Gun Control Advocates Take A Different Approach In Deep Red States

Apr 15, 2019
Originally published on April 15, 2019 2:15 pm

States across the country are passing gun control legislation in response to mass shootings, as groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America gain political clout. In deep red states, though, activists must both temper their expectations and reckon with residents and lawmakers often hostile to any limitations on their right to bear arms.

In Boise, Idaho, Moms Demand Action activists meet in a spartan, unmarked office. They don’t advertise meetings beyond their members for fear of harassment. They say they’ve been taped secretly, attacked online, and even stopped in the halls of the state Capitol by their opponents.

The local Boise activists are part of a nationwide group that sprung out of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in which the shooter killed 27 people, most at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself. The group members’ red shirts stand out at legislative hearings and rallies.

Nationally, the group has been pushing politicians to adopt stricter regulation on guns and even getting pro-regulation candidates elected to Congress. Much of their funding has come from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg — a bogeyman for gun rights proponents — and the group he founded, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which later merged with Everytown For Gun Safety.

The national organization says it has more than 350,000 donors and boasts local chapters in all 50 states.

Gun control activists, however, face tremendous headwinds in many red states. Kentucky, for example, recently became the latest state to implement so-called constitutional carry, the ability to carry concealed weapons with no permit.

State groups like Idaho’s are all-volunteer and pay for events from a mix of donations and funding from the national organization. In Idaho, as in many states, victories for organizations like Moms Demand Action are often marked not in growing political power or the organization of mass rallies, but in gun locks handed out, safe storage lessons taught and legislation not passed.

The topic of gun violence can be so divisive that people don’t want to have these conversations,” said Elana Story, a former medical social worker who leads Moms Demand Action in Idaho.

‘I Didn’t Want This For Their Future’

On a recent morning at her Boise home, Story made pancakes, readied her 3-year-old son for school and tended to a sick daughter. Asked what motivates her for what can feel like a Sisyphean task of calling for gun reform in a state with one of the highest rates of firearm ownership in the country — nearly 60 percent of Idaho households own guns — she points to her kids.

“Gun violence is an epidemic and it’s getting worse,” she said. “As a mother of a 2- and 4-year-old, I didn’t want this for their future.”

Nationally, the gun homicide rate has plummeted since highs in the 1990s, though there has been an upward trend recently. The number of people shot in mass shootings, for instance, has risen in recent years, although not everyone agrees on the definition of a mass shooting.

Heath Druzin, Boise State Public Radio

Elana Story, leader of the Idaho chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, plays with her son at the Idaho Capitol while awaiting floor debate on a gun bill the group opposed.

Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio

The Idaho Legislature is one of the most Republican-dominated in America, with the party controlling 80 percent of seats across two chambers. The current session is indicative of the difficulty that any gun legislation faces. Even a bill to restrict the gun rights of certain sex offenders ran into intense opposition and had to be watered down in order to narrowly pass the Idaho House of Representatives. Proponents didn’t even bother bringing back a bill to keep guns out the hands of convicted domestic abusers, which failed in 2018, citing lack of support.

In comparison, a bill to lower the age to legally carry a concealed weapon in cities to 18-years-old easily passed the House and awaits a Senate vote.

Last year, the big debate at the state Capitol was not whether or not to pass stand your ground legislation, but how far to push the definition in favor of a shooter who claims self-defense. Idaho Moms Demand Action opposed both bills and counted it as a victory when the less permissive bill passed. This year, while some gun legislation opposed by the group is moving forward, one bill they packed a committee room to oppose died. It would have prevented school districts from restricting people with enhanced concealed carry permits from being armed on K-12 public school campuses.

Some local Moms Demand Action activists joke that their legislative approach is “failing forward.”

“For us, we’re just trying to maintain our ground, where things are,” said Kate Bell, an Idaho native and the group’s legislative volunteer. “It’s hard to get any proactive legislation going, but maybe in the future. We know it’s going to take time.”

In the absence of political wins, the group focuses more on practical safety steps like encouraging parents to lock guns and store ammunition separately.

Crossing The Line?

The Idaho chapter of Moms Demand Action has grown steadily since forming in 2017, going from one Boise-based group to four regional offshoots across the state.

But contrary to the outspoken activism you might see in more liberal states, in Idaho group members tend to fly under the radar by design. Members say they have been targeted by vicious Facebook posts and intimidation.

At a recent session of the Idaho House of Representatives, Story and her Moms Demand Action compatriots packed a section of the gallery anticipating floor debate on a gun bill they opposed. Just a few feet away, a group of gun rights activists filled part of the adjacent section in support of the bill. Tension filled the air, but the groups didn’t acknowledge each other and kept their gazes toward the House floor below. When the legislating was done, they walked out in opposite directions.

Heath Druzin, Boise State Public Radio

Mom’s Demand Action activists watch the Idaho House of Representatives debate at the state Capitol. They are required to turn their red Moms Demand Action shirts inside out to comply with Capitol gallery rules that prohibit political slogans.

Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio

The secretly recorded video of a Moms Demand Action activist and her daughter is up on the Facebook page of the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance, which opposes almost any form of gun regulation. In it, the group’s president presents a warning to supporters:

“No matter what state you are in, understand your enemy,” Alliance president Greg Pruett says in the video. “Know your enemy.”

Bell says the political battle sometimes crosses the line into intimidation, a sense heightened by the fact that many gun rights supporters carry guns while walking the marble halls of the Capitol. That echoes national concerns, such as those raised after the National Rifle Association’s magazine carried a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a shooting, with the headline “Target Practice.”

This session we’ve seen a few behaviors that have been a little intimidating when people might block the door to the offices of legislators, ask us where we’re going and what we’re doing,” Bell said.

The Idaho Second Amendment Alliance’s Pruett and other gun rights supporters deny any intimidation tactics, saying they focus solely on lobbying for their issues.

“We don’t condone anyone harassing anybody,” Pruett said.

The Idaho Second Amendment Alliance and Idaho Moms Demand Action are diametrically opposed, both in their philosophy on guns and their tactics. Moms Demand Action espouses reaching out to gun owners to find common ground, a lofty goal in this charged political atmosphere. The Second Amendment Alliance practices “confrontational politics,” a strategy outlined by a book of the same name that urges conservatives to take a more in-your-face approach.

Most importantly, the Second Amendment Alliance has closer ties to members of the majority party, meaning they’re in a better position to play offense and get legislation passed.

Story, though, is optimistic about the future, despite the hurdles.

“Our wins look different here in Idaho,” she said, “but I am thrilled about our progress and what we’ve done to create this grass roots movement.”

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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