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What gun control activists can learn from the movement’s originators

As a new generation of gun law activists fight to make change, its pioneering advocates — from members of Gays Against Guns to Community Justice Reform Coalition and Cure Violence — explain why the fight must be intersectional

“Young people of colour have been organising around gun violence for decades without being given the self-determination to organise how they want to,” says Amber Goodwin, founder of Community Justice Reform Coalition, an evidence-based gun control advocacy group focusing on urban communities of colour. Goodwin founded CJRC in 2016, following the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “So many of the people who died in that church looked like my family. It became personal,” she tells me over email.

During a survey in 2016, Goodwin found that while communities of colour are disproportionately affected by gun violence, none of the organisations that received major funding for gun control and prevention, were led by people of colour, a question that should be at the heart of the fight for the gun activists of the future. “Now is the critical time to not just talk about injustices and privilege,” says Goodwin, “but also lead by example in centring those communities.”

Ahead of the most recent convention held by the National Rifle Association in Dallas, Texas, news surfaced that the US secret service banned all guns in the room while President Trump and Vice President Pence would be giving a speech. It was a confusing message, given the NRA’s catchphrase that ‘the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ “Explain that to me,” says Kevin Hertzog, co-founder of the LGBTQ+ gun control advocacy group, Gays Against Guns. “Explain to me why in a room full of ‘good guys with guns’, the president wouldn’t be safe.”  

Gays Against Guns was established in 2016, in the wake of the shooting at LGBTQ+ nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, Florida. The massacre left 49 dead and many members of the LGBTQ+ community nationwide shaken. “We reserved a room for 60 people and 300 showed up,” recalls GAG member, Ken Kidd, about the group’s first meeting. Several of the group’s veteran members, including co-founder John Grauwiler, started out in the HIV advocacy group, Act Up, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Others, like Cathy Marino-Thomas, came from a background in marriage equality. It was decided early on that GAG would be a direct action group, focusing on confronting gun lobbyists head-on by going to gun shows, picketing (and getting arrested) in front of the senators’ offices in Washington DC or staging ‘die-ins’ at corporations that are known to finance the gun industry. “One thing we’ve done over the past year is follow the money,”  says Kidd. ‘Who’s profiting from this? Who’s getting rich? Who’s making a career?”

Being an LGBTQ+ group, especially one that aims to centre people of colour, means that the members of Gays Against Guns are, statistically, among those most likely to face hate crime in America. A fact that “gave (them) grit” for confrontation, according to Marino-Thomas, as well as kinship with the younger generation of gun activists, whether those that have witnessed a shooting in their school or kids from urban communities of colour organising against police violence. Kidd recounts an early experience of gay-bashing when he was “just a few years older than the Parkland kids”, which left him in hospital for weeks with his jaw wired shut and temporary amnesia. “(The LGBTQ+ community) has always had a rainbow target on our backs. Right at the same time (as the gay-bashing), the Aids pandemic was happening,” he adds. “There’s something very real about staring down death. If that happens to you when you’re young you realise: ‘I don’t have any fucks left to give and I’m gonna channel this anger and fear,’” he says, reflecting on the energy of the younger generation. “Homophobia and gun drills are kind of parallel in a way: you live under the threat of violence your whole life,” says Marino-Thomas. Kidd agrees: “It’s no surprise that when you look at the horrible comments these kids are getting, they always go after their sexuality first.”

Much of the work of Aids-advocacy groups like Act Up was focused on increased research and transparency around HIV as a public health concern. GAG has built their practical framework on a similar approach: they view gun control as a public health issue and call for dedicated resources to investigate it as such. As the result of a 1996 amendment to the US federal spending (lobbied by the NRA and named ‘the Dickey Amendment’ after its author, Republican senator Jay Dickey), the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is currently banned from using federal funds to ‘advocate or promote gun control’. “The opioid epidemic was labelled as such in the year when 22,000 Americans died from opioid overdose,” says Herzog. “That same year, 33,000 Americans died from gun violence. But once you start labelling it a health crisis, it draws attention to the problem in a substantive way, and those who own guns don’t want that kind of attention.”

“Once you start labelling it a health crisis, it draws attention to the problem” – Kevin Herzog

Treating violent crime as an infectious disease is also at the heart of Chicago-based anti-violence organisation, Cure Violence. Established by epidemiologist Dr Gary Slutkin, the model rests on the belief that violence – especially gun crime – enters and spreads in communities the same way epidemics like HIV, cholera or tuberculosis do. As Cure Violence’s Director of Science and Policy, Charles Ramsford tells me over the phone, the organisation trains ‘violence interrupters’, who work with communities to change the culture around violence and prevent the ‘spread’ of gun crime, ideally, before it occurs. But, as with any community work, mutual trust and respect is essential. “With HIV, the people most at risk are often sex workers, so you would hire a current or former sex worker for community outreach,” says Ramsford. “We do the same in violence prevention. We hire people from the community, someone formally involved in gun crime or violence. A lot of the times they know the person’s family, or they have friends in common. The people we hire,” he adds, “we do so specifically for that element of trust.”

Ultimately, the student-led face of the gun violence prevention movement has a crucial task: to make sure guns no longer seem cool. “What you had before was this sexy posturing,” says Herzog. “Now kids can come out and say: this product has become obsolete for us. There's no reason money should be changing hands about it, affecting our health, our lives and affecting our future.”