Within 24 hours of the Newtown shooting, Meg Staunton and her friend Nancy Lefkowitz asked local parents to come together to prevent gun violence from ever visiting their state again.
The two Fairfield, Conn., residents scheduled a Monday morning meeting, choosing Lefkowitz's kitchen as the location, and put a message on Facebook. "Her kitchen is pretty small," Staunton told The Huffington Post. "All of a sudden, it was 150 people coming."
By Monday, the group had to relocate to a church. More than 200 attended, including Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.).
Staunton said she's never been involved in a political cause, never even organized a community event. But her response to the Friday shooting by a lone gunman that left 26 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is typical right now. Longtime gun control advocates said the Newtown shooting is bringing gun control advocates out in an unprecedented way.
"People responding to what is essentially a couple of individuals wanting to organize is what we're hearing is happening all across the country," said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor of public health and policy at Johns Hopkins University who has studied grassroots efforts against gun violence.
The public's attention to the media coverage of the Newtown shooting has already surpassed that of July's mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., and the reaction to the Virginia Tech University massacre in 2007. This past weekend, from Brooklyn to Baltimore to Oakland, Calif., there was a spike in the number of people partaking in pre-scheduled gun buyback programs.
"There's just something that has ignited a response in this country that we haven't seen," said Frattaroli. "It really is a matter of scale: the number of calls, the number of people who are interested in figuring out how they can engage, how they can work on these issues, how they can be responsive so that the many lives lost on Friday do not go unrecognized without some kind of action."
Gun law reform in the past began by chipping away at the state level, she said, with grassroots groups and faith-based initiatives discussing existing policies with their elected officials. As a result of the nation's familiarity with gun violence, there is already a solid network of organizations to help rally first-time gun control activists, Frattaroli said.
Amy Pines, a mother from Westport, Conn., has worked with a number of these groups since 2000, and attended the meeting planned by Staunton and Lefkotwitz. All three women are now organizing a march in Hartford, Conn., to mark the three-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, and they plan to work together to lobby politicians to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines in the state.
As someone who has long advocated for changes to gun laws, Pines said the response following the Sandy Hook shooting is unlike anything she's seen before.
"I can have an event and my friends and family will come and donate and will support me. But then people go back to their lives," said Pines. "There's something different about this … It's like it has awoken the sleeping giant."
She's putting together a "Gun Laws 101" seminar where people will be encouraged to ask basic questions that they might otherwise feel embarrassed to ask. "People who want to raise their hands and say, 'What is the gun show loop?' I feel for them," she said.
Shira Goodman, the executive director of the CeaseFirePA coalition in Pennsylvania, said her organization is still figuring out how to best harness the support it has seen since Friday. "We've seen vigils, people doing their own MoveOn.org or SignOn petitions," said Goodman. "The nature of this tragedy involving so many little children has gotten people to look at the issue differently than they have before."
So far, the organization has told people to do two things: Send condolence cards to the victims' families, and petition leaders in Pennsylvania and Washington to say, "The time is now."
Although the Sandy Hook massacre took place in a bucolic New England town, many of the country's most experienced advocates for gun control live in poor, urban areas where violence is a constant danger.
Gloria Cruz, who lives in the South Bronx and has been advocating for stricter gun laws since she lost her 10-year-old niece to a stray bullet in 2005, noted that while that gun violence is experienced differently in urban settings versus places like Newtown, stricter gun laws are part of any solution.
"We're having a national crises that firearms are too easily available and we have to keep dangerous weapons out of dangerous hands," said Cruz. "We need better background checks, more advocacy in gun ownership with regards to training and how to lock up your guns … We need to have renewable gun law permits in place, things in place to try to stop this from continually happening."
As the momentum for such legislation builds, some opponents of strict gun laws worry about the surge of activism. David Angeli, a prominent criminal-defense lawyer in Portland, Ore., who described himself as liberal on most social issues, questioned the efficacy of some gun-control laws, like bans on concealed handguns.
"The fear that I have as a criminal defense lawyer is that I've seen too many instances where some really emotional and significant event occurs that grabs the national consciousness, as this event should, but then policy gets enacted based on that emotional reaction, as opposed to based on a dispassionate and hard look at both the legal and practical realities," he said.
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a longtime gun control advocate, has a different perspective; her pregnant sister and brother-in-law were shot and killed in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka in 1990. She received more than 100 emails over the weekend from local people "who've never been involved in the issue before and who now want to get involved," she said.
The messages sounded a lot alike: What can I do? I've got to do something. Please give me something to do.
On Saturday night, Bishop-Jenkins offered to host a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Sandy Hook. She invited people to a picnic shelter in a forest preserve in Northfield, Ill., and expected only a small group of friends and family members.
"Then, I saw the parking lot into the forest preserve starting to fill up. We had 45 people turn out in the cold, dark, pouring rain," Bishop-Jenkins said. "It just stunned me, and it was people from all over the northern suburbs, some of them coming from 45 minutes to an hour away."
After Bishop-Jenkins read the names of all the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, she opened the floor. Some people wept, and said that they were ready to take a stand against gun violence.
For now, Bishop-Jenkins is collecting contact information and directing people to websites where they can learn about organizations like Demand a Plan, a partnership between mayors who support stricter gun regulations and the survivors of recent mass shootings.
"There've been trickles, certainly after Virginia Tech," Bishop-Jenkins said, referring to the level of support she has witnessed in the 22 years she has worked against guns. "But this is what I would call a deluge."
Source: Project Vote Smart, Graphic by: Chris SpurlockComments