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I’ve spent 18 years fighting for gun control. Here’s how we win

Bad branding, a knack for giving up, and the uncertain place of women and mothers in the movement has stymied gun reform for a generation. It’s time we changed that.

I’ve spent 18 years fighting for gun control. Here’s how we win
[Photo: Flickr user Phil Roeder]

Eighteen years ago I applied for a permit to march on Washington, called it the “Million Mom March,” and scheduled the protest for Mother’s Day 2000. More than 750,000 protestors turned out on the National Mall. Another 250,000 poured into sister marches across the country. This spring, the March for Our Lives surpassed those numbers. It was a promising sign that the gun control movement is finally regaining momentum after failing miserably to keep Americans safe.

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We’ve failed for a few reasons, but here’s a big one: Each successive wave of activists failed to internalize and build upon their predecessors’ wins. That’s resulted in (among other things) a long history of disastrous branding.

If the generation of reformers inspired by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is going to succeed in passing meaningful gun control legislation, it will need to follow the lead of the school’s namesake–by keeping at it and never giving up. A tenacious suffragist and lifelong conservationist, Stoneman Douglas was at the White House when Bill Clinton signed the landmark Brady Bill in 1993, seven long years after activists like her began fighting for it. Indeed, if the gun control movement’s history tells us anything, it’s that women–and especially mothers–have the tenacity it takes to win real victories over the long term. The post-Parkland generation will need to craft a durable brand that includes them.


Related: Can we redesign how we talk about gun control in America?


A brief history of branding misfires

Shortly after the Columbine High School massacre, in April 1999, I searched online for an organization dedicated to protecting my children, then ages 4 and 5, from gun violence. What I found was a badly branded mess known variously as the “gun control,” “gun reform,” “gun safety,” “gun sense,” and “gun violence prevention” (GVP) movement. Whatever you called it, none of the organizations under that many-named banner had the funding or visibility of their nemesis, the National Rifle Association (NRA), a well-known brand since 1871. Even worse, none seemed eager to attract the demographic most likely to support gun control: women.

Having worked for a U.S. senator and a Louisiana state legislator, I knew how elected officials feared well-organized women’s organizations. To me, organizing the Million Mom March on Mother’s Day was a no-brainer. In addition to being a slow news day, it was also an opportunity to reclaim the holiday for what its 1870 founder intended–as a day of protest by women robbed of their sons from the carnage of civil war.

Instead of grieving for boys slaughtered on battlefields, the mothers of my generation were mourning children gunned down in their own neighborhoods and in their schools–from the first-grader in Flint, Michigan, fatally shot by another first-grader to the schools with higher body counts in towns with names like Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro, Springfield, and Littleton. Promoted by Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnell, Diane Sawyer, and other prominent women in media, the Million Mom March appeared to herald a unified movement finally coming into focus.

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It didn’t turn out that way, but certainly not for lack of trying.

Four days after the march, I merged the Million Mom March volunteer organization with a nonprofit called the Bell Campaign, a bizarrely branded group with a brilliant concept, which was to create a national network of local chapters in the mold of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Less than a year later, the Bell Campaign’s national office fell apart after the late billionaire Andrew McKelvey reconsidered his plan to fund such a MADD-inspired organization and chose instead to create yet another new organization, Americans for Gun Safety. Both it and the Bell Campaign are now defunct.

At the time, the most recognizable leader in the gun control movement was Sarah Brady, then chair of Handgun Control, Inc (HCI). In an effort to take advantage of two well-known brands, HCI attempted to rebrand itself, in 2001, as the “Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence united with The Million Mom March.” The long name was the least of its problems. Sarah Brady, diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999, was unable to fully promote the rebranding, and the nonprofit struggled, losing donors and members in a post-9/11 America. (Sarah died in 2015, a year after the death of her husband Jim Brady, the former White House Press Secretary wounded in an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981.)

For a brief while, the Brady Campaign tried rebranding its Million Mom March chapters as “Brady Moms” (a name with a crappy acronym). The effort failed. Today the only strong, surviving brand to emerge from the Million Mom March is the ASK Campaign, which was launched on the National Mall that Sunday in 2000 and encourages parents to ask if there’s a gun at home where their children play and, if so, whether it’s unloaded and locked up. The life-saving ASK Campaign was officially recognized in 2017 by the Government Accounting Office as the most effective safe storage program that currently exists.

Problems persist

While the Million Mom March succeeded in recruiting hundreds of thousands of women to join the myriad gun control organizations that existed 18 years ago, I failed to create a sustainable “mom”-branded organization. Meanwhile, the overall movement’s jumbled branding persists.

Some of the best state-level policy nonprofits, for example, are organized under the umbrella group States United to Prevent Gun Violence, whose web address for some reason is “ceasefireusa.org.” This is the visual cornucopia of their logos on States United’s website:

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[Image: States United to Prevent Gun Violence]
It doesn’t end there. A key piece of Sarah and Jim Brady’s legacy is the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (website: “bradycampaign.org”), the crown jewel in the gun control movement’s legal apparatus. It has long boasted the most effective lawyers for suing irresponsible gun sellers and owners, but it sadly doesn’t understand swag: If you want to order apparel before attending a rally, you need to navigate to “enoughstuff.org,” where you’ll find shirts and bags declaring “#ENOUGH” alongside tops in a dozen different colors, printed with everything ranging from pussy-hats to slogans like (and this is all on the same tee) “STOP GUN VIOLENCE / I’M WITH HER / MAKING THE MARCH MATTER.”

The place of moms in a post-Parkland movement

It’s no accident that women and moms figure prominently in the history of gun control’s branding travails. Female leaders, and mothers in particular, remain among the most powerful constituencies in the movement—and arguably still its most effective branding device. The March for Our Lives boasts a sleek brand identity that previous mom-centric efforts have lacked. The challenge for the post-Parkland gun control movement will be in merging these strengths for the long haul.

One organization has already made inroads. After the horrific Newtown massacre on December 14, 2012, history repeated itself when an Indiana mom wanted to join a “mom” group, and couldn’t find one. So she launched a Facebook page that eventually morphed into “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” Since then, Moms Demand Action, working alongside a diverse range of coalitions, has had a 93% success rate against NRA-supported measures in statehouses.

While most legislative victories are coalition-based, Moms Demand Action still stands out largely thanks to its branding; moms (and dads, too) in their highly identifiable red t-shirts project strength and unity to elected officials across America.

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This fact may seem so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning, but it’s actually crucial. Working at the state and local levels too often means sacrificing national visibility, yet Moms Demand Action has managed both–all while achieving significant legislative gains. Still, Congress hasn’t passed a single federal gun control law since 1994. The challenge for the new wave of activists will be to transform the March for Our Lives into a massive Vote for Our Lives–not just in the November midterms but in every election afterward until Congress finally acts.


Related: How one mom is leading millions to take on the NRA


That will take savvy branding, but it will also mean harnessing the still-powerful force of women and mothers, building on and magnifying the formula Moms Demand Action is already using. Indeed, the effectiveness of women-led activism is clear even when motherhood isn’t a branding element: the Brady Chapters remain a powerhouse in California, racking up victory after victory. Despite dropping its “mom” name in 2006, the group has retained its MADD-inspired model of rotating leadership, which helps keep egos at bay.

Finally, success will hinge on Stoneman Douglas’s own never-give-up philosophy. It’s what got both the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban passed, in 1993 and ’94 respectively. When the latter came up for renewal in 2004, we lost that fight–and then gave up. For all its strengths, not even Moms Demand Action pursues a ban on assault weapons today. The Parkland activists are pushing us back in that direction. It is the right direction.

Countless pollsters will tell you that “twenty-somethings don’t vote” but that parents do. It remains to be seen whether the movement’s student reformers will be able to bring young people to the polls in large numbers on the issue of gun control. But they should actually widen their target, not shrink it–appealing not just fellow voting-age teens and college students but to their parents, too.

We know such a strategy can work. We need it to now more than ever.

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Donna Dees is the founder of the Million Mom March and co-director of the documentary Five Awake.

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