Many social movements—including civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental protection—have their origins in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, the NRA joined the American Culture Wars and became the militant gun-rights advocacy organization we know today. But there hasn’t been an analogous gun violence prevention movement… at least until now. What changed and why?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
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Kristin Goss: People like to think that movements are just these spontaneous things that, the grievances pile up, and people get together, and they go protest and picket, and that changes laws. And that’s not the way that movements tend to operate.
Scott Melzer: The NRA has embraced this culture war, and essentially, it’s fully, explicitly, openly aligned itself with conservatives and Republicans because it’s working. … It works. It works, it works, it works.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to In Sickness and in Health, a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America.
Celine Gounder: On November 2, 1963, people across America were watching As the World Turns when suddenly…
Walter Cronkite: Here is a bulletin from CBS News: In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting…
Celine Gounder: The rifle that killed President Kennedy was bought through a mail-order catalog. The fact that it was that easy for JFK’s assassin to get a gun and kill the leader of the free world kick-started our modern debate about gun regulation in the U. S.
Celine Gounder: But it would be another five years before the nation would take action.
NBC News: Senator Robert F. Kennedy, after winning the California primary here tonight, Senator Kennedy was wounded. It’s our understanding he was hit twice in the head. Once above the right ear, once around the forehead…
Celine Gounder: It took the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy for Congress to finally do something… and pass the Gun Control Act in 1968.
Celine Gounder: President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law during a ceremony at the White House.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: …and some of you might be interested in knowing really what this bill does. It stops murder by mail order. It bars the interstate sale of all guns and the bullets that load them. It stops the sale of lethal weapons to those too young to bear their terrible responsibility.
Celine Gounder: But if you listen back to that signing ceremony, Johnson doesn’t sound like a president who won a big victory. He sounds morose, disappointed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: But this bill, as big as this bill is, still falls short because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the request we made of them. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licenses of those who carry those guns… And if guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal and out of the hands of the insane and out of hands of the irresponsible, then we just must have licensing.
Celine Gounder: His next words must be one of the great political understatements of the 20th century.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby… a gun lobby… that has prevailed for the moment…
Celine Gounder: The Gun Control Act set in motion a series of events that we’re still living with today.
Kristin Goss: That strategy actually contributed in some ways to the politicization of the National Rifle Association and the creation of the take-no-prisoners organization that we know today.
Celine Gounder: And created a new political identity in America: one built around the Second Amendment.
Scott Melzer: The NRA, their power derives from their most deeply passionate and committed core members, and those core members are deeply conservative individuals who believe not only in gun rights but an array of conservative issues that align with individual rights and freedoms.
Celine Gounder: Survey after survey shows a majority of Americans want stricter gun laws.
Kristin Goss: But Congress doesn’t pass them. Why? … The more interesting and more fundamental paradox is most people want stricter gun laws, but they don’t organize to advocate for them.
Celine Gounder: Well, that might finally be changing.
Kristin Goss: We’re seeing the beginnings of a… Gun Reform Movement where women, in particular, are running for office having gotten some political experience mobilizing around gun reform.
Celine Gounder: President Johnson concluded his speech with these words:
Celine Gounder: Those words are just as true today as they were fifty years ago. On this episode of “In Sickness and in Health,”the American gun movements.
Kristin Goss: So my name is Kristin Goss. I’m the Kevin D. Gorter Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University.
Celine Gounder: She’s also the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. Kristin has been writing about guns in America since before the Columbine shooting.
Kristin Goss: I was perplexed by how we could have so many traumatic incidents of gun violence, whether it’s epidemics of street crime or assassinations of prominent people or mass shootings at high schools, and yet a movement had never really solidified for the long-term to push for reforms.
Celine Gounder: So she started looking for clues in the history of gun reform.
Celine Gounder: Kristin says there was still a lot of faith in big government solutions to big problems in the 1960s. But by the 1970s… things were changing.
Kristin Goss: What became pretty clear is that when the movement began to try to form in the 1970s, there was this desire to fix the problem once and for all in one fell swoop. So gun reformers were immediately looking to ban commonly-owned weapons at the national level. So have one piece of legislation that would just take care of the problem by banning guns.
Kristin Goss: The political logic, I think, was pretty naive.
Kristin Goss: Any kind of bold national strategy was going to affect a lot of people who were never going to misuse their guns. That strategy actually contributed in some ways to the politicization of the National Rifle Association and the creation of the take-no-prisoners organization that we know today.
Scott Melzer: What’s fascinating about the NRA is how its identity has shifted over time…
Celine Gounder: This is Scott Melzer. He’s a professor at Albion College. He wrote the book Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War.
Scott Melzer: …It was essentially just a sportsmen’s organization in the 1900s. After World War II, it became more politicized…
Celine Gounder: After JFK’s assassination, the NRA actually supported some gun reforms. The NRA’s executive vice-president at the time was Franklin Orth. He agreed with restrictions on mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns… That’s how Lee Harvey Oswald got the rifle that killed President Kennedy.
Celine Gounder: Orth had some issues with the bill. But in the end, he said it was something gun owners could live with.
Celine Gounder: But it turns out? They couldn’t.
Scott Melzer: There was a factional split from the organization. These hardline gun rights supporters essentially took over the NRA in a coup in the late 1970s.
Celine Gounder: 1977, to be exact. It was called the “Revolt in Cincinnati.” This leadership takeover fundamentally changed the NRA. And it wasn’t just about guns.
Scott Melzer: We had essentially a perfect storm at that time that gave rise to this movement.
Scott Melzer: I see the NRA as part of this gun-rights backlash movement against the liberal group-rights movements of the 1960s and 70s; a response to Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Rights movement and so forth, in conjunction with being a response to the growing push for gun control the 1960s.
Celine Gounder: Scott points out that the NRA isn’t just a special interest group, like the AARP. It looks more like a social movement.
Scott Melzer: Too often the NRA is inappropriately called the gun lobby. It has a powerful gun lobby, but really their power lies with their deep and intensely passionate base, folks who will call and certainly lobby their own representatives.
Scott Melzer: The reason why it has so much influence and power is because it has several million members, at minimum, and a big chunk of those folks are deeply committed, passionate, uncompromising defenders of gun rights.
Celine Gounder: The NRA also benefits from how it’s organized. It’s set up like a federation, with member groups at local, state, and federal levels, mirroring our own government. This lets the NRA and other gun groups really maximize their influence across the political system.
Scott Melzer: The NRA’s power lies in its people power, and that’s essential for a social movement.
Celine Gounder: And this people power started to translate into electoral victories.
Celine Gounder: The NRA endorsed Ronald Reagan for president in 1980 — a first for the organization. A year later, Reagan was the target of a failed assassination attempt with a handgun. But that didn’t change the President’s mind on guns.
Celine Gounder: Reagan — a lifelong member of the NRA — addressed the NRA at its annual convention in 1983.
Celine Gounder: And in 1986, Reagan signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act. The law banned the manufacture and sale of machine guns, but it also rolled back many restrictions from the Gun Control Act of 1968, like interstate gun sales. It also put limits on the ability of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to make sure gun dealers weren’t selling to criminals or other prohibited groups.
Celine Gounder: The law also banned the creation of a national gun registry. That missing piece of the ’68 Gun Control Act that President Johnson wanted so badly.
Celine Gounder: But gun reform would have a brief rally in the 1990s.
Celine Gounder: Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. He was the first Democrat to hold the office in twelve years. Clinton oversaw the passage of two big gun reforms.
Celine Gounder: He signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law within his first year in office. The “Brady” in the Brady Bill was James Brady, Ronald Reagan’s press secretary. Brady was shot in the head during the assassination attempt in 1981. He survived, but he was left partially paralyzed.
Celine Gounder: The Brady Bill required federal background checks on guns purchased from federally licensed gun dealers. This background check didn’t cover firearms sold at gun shows though or internet sales, which hadn’t become a thing yet.
Celine Gounder: The next year, Clinton signed another gun reform bill: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. This is probably better known as the assault rifle ban. It prohibited the sale of new semi-automatic assault rifles for ten years.
Celine Gounder: But meanwhile the NRA was going through another transformation.
Celine Gounder: Wayne La Pierre became the NRA’s top executive.
Celine Gounder: Charlton Heston becomes NRA president.
Charlton Heston: …from my cold, dead hands…
Celine Gounder: The NRA had officially entered America’s culture wars.
Scott Melzer: They, very wisely, figured out that if they framed gun rights as a bigger culture war battle, whereby they could frame themselves as victims of these left-wing attacks and heroic patriots defending against these left-wing attacks on American freedoms, that they could generate more and deeper support. That’s indeed exactly what happened.
Celine Gounder: Scott Melzer again.
Scott Melzer: The NRA’s politics revolve around referring themselves both as victims and heroes. There are interesting contradictions. In one sense, they’re victims of this left-wing culture war battle, whereby they’re expected to, in their minds, give up all their rights and freedoms in order to serve this greater liberal good. And on the other hand, they’re heroes. They’re patriots and freedom fighters defending against these leftist/communist/socialist/liberals, who are trying to take away all individual rights and freedoms. And they refer to themselves as the oldest and biggest civil rights organization. And referring themselves as civil rights activists, in some way, it’s a really interesting turn of phrase for the NRA.
Celine Gounder: But this hardline posture took a toll, at least for a while, on the NRA’s support. After the Oklahoma City bombing, for example. Wayne La Pierre referred to federal agents as “jackbooted thugs.” Critics pounced on the group’s tone-deaf comments. President George H. W. Bush — a Republican — publicly left the group in protest. The outcry was brief though. And the NRA continued to grow.
Celine Gounder: And then in 1999, the debate over guns in America took a disturbing turn. That’s when two students killed thirteen of their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School. The massacre reignited the call for gun reform. And moms were front and center.
Kristin Goss: I’ve been really fascinated by how maternal frameworks, mixed with badass feminism in this hybrid framework, has been really powerful in mobilizing thirty- and forty-something mothers with small children.
Celine Gounder: Kristin says social movements in America built around the identity of motherhood are hardly new.
Kristin Goss: It was almost like that was the secret sauce. And it may be in part a function of the fact that middle-class women have been the stalwart social reformers throughout American history, and so a maternal framing felt natural and spoke to their experiences and backgrounds. The Prohibition Movement, for example, began… with mothers picketing saloons because their husbands were inside drinking away the family income.
Celine Gounder: In the late 1990s, this social reform movement took the shape of the Million Moms March.
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo: In 1996, there were fifteen handgun-caused deaths in Japan. Thirty in Great Britain. One hundred and six in Canada. And nine thousand three hundred and ninety in the United States. This has got to stop.
Celine Gounder: Some seven hundred and fifty thousand people marched on Washington, D.C., demanding gun reform.
Kerry Kennedy Cuomo: That same year, four thousand six hundred and forty-three children were killed with guns. That’s thirteen children every day; a Columbine Massacre every day. This has got to stop.
Celine Gounder: And then?
Celine Gounder: Nothing.
Kristin Goss: The Million Mom March hit at an interesting time… that march happened in 2000. Just a few months later, we had the presidential election. An NRA-supported Republican won. 9/11 happened. And then the whole gun control movement went into a period of quiescence.
Celine Gounder: Assault rifle sales restarted in 2004. President George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. That law granted broad legal immunity for gun manufacturers and distributors for crimes committed with their products.
Kristin Goss: I would say, legislatively, at the national level, the pro-gun side has made some significant strides in terms of policies, the way that we at the state level legislate or regulate carrying concealed firearms in public has undergone a quiet revolution in the direction of gun rights.
Celine Gounder: So whatever happened with the Million Mom March? There are a lot of things you could point to but here are two big ones: a lack of institutional support and a big, big passion gap between both sides.
Celine Gounder: Both gun-rights and gun-reform groups talk about themselves as grassroots organizations. But Kristin says that only gets so far without consistent, reliable support from institutions and elites.
Kristin Goss: Gun control groups, really, they had a little bit of support from churches, they had moral support from a lot of voluntary organizations, but they didn’t have those sources of steady support. So their fortunes tended to wax and wane. So if there was a big high-profile shooting, maybe if somebody important, money would flow in right after that, but then it would dry up. There just wasn’t the steady institutional and financial support…
Celine Gounder: Groups like the NRA have membership dues and private donations that give them the resources to lobby Congress and statehouses. Gun violence prevention groups on the other hand…
Kristin Goss: …were pretty broke. They did not have external sources of support. In fact, in some cases, the NRA had worked through government to deprive these organizations of external sources of support.
Celine Gounder: The other big problem is the passion gap.
Celine Gounder: Think about background checks. Poll after poll suggests the American public generally supports background checks. But they never get passed. Why?
Scott Melzer: The reason for that is because there hasn’t been a robust gun control movement to pressure members of Congress, and there has been a very powerful and influential and effective gun rights movement led by the NRA. So public polling data be damned. The passion of politics has been on the right’s side, and that’s prevented federal gun control legislation of any significance.
Celine Gounder: Not even the seemingly never-ending wave of mass shootings since Columbine has spurred action for gun reform.
Scott Melzer: The NRA goes dark in the wake of a shooting because they don’t need to appeal to the general public.
Scott Melzer: That’s not where the NRA’s power derived from. It derives from their most committed, deeply conservative members. Those are the folks who vote in every election. Those are the folks who call their representatives in the House and the Senate. Those are the folks who show up at rallies. Those are folks who donate lots of dollars to the NRA and to the gun-rights fight. Those are the folks who are single-issue gun rights voters. What we haven’t seen is anything approximating that on the gun control side.
Celine Gounder: Historically, the gun violence prevention movement has not had anything like that base of support.
Scott Melzer: Let’s not forget that there was a Million Mom March almost 20 years ago, and there were pretty robust efforts to expand gun control in the 1990s, and ultimately those failed.
Scott Melzer: The biggest reason is because of inherently the nature of the debate.
Celine Gounder: And that’s a debate about values more than anything.
Celine Gounder: Kristin Goss:
Kristin Goss: You know, if politics was about taxes, there’s room for compromise. So you might say that the top tax rate should be 50%, and I might say it should be 35%, and maybe we can come to agree, come together and agree on 42%. But you know, if you think that guns are an existential threat to the moral order, and I think that guns are fundamental to my sovereignty and dignity as a human being, that’s very tough to find an in-between place.
Celine Gounder: Scott Melzer:
Scott Melzer: On the gun control side, it’s about violence, which is certainly important, but doesn’t necessarily speak to a broader set of values. But on the gun-rights side, defending guns does speak to defending a particular view of American freedom and American ideals. And it’s easier to get people motivated and passionate when your issue connects to something much more deeply felt by them when it speaks to their core ideologies and beliefs. That’s, to date, been the built-in advantage for the gun-rights side.
Celine Gounder: But that built-in advantage is eroding. The nation’s gotten more polarized. Single-issue voters and Blue Dog Democrats are largely a thing of the past.
Kristin Goss: …that single-issue voters’ question really only matters if you have Democrats who might defect to the Republicans but for a gun control position, and that’s, that’s just not how politics operates anymore. Chances are if you’re a Democrat, you favor stricter gun laws. Chances are if you’re a Republican, you favor less strict gun laws, and you’re going to vote your party. … The single-issue voter thing… I don’t think is the right question to be asking anymore, honestly. I think the right question to be asking is whether gun violence prevention or gun regulation is likely to animate people to get involved in politics, to call their member of Congress, to make sure they vote in all the elections, not just the presidential election… so it becomes a mobilizing issue rather than the issue that decides if you’re going to vote for the Democrat or the Republican.
Celine Gounder: This means that Democratic politicians, in particular, have far less to lose and much more to gain by taking a tough stance on gun reform.
Kristin Goss: Democrats, even in purple States like Virginia, are running on gun violence prevention and gun regulation in a pretty assertive way rather than running away from the issue as, as they have in the past.
Celine Gounder: And new groups have come to the fore to animate the gun violence prevention movement. Kristin says that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and what’s been seen as a total failure by lawmakers to take action, might actually have been a turning point for the modern gun reform movement.
Kristin Goss: Sandy Hook, it turns out, was a pretty big turning point… in the history of gun violence prevention efforts. … Sandy Hook, and then some of the tragedies that have come afterward, coupled with some pretty smart strategies on the part of organizations, coupled with money flowing into this issue that is enabling people and activists to organize… those factors have combined to keep this movement moving.
Celine Gounder: And one of the most important outgrowths from Sandy Hook was another movement led by mothers: Moms Demand Action.
Kristin Goss: Yeah, and I think that’s what the Moms’ organization is doing, in particular. They’re really leveraging women’s identities as caretakers, as mothers, as “badass” women.
Celine Gounder: Shannon Watts founded the group. She was folding her kids’ laundry when she heard about the twenty children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in 2012. Shannon used her background in corporate communications to launch Moms Demand Action on Facebook.
Kristin Goss: What social media, in particular, have done is it dramatically reduce the cost of locating sympathizers, organizing them, sharing information, building a sense of community and identity and momentum. That’s just not a costly thing anymore. It’s free essentially. I think that’s been a big boost to the movement.
Celine Gounder: The movement took off. Soon, the group merged with Everytown for Gun Safety. That’s the non-profit supported by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Celine Gounder: And unlike the Million Mom March, Moms Demand Action has been focused on the states. Congress might get most of the media attention, but a lot can happen at the state level.
Kristin Goss: At the state level, gun control organizations and allies and legislators have had a quiet revolution of their own in the areas of domestic violence, mental health, and to some extent, universal background checks.
Kristin Goss: …they’re hobbled at the local level because so many states have preempted cities and counties from regulating firearms. Most states have preemption laws that were… instituted at the behest of…the NRA…
Kristin Goss: The States have a lot of lawmaking power. …those lawmakers are going to be more attentive to how these laws are actually implemented and… providing… the guidance and the resources… to agencies to actually implement these laws so that they mean something, that they’re not just laws on the books.
Celine Gounder: As American politics have veered to the right, many gun violence prevention activists have turned their attention to the states, where they’ve been able to get a lot more done. The states serve as incubators for change, experiments for how different gun policies work or don’t.
Celine Gounder: Kristin thinks the gun violence prevention movement has gotten a lot more pragmatic. They’re better organized and better funded. Many are organizing as federations, mirroring our governmental institutions. And now, a lot more voices, not just moms, are joining the mix, including the voices of survivors and victims.
Celine Gounder: This is especially true for the March for Our Lives. That’s the student-led gun violence prevention group that formed in the aftermath of the Parkland Shooting in 2018.
Kristin Goss: A lot has changed. My first book had a subtitle: “The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.” I would say that the movement is no longer missing.
Celine Gounder: Moms and kids terrified by school shooting after school shooting, and left feeling vulnerable at the randomness of it all, are mad as hell. New political identities are emerging: “badass moms” and “badass youth.”
Celine Gounder: They’re coming together, rising up, and getting tough. They’re on the frontlines to defend themselves and their families against gun violence — an existential threat to their most basic freedoms. They’re victims and heroes. They’ve been energized by a sense of purpose, community, and moral authority.
Celine Gounder: In our next episode we’ll talk with some of these badass moms and students at the forefront of America’s gun violence prevention movement. That’s next time on “In Sickness and in Health.”
Celine Gounder: “In Sickness and in Health” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions.
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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”