Backed by moms and money, gun-safety group expands its clout

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Posted: Oct 24, 2015 11:46 AM
Backed by moms and money, gun-safety group expands its clout

A gun-control organization backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg that enlists mothers to speak out against gun violence is racking up some modest victories around the U.S., employing the state-by-state strategy used so effectively to fight drunken driving and expand gay rights.

Everytown for Gun Safety and its subsidiary, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have helped push six states since 2013 to adopt more background checks on gun sales — what they consider the single most important measure to prevent shootings. They have also helped thwart legislation in several states that would make it easier to obtain firearms and carry them in more places such as schools.

The mighty National Rifle Association still has the upper hand in many places in the U.S. But Everytown, which aspires to become the NRA's counterweight, has certain advantages over prior gun-control campaigns, namely more money, strategic support from the former mayor of New York, and a well-organized network of activist moms whose numbers are growing in reaction to recent mass shootings.

"We merged the head and the heart," said Everytown president John Feinblatt, who was a top mayoral aide to Bloomberg. "We have the smartest lawyers in the country working on this issue, but we also have people who will do anything to make sure their families are protected."

Everytown grew out of the merger last year of the Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action, which was formed by public relations executive Shannon Watts after the 2012 killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

After Congress rejected a move to expand background checks following the Sandy Hook tragedy, activists turned their attention to statehouses, seeking what they say are modest, commonsense laws.

Bloomberg last year pledged $50 million to support Everytown and other gun violence prevention efforts. The nonprofit organization claims more than 75,000 donors and says 3.4 million people have expressed support for its cause by signing up for its email list, including hundreds of shooting survivors and victims' loved ones.

In its most recent tax filing, Everytown reported $36 million in spending in 2013, or about 10 times as much as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a prominent gun-control group that has little presence in states. The 5 million-member NRA spent $290 million that year, including $27 million on its lobbying arm.

The NRA remains a potent force in states. Gun rights supporters have successfully pushed for legislation to allow concealed weapons in more public places and to loosen permit and license requirements that they say undermine the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

A new law in Maine, for example, allows legal gun owners to carry concealed handguns without a permit, wiping out a mandatory permit system that had been in effect for nearly a century. It was a defeat for Everytown, which ran television, radio and digital ads across the state against the bill.

Texas lawmakers gave the gun lobby its best session in 20 years, passing bills to allow those with permits to carry guns in plain sight and to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. Yet even there, lobbying from gun-control supporters helped obtain a significant concession that will allow university administrators to carve out gun-free zones.

Bloomberg's financial backing has caught the attention of the NRA.

"That is our biggest concern here — the amount of money he has and is committing to this," said Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

Still, she said that Everytown is no match for the NRA when it comes to mobilizing for or against legislation, and added that the gun-control organization's claims of success are overstated. She depicted Everytown as a shallow front for Bloomberg's agenda.

The two sides are expected to continue tangling in the coming election year over bills, ballot measures and state legislative races.

Just this week, Everytown said it would spend $700,000 to support the Democratic candidate for a state legislative seat in Virginia, where a gunman killed 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007 and another fatally shot a TV reporter and cameraman during a live broadcast in August. That race in the November election could decide which party controls the state Senate.

Gun control has also become an issue in the presidential race, with Hillary Rodham Clinton pledging to take on the NRA.

Supporters say the tragic mass shootings since Sandy Hook — from South Carolina to Oregon — have galvanized their efforts. Since then, Everytown has tallied more than 150 instances in which guns were fired at schools or on college campuses.

"There is such passion about this because people realize that if they don't act, it could happen to them," said Watts, who formed Moms Demand Action hours after Sandy Hook. "We have become the Mothers Against Drunk Driving for gun safety in a very short amount of time."

Everytown's goals include background checks on all firearm purchases, including those at gun shows and over the Internet; laws preventing domestic abusers from possessing guns, legislation it has helped pass in several states; and safe gun storage programs to protect children from deadly accidents.

Oregon recently became the latest state to extend criminal background checks to private gun sales after Everytown helped elect two more Democrats to the Senate last year. The organization also helped gather enough signatures to put such a measure on the 2016 ballot in Nevada and is pushing for a similar vote in Maine.

In North Carolina, Everytown recently helped defeat a measure that would have eliminated a requirement for handgun buyers to obtain permits from sheriffs. Everytown volunteer Kim Yaman called that a sign of progress, noting that activists failed to stop a law in 2013 that expanded the number of places where people could carry concealed weapons.

"We learned so much from our failure in 2013 and made so many relationships within the GOP. We've got the Democrats, but it was the GOP that saved the day for us," she said.

Yaman told lawmakers the story of how she and her two children, then 10 and 4, locked themselves in a conference room to survive a 1991 mass shooting at the University of Iowa when she was an adult student. The gunman shot one of Yaman's friends in the face, leaving her a quadriplegic.

"People tend to listen to moms for lots of reasons," said North Carolina Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat. Like other lawmakers, he wore an orange tie to show solidarity when hundreds of moms in orange — the favorite color of a girl killed in Chicago — packed the Capitol earlier this year during debate on the gun bill.

In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill in January that would have changed the requirements for obtaining concealed weapons permits. Everytown had flooded his office with phone calls warning the measure would endanger victims of domestic abuse and stalking. The NRA had dismissed those claims as nonsense from "out-of-state, anti-gun elitists."

In Iowa, Everytown lobbied against a plan to eliminate a state law requiring handgun buyers to apply for permits from sheriffs.

"They did a good job of taking facts and skewing them to make it sound egregious," said state Rep. Matt Windschitl, a Republican whose plan died in the Senate.