To beat the NRA, learn from it
Talking to journalist Dave Cullen, a rare optimist on the American gun nightmare, about how the movements to end it can finally win
“The game has changed,” the journalist Dave Cullen told me the other day.
He was speaking after another mass shooting and right before another another one. But he was professing a stubborn optimism.
He believes the American movements against gun violence are actually winning. Not tomorrow, not next month, but winning the long game. He believes the NRA has peaked and is in a protracted political retreat.
Dave has been writing on these subjects for a long time. He is the author of two books on the gun violence crisis and the people working to end it — “Columbine” and “Parkland.” He is presently working on a new book about gay soldiers.
I know a lot of you have been asking not only what is happening on this issue, but also what you, individually and together, can do. I put that to Dave, who had great ideas.
If you enjoy these interviews and posts, would you support our work by subscribing today?
“The NRA’s staggering success is the strongest demonstration I’ve ever seen of the power you can wield in democracy”: a conversation with Dave Cullen
This month, we have experienced yet more evidence that America's gun nightmare remains in full swing. Yet you have argued, counterintuitively, that the forces for gun reform are actually winning the long battle. Make that case to me.
I can summarize it one sentence: Mitch McConnell, the primary force blockading gun safety legislation for two decades, personally blew a hole in it last summer. He not only flipped a U-turn and voted for the first federal gun safety law in a generation; he also led 15 members of his conference to defect. (The legislation needed 10 Republican Senate votes, which had always seemed unthinkable. With Mitch’s flip, they got 15. And most of them from the South and/or deep in gun country.)
Mitch knows which ways the political winds are blowing. Love or hate him, he’s one of the smartest minds in the country on that. He didn’t declare war on his staunch ally the NRA lightly. And we know why he did it, because he told us. In a closed-door meeting, his team presented stunning internal polling of gun-owning households. Mitch summarized it for reporters afterward: “Support for the provisions of the framework is off the charts, overwhelming.” He told his conference the suburbs were slipping away from them, and guns were a key reason why. No suburbs meant no more red waves. Nearly a third of Mitch’s conference jumped with him. On the very first jump.
Now there’s not a chance that one modest bill is going to bring the suburbs back into their fold. Mitch knew the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was not a one-off. It was his first concession, the first of many they will have to make. Not because they want to, but because they finally have to.
It’s been a long time coming. Here’s a capsule of what has been changing under the radar for ten years:
When I published Parkland: Birth of a Movement, I was a bit taken aback that Shannon Watts — the founder of Moms Demand Action, tweeted something snarky at me. I didn’t save the exact wording, but I remember the gist vividly. Essentially: Maybe someday you’ll write a book about the moms who actually birthed this movement. I let that go, but in my head, responded with something like: Yeah, God love you all for trying. Too bad you keep hitting a brick wall. Those kids actually started changing the game.
Because the kids had, BTW. The 2018 midterms were the turning point for the gun safety movement. And also the year of a more seismic change: after getting eviscerated by the NRA every goddamn year since about the 1980s on state legislation, the gun safety side flipped that in 2018. And they flipped it big, winning heavily. That’s the canary in the coalmine, because virtually all the battles on actual legislation have been taking place at the states.
But that last bit, about flipping at the state level, even as I answered Shannon in my head, tweaked something in me. The Parkland kids delivered the juice, the momentum to suddenly make that happen. But you don’t pass legislation on momentum alone. Somebody — some army — had to be fighting in the trenches to pass all those bills. And not ignorant, green soldiers making their first run at the NRA titan. They had to know what they were doing. Hmmmmm. So maybe the canaries in the coal mine had been the moms. But, still, the Parkland kids had flipped the script.
But Shannon’s thought gnawed. Then I spent a year and a half on a profile of Gabby Giffords for Vanity Fair. It was really a deep dive into the movement she and Shannon were leading, and a brief history of what they’ve been up to, masquerading as a profile of a wildly fascinating person to make it a fun read. (Seriously, that was my plan. It was actually a blend, but my whole idea was to give the reader a delicious Gabby story so they wouldn’t even notice chowing down their vegetables.)
But that was a revelation. Oh. Shannon was right!
The brief story on that: Gun control was a colossal failure for 40 years. I’d argue, quite possibly, the biggest failure in modern American history. (Starting with a massive advantage of the public on their side, and 40 years later, not just accomplishing almost nothing, but undoing much of 150 years of gun legislation. Disaster.) Just as gun control was finally petering out, Sandy Hook happened, which sent both Shannon and Gabby into action. They had nothing. But, working separately, with very different approaches, in complimentary ways, they slowly built a new gun safety movement, which was so much more than a name change. Very slowly. When Parkland happened, they were just reaching critical mass. Perfect moment for the Parkland kids to appear with rocket fuel. Finally, escape velocity.
The 2018 midterms and state victories set a whole lot in motion. Anyone using Congress as a scoreboard saw 100 percent failure. Anyone looking at the underlying politics saw that the playing field had completely changed. That included Mitch McConnel. And his conference. They knew the days of lockstep support of the NRA were numbered. The NRA was going to drag them down.
But these things take time. Mitch could see the NRA would eventually drag them down, but not tomorrow. Not January 1, 2019. Nope, June 21, 2022. That’s the day he told his conference they were going to lose the suburbs and had to reverse tactics.
Does that mean Mitch switched to become Gabby and Shannon’s partner? Hell no. But no longer the NRA’s partner, either, and that one bill was never going to be enough to satisfy those suburban voters. It’s a whole new game now, and that was the first round in Congress. Somewhere, they will meet in some version of the middle. I don’t know where. I don’t know how long — except that it will be long! Probably decades. So am I optimistic in the short run? Hell no. Am I optimistic in the long run? Hell yes. The game has changed.
Even with that long arc in mind, people get so demoralized by the continuing failure of our leaders to act on this problem. You obviously have Republicans who don't want to act and who benefit from not acting. But do you believe there is anything Democrats can do in this political and governing environment?
Republicans are definitely the key — both Republican voters and legislators. But Democrats have a huge role, too. Two huge things:
1. Keep the pressure on. That’s obvious. Don’t let up. Keep making them pay in the suburbs and elsewhere.
2. Keep making the case for actual solutions. The “solution” on guns is going to be a slew of different fixes, hitting it in many directions. (Talk to anyone in the movement, and that is just basic.) So, one by one, Democratic politicians need to make the case on each one of these, and illustrate to voters how much sense each makes. (The movement needs to coordinate which next steps to hit each time, so they’re not all over the map.) Because here’s the key: To win gun safety voters — to get them to expend their vote on gun safety candidates — you have to give them something to vote for! Not some wish, like, Oh, God, we need all these mass murders to stop! That feels hopeless, and no one’s going to vote for a lost cause. You need to give them tangible solutions, step by step, which make sense, and they will start chipping away at fixing this — in chips worthy of their vote.
What can ordinary people do to change the politics and ground conditions on this issue?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The.Ink to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.