America’s New Gunfight: Inside the Campaign to Avert Mass Shootings

Will a new campaign for gun laws quell the mass shootings that are routine in America?

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“This Is Different”

On the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabby Giffords, was traveling in China. He awoke in a Beijing hotel at 3 a.m., saw the news on television and called his wife, who was in Arizona, continuing her recovery from the gunshot wound to her brain—the work of another madman with a high-capacity gun. She was shaken, changed. “She said, ‘We need to do something. We’ve got to stop just talking about this,’” Kelly remembers.

Gabrielle Giffords

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘We need to do something. We’ve got to stop just talking about this.’ —Gabby Giffords, former Representative, to her astronaut husband Mark Kelly

Until then, the couple had decided to avoid the activist path, treating the 2011 Tucson shooting largely as a personal trauma that needed to be dealt with in private. “It’s not what we wanted to do,” he said. But now they went all-in, drawing up plans for two new organizations: a nonprofit to build grassroots support for changes to gun laws and a super PAC to run ads supporting members of Congress on the issue. Kelly decided to start working full time on the effort and began calling those he thought could help.

(MORE: The Sandy Hook 26: Remembering Newtown’s Victims)

One of his first calls was to Steve Mostyn, a wealthy trial-lawyer friend from Houston who happens to be one of the biggest contributors to Democratic super PACs. Like Kelly and Giffords, Mostyn is a gun owner. He sleeps with a handgun by his bed, in a safe that opens by his fingerprint. He has a gun range on his West Texas ranch and invites friends out to shoot. But when Kelly called, Mostyn had just dropped off his 5-year-old daughter at school. “I told him it was time,” Mostyn says.

The subject of gun laws was on his mind even before Sandy Hook. A few months earlier, he bought a couple of pistols, both with high-capacity magazines, and 3,000 rounds of ammunition for his gun collection at a local gun store. “The kid who walks me out to the car says to me, ‘It looks like you are going to start a war,’” Mostyn says, noting his shock at how easy it was to stock up on enormous amounts of lethal firepower.

“I’m not anti-gun. I’m just not pro-dumbass,” he continues, citing the more than 30,000 Americans who die every year from guns, mostly from suicide. “We’ve got a gun problem. That’s what differentiates us from other cultures.” He told Kelly he would seed the new group, which they called Americans for Responsible Solutions, with $1 million and begin fundraising with a goal of more than $14 million to support members of Congress in the 2014 elections who cast tough gun votes. “If a representative wants to vote their conscience, we are not going to allow you to bully,” he said of the NRA. “We will counter.”

At the same time, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was working from the same playbook. With a net worth estimated at $25 billion, his contribution was potentially far greater than Mostyn’s. In 2012 he challenged Mitt Romney and Obama to lay out their plans for curbing gun violence. Neither took Bloomberg up on the offer, but he went ahead and seeded a super PAC of his own, Independence USA, to flex his muscle on the gun issue. The group spent about $10 million on five races around the country and won four, including the primary defeat of a veteran pro-NRA Democratic Representative in California, Joe Baca. Another group funded by Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, began an advertising campaign called Demand a Plan, with spots running in communities that had been affected by gun violence.

(TIME/CNN Poll: Obama’s Gun Plan Could Face Mixed Reception)

“The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful,” Bloomberg tells Time. He says he wants to force votes on Capitol Hill so he can take the issue to the 2014 congressional elections. “I want the Congress to have to stand up and say, ‘I’m with the NRA and support killing our children’ or ‘No.’ And if the answer is, ‘I’m going to take on that fight,’ I’ve got their back,’” he says. He will not say how much more money he will spend, other than that it will be a substantial sum. “He described the $10 million as putting his toe in the water,” says Howard Wolfson, one of Bloomberg’s political advisers. “I don’t know what the full foot is worth.”

Other groups are also organizing. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence raised $5 million since late December and announced a new ad campaign built around the slogan “We are better than this.” A coalition of liberal gun-violence groups targeted North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp with ads last month after the Democrat criticized the President’s proposals, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who authored the 1994 ban on certain semiautomatic guns, is planning her own media push for the end of January. “This is different,” she says. “I did not get calls about ‘How do we organize?’ I get those now.”

But the opposition to gun control has grown stronger as well. Compared with the early 1990s, the NRA has strengthened its hand in the halls of Congress, and since Sandy Hook it has added 250,000 new members. More Americans agree with the positions of the NRA than disagree, in the new TIME/CNN poll, and of the half of people with guns in their homes, a majority feel that the government is trying to take their firearms away, even though Obama has not proposed any such measure. “Stand and fight,” runs the tagline of a new television ad the NRA released in advance of the Biden task-force announcement. The spot calls Obama an “elite hypocrite” and attacks him for supporting armed guards for his daughters but not at other schools, a deceptive charge given the President’s decision to increase federal funding for school security. (In response, the White House denounced the ad as “repugnant and cowardly” for mentioning the President’s children.) Keene suggests more tough talk is on the way and says he is actively seeking wealthy donors to counter the new money on the left.

The landscape in Congress, meanwhile, tilts against new regulation. The assault-weapons ban passed the Senate in 1993 with 56 votes. The thought of filibustering that proposal was seen at the time as out of bounds. That is probably no longer the case. In the Senate, Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, who has long supported gun owners, has discouraged the idea of trying to renew the assault-weapons ban. The key question for the coming months is whether all the outside efforts can change the underlying physics of gun politics. Grover Norquist, a Republican organizer and an NRA board member, says the left often mistakes voter preference for voter intensity on the gun issue. While polls might show that a majority of Americans support a given gun regulation, come election time, it is usually only the opponents who base their vote on that issue. “We’ve been through this before,” he notes, saying the power of the NRA has never been anchored in the number of television ads it buys in campaigns. “People who care about the Second Amendment know where people are on guns. It’s not a vote-moving issue on the left.” The TIME/CNN poll suggests that dynamic is still at work. Only 14% of Democrats said they would vote for candidates only if they shared their view on guns, compared with 22% of Republicans.

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