Energy Building in Gun Control Movement
The gun violence prevention movement just beat the NRA’s vaunted “5 million” when it mattered most.
Over the years, pundits looking at the issue of guns in America have commented on the “Passion Gap” between pro-gun activists and gun violence prevention (GVP) activists. As someone who’s worked in the GVP movement for 16 years, I often tell folks who side with me on the issue that we need to be honest: for several decades, pro-gun activists have indeed exhibited more energy, more resolve than our side has. For whatever reason, they have wanted weak gun laws more than we want sane ones.
But that changed on Sunday when gun violence prevention activists won a high-profile online poll that the National Rifle Association went all-in on.
The voting was organized by the Open Debate Coalition, a bipartisan “coalition of people and organizations from across the ideological spectrum urging that political debates be made more ‘of the people’ by bringing them fully into the Internet age.” Their Statement adds, “The public should be empowered to conceive and select debate questions — so that questions addressed by candidates represent the will of the people.”
The Open Debate Coalition’s landing page asked people which questions they would like to ask Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the second presidential debate. Folks were able to submit questions themselves or vote for questions submitted by others. The page had a ticker that counted down the number of days and hours until the start of the debate. The banner on the page declared:
Search and vote for questions about issues that are important to you! [October 9th’s] “town hall” debate will feature questions from the Internet — ABC and CNN moderators agreed to consider the Top 30 questions voted up on this site! Watch the debate right here at 9pm EDT to find out if they chose yours!
Pretty much from the get-go, the voting was a two-horse race between Richard Martinez, whose son Chris was killed in the horrible Isla Vista mass shooting, and anonymous pro-gun activist “Tim S.”
Richard’s question asked the candidates “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?” He then wrote, “My son was murdered by someone who should have never had a gun. Gaps in our current system make it easy for felons & other dangerous people to buy guns online & at gun shows, no questions asked.” Simply put, Richard was asking for universal background checks.
“How will you ensure the 2nd amendment is protected?” was the question “Tim” asked the candidates. “Too much crime is blamed on the tool, not the person,” he added. “How will you protect law abiding citizens to protect themselves.” Tim was parroting gun nut rhetoric about guns being “tools” like a rake or screwdriver. The “law-abiding” thing was also nonsense. Many categories of lawbreakers can legally buy guns in this country, including those under past restraining orders and individuals with violent misdemeanor convictions.
After taking an initial lead, Tim’s pro-gun question was overtaken by Richard’s. By October 3rd, Richard’s background checks question had built a lead that ranged from approximately 2,000 to 17,000 votes.
During this period, both sides on the gun issue worked to push their supporters to the Open Debate Coalition webpage. Everytown for Gun Safety worked directly with Richard, a member of their Everytown Survivor Network. Everytown sent alerts to its sizable email list of three million (including 45,000 active volunteers) and did terrific appeals with Richard on social media.
[Full Disclosure: The group I work for, One Pulse for America, issued action alerts to our members asking them to vote for Richard’s question. Many other national and state gun violence prevention groups did so as well. Our members responded enthusiastically to the campaign.]
The NRA was busy, too, working its own list of “five million” members in support of the question authored by “Tim S.” The NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued its alert asking supporters to vote for Tim’s pro-gun question on September 30th. The NRA also asked their five million Facebook followers (this five million is of the non-dues-paying variety) to vote for Tim’s question. Their 400,000 Twitter followers were asked at least seven times. [I will post links for all these NRA alerts below.]
But something funny happened on Sunday, the day of the debate.
At 3PM EST that day, Richard’s question was leading by 10,000 votes: 75,617 to 65,586. At that point, the pro-gun vote began to surge, overtaking Richard’s question and eventually generating 100,000 votes in the space of just six hours. The final vote tally was 160,000 to 134,000. This was a period of intense activity by groups on both sides, but something seemed off.
As it turns out, the Open Debate Coalition detected bot activity that dramatically increased the pro-gun question’s vote total between 3PM and 9PM on Sunday. Marking the point at which the bot activity began, 3PM EST on Sunday, they froze the vote there, with Richard’s question winning 75K to 65K over Tim’s and comfortably obtaining the top spot in total votes.
It was a seminal moment in gun politics.
Make no mistake. The NRA wanted to win this poll. They have endorsed Donald Trump and invested $21 million (already) in helping him obtain the White House. They understand that Hillary Clinton will aggressively push her gun reform agenda and could be nominating one or more Justices to the Supreme Court. There’s not a lot of love out there for the D.C. v. Heller decision authored by Justice Scalia in 2008. And even when Scalia was around, the Supreme Court wanted nothing to do with further rewriting 200+ years of jurisprudence on the Second Amendment. The prospect of our nation reverting to a traditional, “collective” reading of the Second Amendment looms large.
The Open Debate Coalition poll took place on the national stage in a high-stakes presidential contest. The prospect of having a pro-gun question asked at the second presidential debate, a question voted on by We The People, must have been tantalizing to the gun lobby. The NRA threw the full weight of its grassroots behind the question posed by Tim S. and lost, decisively, in a storm of questionable activity.
Goodbye, Passion Gap. It was nice knowing you.
But the media didn’t notice, because for some unknown reason, the moderators at the second presidential debate, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, didn’t ask one of the Top 30 questions from presidentialopenquestions.com. Instead, they asked a question that got only 13 votes(!).
Here’s how Lilia Tamm Dixon, the director of the Open Debate Coalition, explained the mess in an email on Tuesday:
All of the top 30 questions that moderators promised to consider received over 20,000 votes, and the top two questions each received over 65,000 votes. This was an unfortunate example of cherrypicking by moderators to give their own questions the veneer of representing the public. Popular questions on guns, Social Security, government reform, student debt, climate, immigration, and other issues went unasked.
So now the Open Debate Coalition has launched a petition urging third presidential debate moderator Chris Wallace to ask a question from their Top 30.
It’s a bit of a circus, for sure. And it obscures the fact that something special just happened.
The truth is the gun violence prevention movement has had more energy than the pro-gun side for some time now. That energy has grown, steadily, since Newtown and over the course of so many gruesome mass shootings since then.
Thanks to Everytown and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention movement now has the resources to do things at scale. But just as important, the movement has volunteers in every state that are engaging on this issue on a daily basis. That is novel for the GVP movement, the Holy Grail.
This combination, capacity-building + grassroots energy, is what won the day for Richard Martinez’s question on universal background checks (which should have been law in this country decades ago).
That combination is also going to win the day in several important gun-related ballot referendums on November 8th. [Keep your brooms handy.]
Wake up, national media, a new day has dawned.
The “Passion Gap” is history.
NRA Alert Links