The Gun-Control Movement Is Borrowing the Marriage-Equality Playbook — and Hoping for Similar Results

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Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun ViolencePhoto: Jeff Schear/2015 Getty Images

If the marriage movement were a novel, then the current moment would be its denouement. The players — activists, politicians, supporters, loved ones — have taken their victory lap and drunk their Champagne. The country has celebrated (cried!) at photos, on Facebook and Instagram and everywhere, of gay and lesbian friends and relatives saying their vows, holding hands, kissing, hugging, showing off children in a patriotic display of officially recognized out-ness unimaginable just five years ago. The country may be in the shitter, the feeling goes, but the Supreme Court in its wisdom also Gave. Us. This. 

But for the activists themselves who have spent a tough decade in the trenches of this fight and who know how intractable it felt just a few years ago, the moment is bittersweet. For in these past weeks, as they sweep up the confetti, many have begun to wonder, What do we do now? 

For some, the obvious answer is guns. Like paid soldiers looking ahead to the next war, many of marriage’s decorated officers are privately entertaining offers from the leaders of any number of leftist causes: the environment, inequality, immigration. If you can achieve that, the thinking goes, why not try this? Some have vowed to stick with the marriage-equality cause, taking the fight overseas, where anti-marriage forces are already setting up shop, in Eastern Europe and in parts of the developing world. But guns have a special salience now, after Newtown, after South Carolina, and veterans of the marriage movement see familiar terrain in guns — so familiar that they feel optimistic about being able to guide Americans to a similarly radical culture shift down the line. Like marriage a decade ago, the gun debate as it’s waged in public feels hopelessly entrenched. Like marriage, a person’s firm position on guns goes far beyond policy preferences to much more emotional, irrational questions of values and identity. What a voter believes about guns (or marriage) belies — in some fundamental, inchoate, visceral way — what he or she thinks it means to be American. “There is a moral element to the thing that has similarities to marriage,” says Zach Silk, who ran the Marriage Referendum campaign in Washington State in 2012 — and won — and then moved on to lead the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, where last year he helped win a campaign to implement background checks.  

Guns and marriage are also not the same, of course. To achieve marriage equality, activists had to work to change minds, a heroic task to be sure — an almost Freudian-level dismantling of a cultural understanding that assumes girls will grow up to marry princes — but not analogous to having to change the stances of politicians whose campaigns are funded and helped along by the overwhelmingly powerful gun lobby. On guns, public and political opinion are not in synch, in other words, and (again, unlike the marriage debate in which “pro” and “con” arguments were rather clearly drawn) public opinion is not in synch with itself.

Americans are almost neurotically at odds with themselves and each other over guns. Today, fewer households own guns than ever before — about a third, according to a 2015 poll by the General Social Survey — but the people who do own guns own more than one, often many. At the same time, polls since Newtown show an increase in the number of people who believe that owning a gun would make them safer (63 percent in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2000), a fragile and anxious mind-set that is both real — gun sales rose dramatically in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama — and also cultivated by the gun lobby itself, which profits, obviously, by peddling fear. In this way, pro-gun forces are like the anti-abortion army of the 1980s, which was able to mobilize a small but zealous and loyal group of voters who believed they were fighting to protect a way of life and would turn out in numbers in any weather to do so. When the debate is thus waged at the national level as a matter of Constitutional protections and “rights,” as it was in the spring of 2012, when the Newtown shootings prompted the president to bring a gun-reform bill to Congress, the gun-reform forces have been historically overwhelmed: outshouted, outvoted, outspent. “The best thing you can say about the gun lobby,” says Silk, “is that they’re really good community organizers.”

But watching the incremental, state by state progress on marriage that accrued over many years has given anti-gun-violence activists a different template, or a battle plan, for a way forward — although Silk says this new coalescence on guns is still embryonic, reminding him of the early days, back in 2004, when Massachusetts passed the first same-sex-marriage law. But “We have more momentum than this issue has had in decades,” agrees Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “I do think you can make the strong case that this is the next big issue.” Gross, in fact, is so tight with Marc Solomon at Freedom to Marry and so frequently seeks his counsel “that I don’t even know his title.” (He’s National Campaign Director.) “We spend a lot of time professionally and over dinner where we have an opportunity to learn from each other. But given the success of the marriage movement,” Gross says, “I’m inclined to do a lot of listening.”

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A plea in the wake of the Charleston massacre.Photo: Joe Raedle/2015 Getty Images

For years, marriage equality was a scrappy, rudderless cause, its voice obliterated by a powerful political coalition of political and religious conservatives whose messaging and organizing power seemed impossible to dismantle (think only of Prop 8, the California same-sex-marriage ban that in 2008 blindsided the left). So dominant were the anti-marriage voices from the right that a new president, Barack Obama, initially felt that supporting gay marriage would not be expedient. The tipping point was in 2010 and 2011, when the marriage-equality activists consciously changed their messaging to foreshadow the ubiquitous hashtag of last week — #lovewins — and in 2012 won marriage-equality measures in four states. In a war of public opinion, where each side is equally entrenched, the way to win hearts and change minds is to give credence to the anxieties of the opposition. We figured out “how to talk about marriage in a way that brought middle America along with us,” says Thalia Zepatos, director of research and messaging at Freedom to Marry. Having decided to speak to Americans’ sense of deeply felt values rather than a more haughty and legalistic sense of “rights,” the Freedom to Marry campaign sallied forth along three parallel tracks. First, organizers began to heed and answer the concerns and ambivalence of real Americans who were on the fence about marriage equality. “When talking about marriage, we need to think about the person we are addressing,” reads a 2011 report from the group. “Portray themes that they can identify with, that are common to us all — e.g., the idea of marriage and what it means, having your commitment publicly witnessed, taking care of your family. Those are our shared values and common ground where a conversation can start.” The conversation about marriage, Zepatos says, had to appeal to voters’ hearts, not their heads.

Second, stop trying to fight a court battle over “rights and benefits” and stop waging the war on the national level. Instead, go to the statehouses and make the change state by state.

Third, be disciplined and consistent in messaging. Marriage-equality activists in every state were armed with a talking-points tip sheet from WhyMarriageMatters.org whose logo reads “Love. Commitment. Family.” The one-page memo talks about the protection of religious freedom, the golden rule, family stability, and mutual respect. In the fight for marriage equality, the left borrowed the language of the right, in other words, and used it consistently and explicitly to bring the opposition along.  

Now similar tacks are being taken on guns. Instead of fighting the NRA in the public sphere and participating in a national debate on the Second Amendment and the constitutional rights of gun owners, activists are taking the battle to the states with ballot initiatives, especially on background checks, a gun-protection measure which 92 percent of Americans (including 92 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of Republicans) support. Since the Newtown shootings, six states — Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, Oregon, and Washington — have expanded background checks to all gun sales, including those purchased online and at gun shows.

But the most dramatic shift in the gun movement has — as in the marriage movement — one of messaging. Instead of following every mass shooting with anguished cries of outrage, and barrages of data on deaths, rounds of ammo, and millions of guns sold — together with an implicit disregard of and condescension toward the firmly held allegiances of gun owners (how could they?) — gun activists are taking a much more incremental, practical approach with a message that goes to the heart, not the head. The U.S. has the highest rate of gun-related deaths of any country in the developed world. Almost everyone knows someone who has been a victim of guns — not shot and killed, necessarily, but threatened or frightened or witness to an accident. The new idea is to enlist Americans’ help — all Americans, including those who own guns — in reducing that number. Like “love and commitment,” it’s hard to argue with no matter what side you’re on. The old paradigm, says Gross, who has a background in advertising, was “keeping certain guns away from all people.” (Assault rifles, for example.) The new one, which focuses on background checks, is about “keeping all guns away from certain people.” (People with criminal records, domestic abusers, the mentally ill.) Every American, no matter how they feel about the Second Amendment, can get behind that. “It’s that notion of common values, common goals: We all want to be safer.”

When Zach Silk thinks about how to articulate the values of the renovated gun movement, he uses the same words that the gun advocates use: “Community. Safety. Responsibility. Protecting my family.” In this redefining, he hopes to make a point. “Protection” isn’t an individual matter (a canard in any case, because having a gun in the house makes you exponentially less safe) in which individual patriarchs safeguard individual offspring. “Protection” is a communitarian thing, in which the safety of one’s own children depends on the safe habits of one’s neighbors. Like love, everyone deserves a chance at that.