A harrowing and tragic evening brought Kim Parker Russell to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence where she is now a regional organizing manager. There, Kim has accomplished something heroic. She has forged optimism from trauma. Not cheery, lightweight optimism, but optimism borne of sound strategy and the conviction that change is possible and likely if folks like you and me get involved.
I must confess that in my heart of hearts when I say “folks like me,” I mean those of us who have lost hope. In Chicago, it’s easy to believe that we’re on an inexorable blood-soaked march to a gun laden apocalypse. Just this past week, we heard about a toddler shot in the back seat of her aunt’s car when someone (still unknown) aimed a bullet through the car’s trunk in the middle of the day. Another young man was killed as he rehearsed a rap video with his friends near the playground in Foster Park. Then we learned a statistic that made us catch our breath even in this city: more than one thousand shootings here already this year.
Kim kindly emailed with me about the terrible event that set her life on a new course, about New York’s Fun Lovers Unite! An Evening of Music, Comedy and Gun Sense, which the Brady Campaign is co-sponsoring with Josh Mills and Maccabee Montandon on May 11, and about channeling our sorrow and overwhelm into progress and change.
Q: What inspired you to dedicate your career to this cause?
A: I survived a shooting in 1999 and lost a dear friend. For years I didn't do anything about it, but when I found out about Sandy Hook, while my daughter was sitting in a first grade classroom in Brooklyn, I had an intense episode of PTSD. It rocked me to my core. All I could see in my mind was what had happened to me – a gun pointed to my head and running from gunfire –happening to my kids. After that, there was nothing else I could do.
Q: What should parents tell their kids about guns? How do you explain the violence in the news and help them stay safe without terrifying them?
A: This is a tough question and one every parent needs to carefully consider. Parents know their children best, so tell them what they can handle. My kids see the work I do so they're more aware than most, but I saw an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with my son when he told me about a lockdown drill at school.
He still doesn't know about Sandy Hook, but I'll tell him when he's ready. It's important for me that my children know that there are more good people out there than bad and to always find the good ones. My older daughter had a different experience and I blogged about it here.
Q: What will the Fun Lovers event be like? What can eventgoers expect and what will they take away?
A: This event is going to be just plain fun. We'll be raising awareness about gun violence prevention (GVP), too, of course. A lot of folks care deeply about this issue but may be afraid to take it on. Admittedly, it's a very depressing American problem, but it's not hopeless and we can have some fun while we're making life-saving changes. We're at a tipping point and I for one am very excited about the path of this movement.
Q: What are three effective things we can do today to advance this cause?
A: 1. Join a local chapter of the Brady Campaign and/or follow a state GVP organization.
2. Find a rally, make a sign, and raise some hell.
3. Most importantly call your legislators! Remember, they work for us and 91 percent of Americans support expanded Brady background checks. Clearly, they're not doing their job, so hold them accountable.
An extra one:
4. An oldie but a goodie: Donating money is always welcome as we're fighting a well-funded lobby.
Q: How do we keep the momentum going year around?
A: Events like “Fun Lovers Unite” are an incredible outlet to raise awareness and we're thrilled to be working with these guys. So, more of this! Pop culture can play a huge role in engaging Americans on this issue, or any issue for that matter.
Same-sex marriage saw a boon of acceptance thanks to shows like Will & Grace and Ellen. GVP's time has come. Black-ish and The Good Wife have both aired recent episodes featuring this issue and several documentaries are coming out this season. Even women's magazines like Cosmo, Glamour, and Marie Claire are taking it on — the tipping point is here.
Personally, what keeps me going is knowing that I'm making a safer place for my kids, and their kids and so on. My children are seven and ten years-old and, yes, they get tired of "mommy's work" but I know they're proud of me. It's also fulfilling to watch them learn about politics and understand the process of how change can be made from the grassroots.
Q: Which is more impactful - lobbying Congress, local government, or both?
A: Absolutely both. Same-sex marriage is a great example of why state government is so important. It was state-by-state actions that prompted the federal government to respond.
Recently we've seen states like Oregon and Washington pass expanded background checks via ballot initiative. We're going for more. Our sights are set on Nevada and Maine this year. It's time-consuming but we're in it for the long haul.
And folks who live in states with strong gun laws, like I do in New York, shouldn't be fooled into thinking they're now safe from this problem. As long as people can purchase a firearm without a Brady background check in states like Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, there will always be an easy flow of guns.
And get this: Gun trafficking is not a federal crime! Right now if someone is caught trafficking a gun into another state, the penalty is the same as if they were trafficking a chicken. Senator Gillibrand has authored a bi-partisan bill to make gun trafficking a federal crime, so call your Senator and urge them to sponsor it.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles to passing and enforcing gun reform laws and how can they be overcome?
A: Simple. The gun lobby and their bought politicians. The gun lobby markets fear to Americans while buying politicians in order to obstruct sensible gun reform and promote dangerous laws. “Stand Your Ground.” Guns in churches, daycares, and bars. Guns on Campus. To name a few.
Q: Is there any common ground between those who support gun law reform and the opposition?
A: Ninety-one percent of Americans support background checks, so I would say there is a ton of common ground. It's the gun lobby and the craven politicians they've bought who paint this dreadful image of gloom and doom behind every corner. They want to sell guns. The NRA even re-wrote fairytales to include guns! Little Red Riding Hood is okay because granny had a gun. What I want is for the 91 percent of Americans who support expanding Brady background checks – which includes over 70 percent of NRA members – to become vocal. Be heard and vote on this issue! We're losing 90 Americans everyday to gun violence. Every. Single. Day. It's time for the majority to be heard and debunk the myth of the so-called all mighty NRA. We need politicians scared of us, not them. We must vote on this issue. #ENOUGH
Q: What are some initiatives the Brady Campaign is working on now?
A: ASK (AskingSavesKids.org) encourages parents to ask if there is an unlocked gun where their children play. National ASK Day is June 21.
Stopping "Bad Apple" gun dealers. Brady is working to identify what we call "Bad Apple" gun dealers to either reform or shut them down. We know that 90 percent of guns recovered from crimes come from five percent of dealers.
And Finish the Job! Expand Brady background checks to cover gun sales at gun shows and on the internet.
Repeal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) and stop giving immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers that grant legal protection thereby shielding them from liability for a wide range of conduct. (smartgunlaws.org)
On the state level, our 94 chapters around the country are fighting bad gun bills and promoting strong ones. Some of our chapters work with legislators to help write bills.
Q: Gun violence in Chicago is like Sandy Hook spread out over the days of each month. What can Chicagoans do to make a difference here?
A: For starters, get involved. Brady has a strong and dedicated chapter in Chicagoland, join them and help them on the many initiatives they are working on.
Simply put, Chicago has easy access to way too many guns. Yes, Illinois has strong gun laws but Indiana (with very lax laws) is a thirty minute drive.
We also must crack down on "Bad Apple" dealers. The City of Chicago has published a report showing that 20 percent of the guns used in crime in the city are coming from just four gun dealers in towns just outside the city limits. These are federally licensed dealers who are knowingly selling to straw purchasers (a straw purchaser is someone who buys a gun for someone who couldn't pass a background check). Brady is working with Illinois GVP groups to license these gun dealers and get them to reform their business practices.
Q: The problem of gun violence in this country sometimes seems impossibly advanced. What are the reasons we should continue to hope and believe it is possible to make a difference?
A: Because we already are making a difference. The fact that democratic candidates are running for President on this issue is HUGE! This has been a third rail issue for politicians for decades and now it has become one of the top voting issues.
Q: What is the most memorable thing that has happened for you as a result of joining The Brady Campaign?
A: There have been a ton of great things but I think the most inspiring ones are the people I meet doing this work and the healing that comes from it. I work with lots of survivors (we prefer to use the word survivors to victims, btw) who advocate for sensible gun laws by sharing their stories.
Emotionally, it's incredibly tough work but we keep at it and we feel better for it. It's oddly therapeutic. Of course, nothing can take away what we've lost, but this work gives us a sense of purpose and hope.
We understand that statistics don't move people to act, but seeing their faces and learning about the lives they led, that's what matters. That's what moves people to do something. Once people understand that they could be in our shoes then they'll do something.
Q: What is a typical day like at The Brady Campaign?
A: My days vary depending on what's going on. Mostly I help to support Brady's 94 chapters around the country and organize events that work toward our goal of reducing gun violence in half by 2025. Of course, a big public shooting can put everything on hold, so we're always on edge as to when the next one will happen.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: I feel like a lot of Americans assume common sense measures are already in place simply because they make so much sense. It seems absurd that they wouldn't be, but they're not. What I want all Americans, gun-owning and otherwise, to know is a few facts I learned that made my jaw drop when I first got involved.
1. In all but 18 states, anyone can buy a gun without a background check at a gun show or on-line (check out Armslist.com if you don't believe me). That includes felons, domestic abusers, dangerously mentally ill.
2. PLCAA (Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act) was passed after years of successful lawsuits against gun dealers and manufacturers. The bill, passed with the NRA’s strong backing, assures that gun dealers cannot be held responsible for criminal acts done with their products. It’s a protection, advocates say, no other industry enjoys. More about PLCAA here.
3. The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) isn't allowed to research gun violence since Congress passed the Dickey Amendment. Without research by the CDC, car manufacturers would not be held to create safer vehicles thereby greatly reducing death and injury from automobile accidents. In some states, gun deaths have now surpassed deaths due to car accidents.
4. Folks on the No-Fly Terrorist Watch List can legally pass a background check and buy a gun.
5. Legally blind citizens of Iowa can legally carry a concealed firearm.
Fun Lovers Unite! An Evening of Music, Comedy and Gun Sense is on May 11 at The Highline Ballroom in New York, N.Y. and features comedy by Janeane Garofalo, John Hodgman, Josh Gondleman, Jon Glaser, John Hodgman, Josh Gondelman, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells of HBO’s Doll and Em, and Jeanne Darst with music by Yo La Tengo, Bambi Kino and Tammy Faye Starlight. Tickets here.
Josh Mills created the event with Maccabee Montandon. Interview with Josh here.
Interview with Jeanne Darst here.