To beat NRA: disrupt us-versus-them narrative

Feb 27, 2019 at 10:08 am

I am like many other parents I know; I pack my kids up for school and wonder if they might get shot to pieces.

In my career as a lawyer, I’ve looked at lots of photos of dead kids (and people of all ages) who have been shot to pieces. It isn’t nice, but I’m not in denial about it. I know it can happen, I know it can happen to my family, and I know what it looks like. Still, I don’t think much about it, because it’s incomprehensibly painful and because there is not a goddamn thing I can do about it. So, you’ll forgive me if some of my frustration over this whole mess leaches into my keyboard and poisons my language a bit.

Some folks are still in denial that a problem even exists, and that’s something I can kind of wrap my head around. For a human to deny their own sexuality, one’s own mortality, disease, war, abuse, etc., is not uncommon. People are capable of deliberately obliterating from the mind even the most benign things. How could we believe that something so tragic, so horrifying, could happen to us? To our children? To anyone we know?

When I ran for Congress, we did an event at a pizza place in central Indiana, and a guy started off with guns right away. Concerned about his Second Amendment rights. Concerned about everyone else being so concerned about kids getting shot to pieces. Aren’t you concerned that could happen here? “Nah, I’m not concerned. That kind of thing doesn’t ever happen in Indiana.”

Of course, that’s bullshit; it has happened, it does happen, and it will happen again.

But when you’re campaigning, and someone comes up with some gun lobby-inspired propaganda to which there is not (will not soon be/cannot ever be) a coherent response that would get you anywhere but in a time-sucking shouting match, you smile, nod and take the loss.

That’s what I did.

After all, that guy couldn’t do a goddamn thing about it anymore than I could, whether he thought it was a problem or not, and he’d probably rather not think about his grandkids getting shot up in math class.

Where I get lost is: when someone both accepts that there’s a problem with kids getting shot to pieces in schools (I cuss that phrase every time I type it) and has the power to do something about it, but chooses to do nothing.

Fifty years ago, before children being shredded by bullets in our schools became the norm (hell, before you could have made anyone believe it would ever be the norm), beat poet Charles Bukowski wrote: “Knowledge without follow-through is worse than no knowledge at all. Because if you’re guessing, and it doesn’t work you can just say: Shit, the gods are against me. But if you know and don’t do, you’ve got attics and dark halls in your mind to walk up and down in and wonder about.” It seems appropriate to quote last century’s most-prolific vulgarian here, because all I want to do is cuss about this.

And so, being one of many people with useless, impotent knowledge on this one, I’ve got plenty to wonder about, such as: How the fuck do dead kids not move people in power to fucking do something?

The only real policy talk from places such as Indiana and Kentucky, where bought-and-sold politicians hold all the cards, is about getting more guns out there. Kentucky is considering a bill that would eliminate the need for concealed-carry permits, and Indiana is poised to pass a bill that would create specialized firearm training for school personnel. Listen: Arming teachers, custodians and secretaries is the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard of, and if the prevalence of guns could solve problems, the USA would be the Garden of Eden. This course of action, if it can be so called, isn’t substantively different from denial.

You’re tired of smoking-hot takes on this one, and so am I. So, I talked to a volunteer with the Indiana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — an organization committed to “doing something” — about what gun violence prevention activists are doing on a day-to-day basis to make real change. It turns out Indiana’s problem, like that of so many states, bears the stench of Everyone’s Favorite Lobbying Organization. “The NRA is very firmly entrenched in the Indiana legislature,” she said — “and everyone knows it. For years, NRA-backed bills including municipal preemption, Stand Your Ground and allowing guns in our state and city parks and facilities sailed through.”

So what can we do?

According to Moms, “We can start showing up. Legislators who feel no pressure from their constituents feel free to respond instead to special interests and lobbying groups. So we have to recognize that we share the blame if that’s what happens; we share the responsibility for putting the work in to see the policies we support enacted. So we are showing up, in Indiana and across the country. Every year, we show up in greater numbers, with an increasing number of allied organizations and individuals and with greater expertise and experience. We testify. We raise public awareness. We’re learning how to work more effectively with the media. We have learned a lot about how the legislative process works (and doesn’t work). We no longer allow the NRA — and NRA-backed legislators — to thrive in darkness.”

It bears mention that there has been increasing movement in some state legislatures to take up and pass important gun violence prevention initiatives. And Big Kid Congress in Washington just held its first hearings on gun violence in 10 years. The proposed fixes here at home are still dumb as hell, but... progress?

“People are used to seeing this (and are encouraged to see this) as a black and white issue, with people divided into “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” camps,” the Moms volunteer said. “We seek out allies among gun-owners, conservative groups, Republican legislators who are willing to work with us (of whom there are more than a few) and particularly people who have been affected by gun violence, because their voices carry tremendous power and conviction, born of the direct and painful experience of loss.”

To sum up: We need to work on disrupting the us-versus-them narrative the gun lobby likes to peddle. Keeping the pressure on legislators is working, but it’s going to take a sustained effort to see real change. Until our collective denial becomes collective follow-through, we’ll have to keep walking up and down in these attics and dark halls, wondering if our kids will be the next to get shot to pieces, convincing ourselves there’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it. •

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. He recently launched “Midwesticism,” a short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: