When moms and mayors join forces, look out: change happens. Then-mayors Michael Bloomberg (New York City) and Thomas Menino (Boston) formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006. The coalition now includes more than 1,000 current and former mayors.
In December 2012, after 20 children and six adults were fatally shot at a Connecticut elementary school, stay-at-home mom Shannon Watts founded Moms Demand Action to work to end the epidemic of gun violence. The focus: urging moms, dads, grandparents and other regular people to make the issue a priority and get involved by contacting lawmakers, writing letters to the editor, speaking to their faith communities or school groups.
Subsequently, representatives of the two groups met and decided to work together – forming Everytown for Gun Safety, a nationwide organization with more than 3.5 million supporters. In October 2014, Beth Commers came aboard as an organizer in Minnesota, one of a handful of states where Everytown joined existing initiatives to build coalitions.
The group targeted states where polling data showed that people wanted change, yet it wasn’t happening.
When Commers met with members of law enforcement and public health communities about how to reduce homicides and suicides, the “number one thing” they said was needed in regards to guns was criminal background checks on all purchases. According to Public Policy Polling, 84 percent of Minnesotans favor this approach. It’s the issue Everytown has honed in on in the state.
Currently, says Commers, there are three types of sales that do not require background checks in Minnesota: gun show sales, online sales, and individual-to-individual sales.
It’s been estimated that about 60 percent of U.S. gun purchases involve pre-purchase background checks. “If you’re getting on a plane where 60 percent of passengers are being checked and 40 percent are not – are you OK with that?” Commers asks. “Are you OK with it if 60 percent of the drivers on the road with you have had the road test?”
Commers has some theories on why popular support for criminal background checks hasn’t led to the policy’s adoption. The support for gun safety and reducing gun violence is broad, she says – but it is the conversation about it that can sometimes muddy the issue. “We don’t need to change the culture, we just need to change the conversation. Similar to how we made cars safer without getting rid of cars, we can have reasonable conversation about what we need to do to make guns safer without jeopardizing our rights. The Second Amendment is here to stay.”
Leading up to the re-convening of the Legislature in March, the group has been working on building a coalition in support of closing the background check loopholes.
According to one of the many statistics that Everytown compiles, 38 percent of mass shooters in the United States were prohibited from purchasing a gun. A background check would have most likely flagged them.
Personal and political
As second-wave feminists pointed out decades ago: the personal is political. Likewise, for many in the gun-safety movement, this issue is deeply personal. In Commers’ case, a cousin and an aunt by marriage died by suicide with a gun.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, there were more than 41,000 suicides nationwide in 2013 – more than half of them were by firearm. There is a higher suicide risk in homes with firearms, according to Harvard studies. The longer the waiting period required for gun ownership in a state, the lower the suicide rate, a 2015 American Journal of Public Health study reported.
In Minnesota, at least three-fourths of gun deaths each year tend to be suicides.
Fears of school shootings also weigh heavy. According to Everytown, there have been at least 160 school shootings in the U.S. since 2013.
Despite the ongoing political challenges facing advocates of expanded background checks, Commers is confident that change is coming.
Everytown has been successful in many legislative changes. “Eighteen states and the District of Columbia – which account for 48.8 percent of Americans – have some form of background checks on all gun purchases,” she says.
“This is not a fringe issue.”
What “Everyperson” can do
If you’d like to get involved, Beth Commers suggests:
• Use social media to get your friends focused on the problem of gun violence and the need for policies to prevent it.
• Contact your state legislators and U.S. Congresspersons to ask them to take action against gun violence. www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts
More suggestions at everytown.org/act and momsdemandaction.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota suggests these suicide prevention resources, including metro area mental health crisis response teams:
www.namihelps.org/education/suicide-prevention.html and www.namihelps.org/support/crisis-resources.html
Anoka: 763-755-3801 Carver/Scott: 952-442-7601
Dakota: 952-891-7171 Washington: 651-777-5222
Ramsey: Adults – 651-266-7900, Children – 651-774-7000
Hennepin: Adults – 612-596-1223, Children – 612-348-2233
National Suicide Prevention LifeLine 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/Online