a joke. I finally had the opportunity to do something thoughtful. That’s when I really had to realize, form a strong opinion now or never.
Young people need to be volunteering for 2020 campaigns. Either presidential, a congressional race, or a down-ballot race especially. The biggest thing is working for someone who’s working for your state legislature. They’re the people who need the most help, who are the most understaffed, underfunded, and people aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in state legislatures. But those are the people who are writing the gun laws that affect you and your community the most. That’s where a young person’s time and energy will go the furthest, I think: to knock on doors, to run social media for a campaign, to lend their media skills for creating new content, putting press releases out, doing literally whatever for a campaign to get someone elected in the state legislature — especially where gun laws are a contentious issue. I think we’re just noticing now how important down-ballot races are.
Brandon Wolf, 30, survivor of the Pulse Nightclub shooting
Wolf is a member of Everytown for Gun Safety's Survivor Network and the founder of the Dru Project, which provides scholarships to LGBTQ individuals and supports gay-straight alliance groups in schools in memory of Wolf's friend Andrew Leinonen, who died in the Pulse shooting in 2016.
In terms of regular, everyday people, what can you do? You can continue to hold your legislators, your lawmakers, accountable. We elected them. It’s not as if they don’t have a responsibility to us or it’s a popularity contest and we’re just trying to get through to the next election. These are people we are paying, every single day, to do what’s best for us. And that means it’s our responsibility as citizens to call, to write, to show up, to march, to sit in, to do whatever we have to do to remind them that if you want to get paid, if you want to sit behind that desk, if you want to represent me, then you need to represent me.
Taylor King, 21, activist with Students Demand Action at the University of Michigan
King, a senior at the University of Michigan, is a member of the national advisory board of Students Demand Action, the student activism chapter of Everytown for Gun Safety. The student chapter was launched in 2018 following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people. King is also a gun violence survivor who lost a loved one at age 10.
I think the most valuable piece of advice that I have gotten, and that I think I like to give, is that the most important thing you can do is just to start. When you start, you’re not going to have a million people in your group. [When]
my group started, it was my eBoard and three students and that was it. Now at the end of the year, we have about 15 students in addition to our eBoard.
There are so many different adult, student, [and]
faith leader organizations who are working on this, and asking for help is not something to be ashamed of. This is hard work and it’s a long fight, and if you’re willing to ask for help, and start small and go big later, then your growth knows no bounds — the impact you’re going to make knows no bounds. Students Demand Action gives a number of resources to new groups. We have budgets, we have trainings on how to develop groups, we have liaisons from the Moms Demand Action groups who will help students network, help them develop campaigns. If you’re interested in joining Students Demand Action, I always tell people to text STUDENTS to 64433, which will connect them to Everytown. Just find your community in this movement, because we’re huge and we always have room for more activists, so don’t be afraid to take the first step.
Alliyah Logan, 17, student activist and Director of Youth Engagement for Youth Over Guns
Logan is the director of youth engagement for grassroots organization Youth Over Guns, a youth advocacy group which works to emphasize the effects of gun violence in communities of color. Part of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, it was founded following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018.
My biggest advice — not even just for gun violence, in general — is to have confidence in yourself and your voice. If I would have had that way before, I would have had an easier time in activism. I think just literally having confidence in yourself to know that your story is valid, that you’re valid in every space that you get into, is such an important mentality to have.
If you don’t have that mentality, you’re going to continue to question all of your success in life. You’re going to continue to feel like you don’t deserve to be there, or you’re going to continue to question whether or not you should have said something more about this issue when you were at an event. When you get into these spaces where people don’t want to listen to your stories or if people haven’t been in — or haven’t met a person who has experienced what you’ve experienced — you’re going to start to question yourself. You have to have confidence in yourself before getting into the work that this takes because it’s draining. But you have to put yourself first, and you have to know that you’re important and you’re powerful and you’re unstoppable.
Zoe Terner, 19, chair of the Union for Reform Judaism’s gun violence prevention campaign
Terner chairs the gun violence prevention campaign of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), a faith-based group. In 2018, she led youth activists to lobby Congress on universal background checks.
To young people specifically, I would definitely tell them not to be afraid to raise their voices, especially in spaces that don’t traditionally have young voices — whether that’s at a town hall or on their synagogue board, or whatever. To not be afraid to pull up a chair and have a seat at the table, even if they’re not invited to, because it’s so important that we have young voices in this conversation.
For anyone who’s interested in getting involved in the work, or maybe doesn’t even know they’re interested yet but is upset and distraught by the gun violence in our country, I would say it’s not helpless. It feels, sometimes, like there’s so much work to do and how could we ever possibly achieve a United States of America without gun violence? We just all have to work really, really hard and give it everything that we have.
Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images Watts was a stay-at-home mother when the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 26 people, prompted her to start a Facebook group to call for action on gun violence. That group took off and became the grassroots group Moms Demand Action, which in turn, became a national movement. As of 2019, the organization boasts nearly 6 million members and chapters in every state. It is now part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which also oversees Students Demand Action.
You have to pull the levers of power that are available to you.
Women in this country are about 25% of Congress and 20% of state lawmakers. So those are levers that are not really available to us when it comes to making laws and policies that protect our families and communities. But we are the majority of the public, so we can use our voices. We are the majority of the voting electorate, we can use our votes. We make the majority of the spending decisions in this country, so we can use our spending power. And those are all levers of power that we pull as part of Moms Demand Action to force change. In 2013, I can remember dragging Starbucks into the middle of this issue kicking and screaming. Flash forward six years, and we’ve got Levi's coming to us proactively and asking, “How can we help?”
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t get involved in something that you’re passionate about. Don’t listen to the naysayers. But to that end, I would say find something you’re incredibly passionate about. I had never imagined I would be so passionate about gun violence prevention that I would wake up and volunteer to work on this every day of my life for six years.
There is a moral imperative right now for women to run for office. You don’t have to wait until you’re 47, which is the
average age for women to run for office in America. You also don’t have to run for Congress, you can run for school board or city council or a sheriff. Whatever that may be for you. Women should think about running for office right out of college, and not listen to those who may say they’re not ready or not qualified.