Article

Will Gun Owners Fight for Stronger Gun Laws?

A new group, which includes two former NRA lobbyists, is betting on it

A version of this article was originally published September 21, 2022 in Washington Post Magazine

Abra Belke was home for the holidays in 2012 when she watched a speech that would soon become infamous. She woke up jet-lagged at her brother’s condo — she had flown into Montana from D.C. late the previous night — but she forced herself out of bed, went downstairs in her pajamas and turned on the television. She saw Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, standing at a lectern. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he proclaimed, one week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., had claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators. Sitting on the couch, Belke looked over at her brother’s fiancee and said, “Oh my God, I have to quit my job.”

For more than a year, Belke had been working as a lobbyist for the NRA. From an early age, guns had been a part of her life. She’d grown up in Butte, Mont., where her father was president of the local gun club. He’d given her a Chipmunk 22 LR Rifle, a youth-sized firearm, for her eighth birthday, and their primary father-daughter activity was to shoot targets at the range together. As was common for children in Montana, according to Belke, she was forbidden from touching guns in the house under normal circumstances — but was also taught how to shoot in response to a human or animal threat. “These are not toys,” her father would tell her. “The second you disrespect this firearm you will wind up dead.”

In her 20s, she spent several years working for Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, then Montana’s sole representative in Congress, and a position at the NRA felt like a natural next step. Her job involved drafting riders for appropriations bills, attending happy hours and steakhouse fundraisers, and, above all, frequently communicating with her assigned lawmakers and their aides. Although she respected her colleagues in the organization’s lobbying arm — the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) — she was always a little uneasy with the bombast from LaPierre, who was based at NRA headquarters in Virginia, and the rhetoric of the organization’s ad agency at the time, Ackerman McQueen. Insiders drew a distinction between ILA and headquarters, but she knew that the general public did not.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, Belke found her employer increasingly hard to defend. “I remember watching the speech,” Belke, now 40, told me recently, “just, like, mouth on the floor, because it was so tone-deaf and stupid.” She recalls that she spoke with her boss at ILA — “I think I started the conversation with the phrase, ‘What the hell was that?’ ” — but agreed to stay on for a time. The NRA was, initially at least, participating in talks about the universal-background-checks bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), and Belke was hoping an agreement could be reached. Meanwhile, she was fielding voice-mail threats from people who held the NRA responsible for the massacre. To cope with the stress, she began keeping a bottle of bourbon at her desk and splashing it into her coffee. In April 2013, the NRA came out against the bill, which was then voted down in the Senate. The following month Belke gave notice, and that summer she went home to Montana. (When reached for comment, an NRA spokesperson wrote via email, “The NRA has a long-standing policy of not discussing personnel matters — past or present — in the public domain.”)

About seven years later, Belke was working as an attorney when she got an Instagram direct message from Amanda Carpenter, a conservative CNN commentator who was a longtime reader of Belke’s fashion blog and followed her on Instagram. Carpenter told Belke about a new organization called 97Percent. The name refers to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, which found that 97 percent of American voters — and the same percentage of gun owners — support universal background checks. The group, founded by entrepreneurs and philanthropists Adam and Staci Miller, promotes pragmatic gun-policy reforms — with a twist: Their principal goal is to engage gun owners in the conversation. In polls and focus groups, they say they have found that gun owners are more amenable to reforms than most Americans believe. To make real progress on the issue, they argue, gun owners must be at the table.

The organization had approached Carpenter, known as a moderate and a strong communicator, about joining the advisory board. She didn’t have time, but she thought of Belke, who had recently posted a series of Instagram videos answering questions about gun ownership. Belke was open to the idea and talked to executive director Matt Littman. “I said I’m interested in doing this, but I’m not going to do it by myself.” She didn’t want to be the “token gun owner” on the board. She invited John Goodwin, another former NRA lobbyist, to join as well.

Both are now members of the advisory board, which aims for a balance of Republicans and Democrats as well as gun owners and non-gun owners. It includes former U.S. representative Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, Emmy-nominated actor Jason George, and Richard Aborn, former president of Handgun Control Inc. (now known as Brady). Members contribute in different ways, depending on their background. Belke is often enlisted to communicate with congressional staffers; George filmed a lighthearted video with tips for talking to your gun-loving relatives over the holidays. (“The mute button is your friend. … Listen to what they have to say.”)

This might be a good time to disclose my own position on the issue. Since Sandy Hook, sickened by the unrelenting slaughter haunting our country, I’ve felt compelled to do something to try to stem the bloodshed. Over the years, I’ve volunteered, on and off, with groups promoting stronger gun laws, including Moms Demand Action and Brady. (I am not currently affiliated with, nor do I speak for, any group.) Unlike Belke, I grew up in urban and suburban areas in the Northeast, guns were not a part of my childhood, and I am not fond of them.

When I learned about 97Percent, following the Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex., shootings in May, I was cautiously intrigued. At the time, the nation seemed to be at an unconscionable impasse. Arguably, the subsequent success of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Biden signed into law in June, shows that the organizing of recent years has at last paid off; among other provisions, the legislation enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, tightened the “boyfriend loophole” for domestic abusers and invested $250 million in community-based violence prevention programs. But given the scale of the crisis — in 2020, there were 45,222 gun-related deaths in the United States, including suicides and accidents, and firearms overtook car crashes as the leading cause of mortality for children and adolescents — these remedies are relatively limited. A bipartisan organization pushing for change, including multiple former NRA lobbyists no less, made me wonder: Could an effort to get gun owners to speak up — and vote — for gun policy reform on a broad scale succeed? Could it actually change the conversation? And, when it comes to strengthening gun restrictions, how far could a campaign guided by the preferences of gun owners really go?

***

In 2020, Adam and Staci Miller, a married couple based in Los Angeles, launched 1P.org (the P stands for “planet”), with a mission to tackle intractable problems. Adam was the founder and former CEO of Cornerstone OnDemand, a human resources and education software company, and Staci was a former McKinsey analyst. No issue seemed more intractable in the United States than gun violence. “When Newtown happened, we had a first-grader at the time,” Staci told me. “When Parkland happened, we had a high-schooler at the time. We really looked at each other and said, God forbid, if this touches our community, will we be able to say to our kids, ‘We did everything we could’?”

They began by setting up conversations with experts and veterans in the field of gun-violence prevention. One of them was Richard Aborn, who is now president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “I strongly suggested that the way to crack open the gun-control debate was to try and figure out some safe place for gun owners for gun control to voice their opinion,” he told me. He thought it was crucial to convey to gun owners that “there is perfect consistency between legally acquiring a firearm or firearms, and regulating the distribution of guns.”

Their next step was to find out where gun owners really stood. The Millers brought on two external firms to conduct focus groups and ethnographic interviews in purple states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Colorado — in addition to a national survey of more than 1,000 gun owners. They found that large majorities supported universal background checks, training requirements for a firearm purchase, and temporary removal of guns from individuals in crisis who pose a risk to themselves or others (red-flag laws).

But the research also found that gun owners who are receptive to regulations feel alienated by the current national conversation. They have a fundamentally different view than most gun-safety activists and pro-reform politicians who don’t own guns. Whereas someone like me sees guns as dangerous, gun owners typically see them as a way to keep safe. Whereas I associate guns exclusively with harm, gun owners see them as a tool that can be used for good or bad purposes. This helps explain a widespread conviction among gun owners: that policy should focus on “keeping guns out of the wrong hands,” not on bans of certain types of weapons or attempts to reduce the number of guns in the country. Another survey found that most gun owners believe that gun-reform advocates ultimately want to take their guns away. This belief makes them mistrustful and reluctant to speak out for any reforms at all — the “slippery slope” argument.

Based on this research, the Millers developed a vision for a new organization that would identify and expand areas of consensus among gun owners and gun-reform proponents. Their North Star is legislation that is both broadly popular and backed by evidence. Their empirical orientation also led them to recognize that, as Adam said, “There’s really three sets of gun violence.” One set is mass shootings, which prompted the Millers (and me) to get involved but account for a tiny fraction of all gun homicides; another is the community violence that is concentrated in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods; finally, there are suicides, which make up the majority of gun deaths (54 percent in 2020). Each of these sets requires specially tailored responses.

The Millers incorporated the organization as 97Percent — going with the poll that has found the highest level of support for universal background checks — and officially launched in October 2020. They now have a staff of seven and 14 advisory board members, with the Millers providing most of the funding (a small portion comes from undisclosed foundations and individual donors). In the future, they are likely to start a 501(c)(4) to engage in more direct lobbying. So far, though, their purview has been mainly research and education. They are working with Michael Siegel, a professor of public health at Tufts University, to further gauge gun-owner opinion. Siegel has found that the majority of gun owners support four laws shown to be effective: universal background checks, prohibitions for those convicted of violent misdemeanors, permits for concealed carry, and permits for gun purchases and possession. He estimates that if all four were implemented, firearm homicides would decline by 35 percent.

Advisory board member and actor Jason George — known for his roles on the TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” — is not a gun owner, but he told me he is “a good shot.” (“I’m from Virginia, from a military town in Virginia. I speak purple.”) George thinks that most gun owners are responsible citizens who are appalled by the violence ravaging the nation, and that blaming them for tragedies precludes potentially fruitful dialogue. “Don’t demonize them,” he urges. At the same time, he believes in asking more of gun owners: “If you’re standing by and not saying anything,” he says, “you’re part of the problem.” Another advisory board member, Rep. Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran, told me, “I want to see gun owners become leaders in this conversation, not just occasional but reluctant participants. I think the people who understand guns have a lot of credibility here.” Indeed, if the message is coming from a fellow gun owner, it is easier to trust that the ultimate goal is not confiscation.

The leaders of 97Percent believe that the gun-owner perspective can inform the writing of legislation and make laws more effective. People who do not own guns often lack a sense of what legislation would mean for those who do, Abra Belke told me: “It has to be done with gun owners at the table because non-gun owners don’t understand what they’re asking of dealers, what they’re asking of sellers, what they’re asking of law enforcement. And how the process would need to happen to make sure that people complied and to make sure that compliance was meaningful.”

The organization also started a campaign to encourage safe use and storage, in partnership with the National African American Gun Association, a gun rights group. Douglas Jefferson, senior vice president of the association, told me his views are derived from his reading of African American history: “When you have an unresponsive government, what else is there to do but make sure that you exercise all your rights available?” He is wary of almost all gun restrictions because he thinks they have a discriminatory impact on Black Americans without addressing the roots of criminal behavior. But he is keen to encourage safe practices: “As responsible gun owners, we want to make sure that we’re not just seen as gun owners but we’re seen as good citizens who happen to own guns.”

***

To some gun-reform proponents, the idea of engaging gun owners in the fight for gun restrictions may sound naive or downright nonsensical. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik spoke for many Americans when he stipulated “what ought to be a basic concept of a liberal democracy: that nobody who lives in one has any need for a handgun” and described weapons such as AR-15s as “the kind of gun that should never be in the hands of anyone except soldiers.” If guns and gun ownership are the problem, how can pro-gun people be part of the solution?

The contemporary gun-control movement — rebranded as the “gun safety” or “gun violence prevention” movement — has struggled to reconcile the views expressed by Gopnik with a more pragmatic approach. Every social movement must navigate choices about how much to demand and how much to compromise, how to balance long-term goals and short-term gains. But the gun issue introduces several distinctive challenges. Guns are possibly unique in that they are seen by many as not only the problem but the solution; the more gun violence increases, the more some people will feel the need to arm themselves for self-defense. There is also reason to believe that calls for new gun laws lead to increases in gun sales. Both of these factors explain the well-documented trend of gun-sale surges after mass shootings. In the month after the Sandy Hook shooting and President Barack Obama’s call for new restrictions, about 2 million guns were sold, compared with 754,000 in the wake of 9/11. In short, while staking out a bold position on some issues — say, demanding a $15 minimum wage — can help move the political center, stronger demands for gun regulations seem to carry a particular risk of entrenching polarization and maybe even exacerbating the problem.

This dilemma has informed the strategy of the contemporary gun-safety movement. The antiabortion movement unabashedly pushed for the reversal of Roe v. Wade for decades — and, of course, recently succeeded. By contrast, mainstream gun-safety groups have not called for a wholesale gun ban or made a big issue of District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that established an individual right to gun ownership for the first time. This approach results from a mix of conviction and concession; some advocates sincerely believe in the right to self-defense, while others are bowing to political realism. Either way, they have generally taken a more incremental, moderate path — calling for “common sense” restrictions, recognizing that we will never eliminate guns but we can try to reduce the carnage associated with them. They have also long insisted that the vast majority of Americans want change, and that the NRA has essentially tricked politicians and the public into believing otherwise. “It’s really the gun lobby, not gun owners, that is interested in propping up the industry’s profits,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told me.

As a result, 97Percent is arguably a natural extension of the movement more than a radical departure. When I asked mainstream gun-safety advocates about the group and the broader idea of engaging gun owners, most responded favorably. If anything, some were quick to point out that the idea is not entirely new. Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who now promotes gun reform, has always emphasized that she is a gun owner. The group she co-founded, Giffords, has a “Gun Owners for Safety” coalition, and Watts told me that Moms Demand Action has many members who are gun owners as well. Still, Watts believes that the newer organization can make a valuable contribution. “I think that groups like 97Percent that are focusing solely on organizing and talking to gun owners are important,” she said.

I heard a similar perspective from activists involved in March for Our Lives, the youth-led group formed by survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Matthew Hogenmiller, 20, joined the group as a high school sophomore in Austin. At school, he said, the fear of guns had always been pervasive. Then, the shooting in Parkland reinforced his feeling of helplessness. Joining March for Our Lives and organizing a successful protest in Austin gave him a sense of agency. He now works on staff as the digital acquisition manager. Living in Texas, he has spoken with many gun owners. The conversations typically begin as debates but end up arriving at points of consensus, especially regarding universal background checks. “Often,” he said, “the people that I would talk to are gun owners who bought a gun legally, went through a background check, did it all,” and didn’t realize that others can exploit loopholes in the system. He has come to believe that “gun owners have a part in this fight,” he said. “More often than not, responsible gun owners are the best advocates for gun safety.”

That does not mean that 97Percent has been universally embraced. For some activists, there is the feeling that gun owners are getting pats on the back for minimal gestures. Margot Bennett, executive director of the Los Angeles-based group Women Against Gun Violence, wrote in a blog post that when she sees 97Percent research on gun-owner attitudes, she rolls her eyes. “No matter what individual gun owners say about safe gun storage or closing the Charleston Loophole or prohibiting domestic abusers from owning guns, I only care about what they do,” she explained. “Do they vote for legislators and policymakers that will support gun regulations that will help keep our children, families, and communities safe? For the most part, they don’t.” When I spoke to Bennett, whom I met through my volunteering, she told me, “To pretend that this is not an issue of sides, to pretend that this is not a political issue, I think is a mistake.” Instead of expending energy on trying to accommodate gun owners, she would rather push to elect more lawmakers who will fight for more stringent regulations — even if it means voting to expand the Supreme Court and appointing justices who would reconsider Heller.

And even if the country managed to implement every law that the majority of gun owners support, the problem would hardly be solved. The 35 percent reduction in gun homicides that Siegel, the Tufts researcher, projects, would be fantastic — “a huge effect in public health terms,” he wrote in an email. There are also measures that sidestep gun restrictions altogether but could save a lot of lives, such as funding for local groups working to interrupt violence in their communities. But all of these steps would almost certainly leave us with a higher rate of gun deaths than peer countries with stronger laws and fewer guns.

In the end, I was left with this conclusion: A movement that defers to gun owners will not realize the dream of bringing gun violence down to the levels in Australia or Western Europe, but a movement without gun owners on board likely can’t accomplish much of anything, at least at the national scale. The bill that recently made it through Congress — the first significant gun violence prevention legislation to pass in nearly 30 years — illustrates this reality. The measure fell far short of what many gun-safety advocates sought, but it was still a major breakthrough. At a closed-door meeting before the vote, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) reportedly cited a survey showing strong support in gun-owning households for the bill’s provisions. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who played a leading role in shepherding the bill into law, wrote via email through a staff member, “Support from responsible gun owners was critical to getting enough Republicans to pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, and they’ll remain key players in building the movement’s political power and notching more wins.”

It’s a strange moment in the history of this struggle. The recent Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen has called into question some of the gun-safety laws on the books in blue states, which are sure to be challenged by gun-rights groups in the months and years to come. At the same time, the recent bipartisan legislation — demonstrating that Republican lawmakers were more willing to engage than at any other point in this century — has the gun-safety movement feeling optimistic. “This fight has been ups and downs,” said Hogenmiller of March for Our Lives. “You see progress happening and then gun violence occurs. In those moments it’s incredibly disappointing. It’s difficult to pick up and continue to move.” But, he said, “lately I’ve felt more hopeful now than ever.” He added, “When it comes to gun violence, nearly any progress is good progress.”

***

During the recent negotiations for the bipartisan bill, Abra Belke was in frequent contact with legislative staffers. She told me that Republican staffers would call her and say, “This is what they want to do. Where are the pitfalls? How can we make it better?” With Democrats, the conversations are different. “I’ve become the person Democrat staff can reach out to and say, ‘I’m hearing this. AR-15s are used for hunting. Is that true?’ I can explain to them, yes, some people do hunt with AR-15s. There are some animals — feral hogs, varmints, coyotes — that are hunted with AR-15s. And they trust me to tell them the truth.” An aide to Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) told me that Belke was “one of the few experts who was really able to illuminate the complexities, both political and cultural, of gun ownership.” Belke thinks that both sides have learned from the post-Newtown failure and were more willing to listen and talk through stalemates. “And that was probably the most encouraging part of all of it to me,” she said.

In recent years, Belke has become less comfortable with the direction that gun culture has taken. She doesn’t like the fear-based rhetoric of the industry advertising or the attitudes she sees among some younger gun owners. “I go to the range and I see people shooting these incredibly tricked out AR-15s, and they’re not very good at it,” she said. She was also frustrated by the failure to prevent shootings in Buffalo and Highland Park; both New York and Illinois have red-flag laws, which have been shown to work but only if people know about them and put them to use. “You can’t pass a law and then walk away from it,” she said. “You see those little flaws in the system, and you have to be willing to address those flaws.”

If 97Percent succeeds on its own terms, perhaps Belke will be a kind of bellwether of the change underway in this country, agonizingly slow but perceptible, in the decade since Newtown. Then, she was working for the NRA, which contributed to scotching the proposed legislation; now, she is working with 97Percent and trying to engage in dialogue. The NRA opposed the new federal legislation, but this time, it passed anyway. Belke thinks at least some conservative lawmakers and ordinary gun owners have learned what the NRA has not: “We do have to be willing to have the discussions that we haven’t had in the past, and ‘no’ can’t be the only answer.”

Source: Washington Post Magazine

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