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And We Are Not Saved
Everytown, Moms Demand Action, and the Bigfooting of March For Our Lives: How the Gun Safety Movement Became a Monoculture
In April 2013, a few months after the Sandy Hook massacre and just after the Senate rejected a bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks to most gun sales, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords met with then-Vice-President Joe Biden in his private office near the Senate floor. They were disappointed, but as The Washington Post reports, Biden told the congresswoman, who had founded a new gun control group in the wake of her own shooting, that there was a silver lining. “This is actually going to help you build a movement,” Biden said, suggesting the failed vote would spur a furious public backlash.
Nine years later, after so many mass shootings and individual gun deaths, we still don’t have a movement. We have a well-financed gun safety lobby that is pursuing “commonsense gun reform” and “responsible gun ownership” and “gun violence prevention,” the goals that Everytown for Gun Safety, the biggest “gun sense” group, emphasizes.
Why don’t we have a movement? That’s the question I want to wrestle with in this issue of The Connector. Instead of writing another piece about why the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America are so powerful, or the roots of American gun culture in toxic masculinity and racism, or how some commonsense reforms won’t really get at the heart of the problem, I want to ponder the part of the mass shooting cycle that gets glossed over: what happens when outrage gets channeled into activism, and specifically why that part of the process seems to be stuck.
Unlike many other causes that people are fighting for in America, the struggle for a saner set of gun laws has no diversity of tactics. It’s a monoculture, one that’s gotten very good at converting outrage into requests for money that keep organizations going while the problem they claim to be solving gets worse. And yet, like the other parts of the gun crisis cycle, nothing in the advocacy space changes. Why? We should look hard at this question, because when change organizations keep making promises and failing to deliver, they add to the cynicism that already permeates our society, that it’s not worth trying to push for anything because nothing will change.
There is furious anger across America right now at the senseless slaying of 19 fourth-graders and two teachers at the Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on top of the racist massacre in Buffalo ten days earlier. In the first days after the nightmare, people were ready to go to the streets, to stop business as usual until the Senate—the main bulwark of the gun lobby—acts to do some obvious things, like ban the purchase or ownership of AR-15 assault weapons. (Even Donald Trump wanted to do that back in 2018 and 2019, for about 24 hours each time until his staff made sure to keep him on the NRA’s reservation.) But like the Uvalde cops who held back the mothers and fathers of those kids as the shooter rampaged, the professional do-gooders at the big anti-gun violence groups also swung into action, seeking to hold back our fury and channel it into the same, safe and limited channels that they’ve been using for years to “lead” the charge for better gun laws.
Here's what they are doing now. Last Thursday, two days after the Uvalde massacre, March for Our Lives, the newest of the gun sense groups, founded by courageous students who survived the 2018 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, announced that it was calling for a march on Washington on June 11th, to be coupled with sibling marches around the country and lobbying meetings by constituents with their Members of Congress. “It’s time for another March for Our Lives to demand immediate action,” Peyton Arens, a MFOL organizer based in Illinois, said on a Thursday night Zoom call attended by hundreds of activists around the country which I watched. “It’s going to be a high-impact, high volume event run by our organizing staff,” he added. “With Congress back in session June 6th, our game plan is to flood their offices,” said Zeenat Yahya, MFOL’s policy director. “Our policy team will be setting up meetings to get every Member of Congress on the record.” She added, addressing any “adult allies” on the Zoom, telling them that MFOL’s policy and organizing teams are “staffed with the experts.” (In other words, don’t offer us advice.) The main thing adult allies needed to do, she said, was send money.
Later that same night, on a different Zoom call, this one not run in webinar mode but where everyone could see and talk to each other, more than 150 members of Students Demand Action, the youth wing of Moms Demand Action, called for school walkouts for the very next day. It was inspiring to hear from one high-schooler, Peren Tiemann, a 16-year old who had already led a walkout in their Oregon school that they organized in 20 hours and which drew 250 people. I listened as kids as young as sixth graders asked practical questions about how to organize their school, and what to do if teachers or school administrators weren’t supportive. Friday, about 200 schools around the country had midday walkouts. The call ended with a reminder to wear orange this coming Friday, National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
Friday, outside the Senate, Shannon Watts, the mother of five who is the founder of Moms Demand Action, which has been the grassroots arm of Everytown since 2014, stood with a crowd of protestors and Democratic US Senators Chris Murphy, Alex Padilla, Richard Blumenthal, Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse and Kirsten Gillibrand. Watts said, “We are so outraged, and fed up, and we have to do something with that energy. And I think the most important thing we can do is demand action now, but to not stop in just a few days. To keep going all the way through November and to hold any lawmaker who doesn’t act accountable.” The rally ended. The Senators packed their briefcases and caught their flights home. None demanded that Chuck Schumer, their erstwhile leader, cut short their planned ten-day recess to actually take action now. The strategy is to hope that a bipartisan group of Senators can hammer out a deal.
And Watts, who when she started her career as a gun control activist would certainly have been fiercely in the face of those Democratic senators, gave them a pass. Speaking like the professional advocacy organization head she has become, she said if the Senate fails to act, then volunteers from Moms Demand Action would work to elect officials who would create change. “It’s how we flipped the House in 2018,” she told a reporter. “We elected, for example, our volunteer and gun violence survivor Lucy McBath, who is now a congresswoman in Georgia,” Watts said. “It’s how we elected a gun sense president and senate. So yes, we are going to get out the vote harder than ever and we will have this momentum at our backs.”
Also Friday, David Hogg, the one founder of MFOL who is still active with the group, spoke out a rally in Texas. “We will run for office. We will campaign. We will work to get the right, morally just leaders elected….Text MARCH to 954954. The march is just the beginning…. I know you may feel hopeless, but I genuinely believe that after the conversations I’ve had in DC, including with some Republicans, that this time can be different, but we must persist and keep this in the news.” [Emphasis added]
So there you have it. Faced with the same confluence of events that we had in 2018, even worse since now we’re reeling from the racist massacre in Buffalo along with the insanity in Texas, all the wings of today’s “stay on message” gun violence prevention lobby, from the youngest to the oldest, are not just singing from the same songbook, they’re following the same theory of change: trying to convert momentary public attention into successful lobbying of legislators, plus calling occasional big marches and walkouts aimed at converting attention into the successful lobbying of legislators. To be followed by the inevitable electioneering for candidates who are almost all Democrats.
When media attention fades, as it will, this lobby has no plans to create attention on its own beyond “vote harder.” Once again, it is taking what critic Gary Younge called the “empathetic short-cut” of focusing on the most innocent of victims to rally pressure on Congress instead of figuring out and then doing the work of building deep connections with the communities most affected by daily gun violence. Nor is there any talk of creatively disrupting gun shows or snarling the checkout lines at retailers who sell guns. Moms Demand Action don’t do momcotts anymore.
It's as if we’re living in the 1950s and the only groups leading the charge for civil rights are the NAACP and the Urban League, and the only strategy they’re willing to try is polite protest and lobbying. What is keeping the gun careful-don’t-say-the-wrong-words groups from evolving or innovating new strategies?
I Drink Your Milkshake
I have a theory and some receipts to back it up. It’s called bigfooting. Since 2014, the gun control lobby has been essentially rolled up under one roof, Everytown for Gun Safety, with deep backing from one key funder, Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men. After the failure of the Manchin-Toomey bill in the Senate in 2013, which prompted Biden’s silver-lining comment to Giffords, Bloomberg entered the gun control space in a big way. After funding his Mayors Against Illegal Guns group for years, he announced a $50 million initiative to counter the power of the National Rifle Association and placed a former mayoral aide of his, John Feinblatt, at its helm. Moms Demand Action, which Watts had started on an impulse as a Facebook group, was absorbed under Everytown’s umbrella, allowing it to claim an instant army of millions of digital activists. In 2020, Everytown’s c3 and c4 arms took in $47.7 million, on top of about $450 million in contributions from 2014-2019. No other gun control group has anywhere near its financial heft; Giffords and the Giffords Law Center took in about $15 million in 2020; Sandy Hook Promise about the same. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, $3.4 million. The Violence Policy Center just under $1 million. While there are lots of tiny organizations doing vital community work addressing gun violence, including many rooted in faith groups, none have big budgets or national attention.
Have you noticed how the only people who talk critically about Bloomberg’s role in the gun reform movement are the pro-gun zealots? Is it healthy for the work of the “good guys” to be so dominated by one ultra-rich man’s checkbook? Well, there are a LOT of people who have good reason to not talk about Bloomberg’s role, because either they are also benefiting from his funding or hope to be. The New York Times did an exhaustive piece on his philanthropic empire back in 2020, during his brief run for the presidency. Here’s a quick list of who is beholden to him and sample amounts of what he’s given them, drawn from that article: House Democrats (he spent $100 million helping them in the 2018 midterms alone), the Sierra Club (more than $100 million to fight coal), EMILY’s List ($6 million), Center for American Progress ($1.5 million before and another $400,000 after it self-censored a report on anti-Muslim bias by removing a section about the impact of his stop-and-frisk policy as mayor), the League of Conservation Voters ($5 million in 2018), Stacey Abrams ($5 million to her voting rights group) and Terry McAuliffe ($3 million to elect him governor of Virginia in 2013). This isn’t to mention the vast sums he has given to mayors across the country as part of his data-driven smart government push or the monies he has poured into public health programs.
A Bloomberg spokesman told The New York Times in 2020 that he had given the gun control movement $270 million overall since 2007. Everytown, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, told the Times he’s responsible for about one-third of its budget. Either way, he is the big kahuna. And it’s his politics that the organization reflects: a commitment to bipartisanship and quiet collaboration with the police (especially before George Floyd’s murder). Given Bloomberg’s devoted advocacy of stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately targeted Black and Brown youth, as well as his overall distaste for all kinds of participatory protest (recall his handling of Occupy), none of this is surprising. And as the Times noted, with his backing the creation of Everytown “came a stark shift in culture and a rigid new command structure, one that left some activists feeling they were pawns in matching red T-shirts” forced to “communicate exclusively in canned talking points.”
It has also meant severe constraints on strategy. Before the merger, Moms Demand Action was organizing “momcotts” of gun retailers, but as the Times also noted, after the 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, when other groups pressed to get the giant retailer to change its policy, “Moms members were discouraged from attending protests and told not to show any affiliation if they did.” Everytown is the only organization I have ever encountered that asks its volunteers to sign a legal volunteer agreement that binds them to confidentiality and a promise to not publicly disparage it and gags them from speaking about it publicly without prior approval. (For comparison, here’s Greenpeace’s volunteer agreement.)
Until Parkland in 2018, Everytown and its subsidiary arms, Moms Demand Action and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was the main game in town. It didn’t just lobby, to be sure. For example, it invested in building a national “survivor network” of a thousand activists across 46 states who were either survivors themselves or knew or were related to a victim of gun violence. When the 2016 massacre in an Orlando gay nightclub happened, it jumped into action, pushing its digital base to help it lobby lawmakers and reaching out to survivors of Orlando, offering support and hoping to add them to its activist network. As the Washington Post reported back in 2016:
To date, Everytown’s most successful growth campaign came in 2014, immediately following the shooting in Isla Vista, where a man killed six people, including 20-year-old Christopher Michaels-Martinez. In the days after, Michaels-Martinez’s father, Richard Martinez, made an emotional plea to the public. “Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: ‘Not one more,’ ” he said in an interview with The Washington Post after the shooting. “People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough.” [John] Feinblatt was watching Martinez speak and thought out loud: “Can’t we do that? Can we make a tool that you can put your name on and it spits out your address?” So they did — Everytown’s digital team created an online postcard people could fill in their name on and send to lawmakers. They ended up delivering 1.2 million signed postcards to the White House, Congress and governors’ offices and drew 300,000 new people to join Everytown.
I bet Mike Bloomberg was impressed. One of his most famous aphorisms, after all, is: “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.” (Less famous but worth remembering was this comment that he made to the New York Times when he launched Everytown: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”)
Everytown’s Suffocating Embrace
So when Parkland happened, here’s what Everytown did. It stepped in to offer help while working hard to drink the kids’ milkshake. After all, gun violence survivors aren’t supposed to organize themselves; that’s Everytown’s job.
Recall what made the moment after the Parkland shooting different. Among the survivors that day were teenagers who were nearly adults. Unlike the traumatized survivors of so many other shootings, they knew each other beforehand. Some were even on lockdown together, for a long time—three-and-a-half-hours of shared terror. Those social bonds made what came next, organized protest, more natural. They also had a lot of organizing capacity, thanks to a variety of unusual factors. Many had taken classes with an AP Government teacher who emphasized the importance of civics. Many were into theater, or as X Gonzalez—whose great “We call B.S.” speech put them on the national map—put it to Dave Cullen in his book Parkland, “All these kids are drama kids, and I’m a dramatic kid.”
One, David Hogg, was planning to become a journalist and thus had enough wits to use his phone to record live from a classroom hiding place while the shooter was roaming the school, making Hogg of immediate value to national news organizations. Usually, the survivors of a mass shooting don’t do this. Eight hours after the shooting he was on cable TV calling for people to call Congress. As Cullen wrote, “David Hogg startled America. Day One victims don’t talk that way.” Nor do they act as fast as a group; within 48 hours of the shooting the kids were caravaning to the state capitol of Tallahassee to demand action.
After Gonzalez’s “We call B.S.” speech, offers of support poured in, led by Hollywood actor George Clooney, who quickly promised a half-million-dollar donation, followed by similar pledges from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Oprah Winfrey. Clooney also started helping the students build a formal organization. The kids knew right away that they wanted to hold a national march, and they had the media spotlight to do so. But they needed a lot of help, and somewhere early in that process Everytown inserted itself, offering to manage all the logistics of the sibling marches, plus set up a website branded for MFOL that would be the central point of entry for anyone registering to attend any of the marches including the big one in DC.
While, as Cullen writes in Parkland, the kids “were making it up as they went along,” Everytown was not. Its political director Brynne Craig, a veteran of the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns and the DCCC, initially suggested that in return for its services, it would own nearly all the data collected: donors, attendees, leaders and volunteers. Fortunately, some smart people were advising the kids and they objected. Instead, they agreed to co-own the data being generated by the kids’ call, but only the new data. The contract they agreed to, which I have seen, reads, under “Ownership; Limitation on the Use of Data”:
(a) The parties shall co-own and retain all worldwide, intellectual property rights in and to the Data, and said Data shall remain the exclusive property of the Parties.
(b) Notwithstanding the foregoing, Data collected from any individual who is a member of EGSAF [Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund] prior to the Effective Date, shall remain the exclusive property of EGSAF.
What this means is if someone was already in Everytown’s database and they signed up to join any of the MFOL marches, Everytown didn’t have to give their info to the kids. (Ultimately about two million people attended a sibling march, along with about half a million at the main march in DC.) The contract did include a promise from Everytown that “Following the Day of Action, individuals, including EGSAF members, who have RSVP’d for an event via the Landing Page, shall be offered an opportunity by EGSAF to join the March for Our Lives mailing list via one communication (either email or text message) summarizing the Day of Action and next steps.”
In practice, what this meant is that after the March was over, of the 880 sibling marches around the country Everytown only gave the kids organizer information for 194 of them. Everytown sought to exploit MFOL in other ways. For example, even though they agreed to not make changes to the MFOL website without the kids’ permission, Everytown quietly added a Facebook tracking pixel to the landing page after it first went up, so they could start advertising to March registrants to donate to Everytown. If you registered with March For Our Lives to show up at any of the more than 880 marches, including the big one in DC, this is why you started seeing ads pop-up in your Facebook feed asking you to donate to Everytown.
That was in violation of another clause of the contract as well, which prohibited EGSAF from using the landing page for any other purpose than ones explicitly agreed to by MFOL’s prior written consent. Everytown also tried to keep MFOL from putting their own analytics tools on the site, which the kids wanted in order to do their own message testing. Instead, Brynne Craig had her team start sending a daily summary, which contained only limited information.
Not getting the names of all the local sibling march organizers definitely hobbled the kids post-March organizing efforts. As Cullen writes in Parkland, those sibling events planted important seeds, and the kids saw from their own travels around the country that the simple act of one of them visiting a local school had the galvanizing effect of activating local leaders (since they had to go through the hoops of getting permission and organizing an event). Even now, as I read through the accounts of the young people who are part of Students Demand Action or involved in MFOL itself, it’s striking how many of them got their start four years ago with the 2018 March. Many started out trying to form their own local activist group, but then got swept up by Moms Demand Action local organizers or were attracted to Everytown because it already had focus and national attention.
This isn’t to say that MFOL would have necessarily evolved in a different direction without Everytown’s suffocating embrace. The group was captured fairly quickly first by Clooney and his Hollywood pals, all loyal backers of the Democratic establishment, and then by a group of cautious lawyers and professional advisers. Nina Vinik, who was appointed MFOL’s foundering board chair, was a lawyer and longtime program officer at the Joyce Foundation with an entirely conventional policy-centered approach to addressing gun violence. MFOL’s founding vice-chair was a nonprofit lawyer. Other founding board members included a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist at Boardsource; a financial management expert, a former top aide to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa; and the chairman of the California Board of Regents (a powerful body rife with conflicts of interests). The students themselves were trying to figure things out while still dealing with trauma. They excelled at using old and new media, but they were also wary of people trying to supposedly grab their spotlight, making it hard to bring in any new organizers who were launching useful responses. And while they made a stab at using nonviolent civil disobedience themselves, they never encouraged others to do the same.
Delaney Tarr, one of the original founders of March For Our Lives, reflected on her experience last year in an article titled, “The Life Cycle of a Youth Activist.” In it, she talked about being thrust too quickly into the spotlight, expected to be expert on an issue she was just learning, and wooed by everyone under the sun. She calls it the “youth activism industrial complex,” or what happens at the unique intersection of the traumatized teen activist and the nonprofit industrial complex. She writes:
“The youth activism industrial complex takes the teeth out of social movements. Deeply hurt teenagers will organize, but the moment they’re picked up by the public the world becomes a whirlwind of attention. Brand deal offers and media requests will fly by the young activists and soon enough they’ll become another cog in the nonprofit regime. The youth activism industrial complex has become a revolving door for passionate teens who want to make a difference. I experienced it at 17 years old, freshly traumatized and avoiding my grief. I listened to the people who told me I could change the world if I just spoke at their event.”
Sadly, like every other part of the mass shooting news cycle, we seem also fated to watching Everytown and Moms Demand Action also rinse and repeat their chosen role in the drama. Even though the moment is so ripe for action that could break our sense that nothing will ever change—something the Parkland kids also promised—it doesn’t seem as though anyone can break the gravitational pull of big money over the gun reform ecosystem.
Except this. It’s interesting to look at what some of the original leaders of March For Our Lives are saying now. While David Hogg, who has made no secret of his plans to run for Congress as soon as he turns 25, remains fully on board with the strategy and message discipline coming from above, Cameron Kasky writes, “Republicans whining about being harassed in public should meet some people who have been shot in public and see which one is worse; X Gonzalez has gone from “We call B.S.” to “Abolish the Police and Prisons, unfollow me if you don’t wanna hear me cursing out Nazis and the White Supremacist Powers that Be” on their Twitter ID, and Matt Deitsch, who was MFOL’s chief political strategist at the ripe age of 20, now tweets, “Congress, the institution that organized the material conditions that lead to mass death of babies, will not save us.” Could something new be brewing?