Gun violence affects everyone; in every state and every city. According to Generation Progress’ Young Guns report, 30 percent of people under the age of 30 reported having been personally affected or knowing someone who has been affected by gun violence, and 60 percent expressed concern that gun violence may personally affect them or their communities in the future. But gun violence disproportionately affects people of color: among young African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, 73 percent of respondents reported worrying about being personally affected by gun violence in the future.
As gun violence affects everyone, so too must the gun violence prevention movement represent and be representative of everyone. Representation takes many forms: from using inclusive language to making sure everyone has a seat at the table.
Historically, the gun violence prevention movement has rallied around specific incidents of gun violence. For example, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV), now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, formed in 1983 after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady was shot and seriously wounded. After Brady’s injuries and the 1999 Columbine massacre, Congress passed the Brady Act, a landmark gun violence prevention bill, and other pieces of gun violence prevention legislation.
In 2000, the Million Mom March—held on Mother’s Day—took place to encourage lawmakers to pass stronger gun laws. All these momentous policy changes and movement-changing organizations shared one crucial bit of history: they were born out of national gun violence tragedies, all committed by white assailants with primarily white victims.
Similar trends continue today. After the December, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut left 20 children and six administrators dead, many gun violence prevention organizations, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Americans for Responsible Solutions, the Sandy Hook Promise, and Everytown For Gun Safety, took form.
Although organizations and legislators have proposed various bills and resolutions, there have been no real legislative successes concerning gun violence since the Newtown shooting three years ago. There has, however, been an increase in awareness about gun violence, and how gun violence and issues of police brutality affect communities of color.
Amber Goodwin is the National Advocacy Director at Americans for Responsible Solutions. After the Charleston shooting this summer, in which a white assailant killed nine black people while spewing racist statements, Goodwin and many advocates in the gun safety coalition came together to discuss concrete ways to make the movement more inclusive. From there, the Diversity and Inclusion Working Group was formed. “There are so many groups involved in the group,” Goodwin told Generation Progress. “The most exciting part is that it brings together groups that work on the national, regional, and local levels. Our focus is to make sure that gun violence prevention includes all people.”
As the vice president of the Guns and Crime Policy team at the Center for American Progress, Chelsea Parsons focuses on gun violence prevention policy issues by looking both to innovate policy ideas at the federal, state, and local levels while leading a team on policy ideas and movement strategy.
“For a number of years, the national groups focused on gun policy have recognized that historically we have not been the most inclusive movement in terms of making sure that the voices of those who are most impacted by gun violence are at the table,” Parsons said. “Over the last couple years we have been working to be more inclusive to make sure we have the impacted communities not only at the table but also leading conversations about addressing gun violence and coming up with solutions.”
National advocacy organizations, like Americans for Responsible Solutions and the Center for American Progress (of which Generation Progress is a part) acknowledge that work in the gun violence prevention movement originated on a local, grassroots level. “There are a lot of people who have been doing this work for a very long time from local communities. We can learn from them as we think about these really important policies,” Goodwin said. “Historically, every movement has started at a local level, then got bigger and bigger to make changes nationally and internationally. It’s more challenging to have representation from the local communities on a federal level when we’re talking about policy, but I do think it’s possible,” she said.
Goodwin sees inclusivity as a way to bring people with different experiences and different zip codes to the table. “It’s not just about people who work in Washington, D.C.,” said Goodwin. “We are learning from people who are actually on the ground, involved in movements on the state and local level.” Some of the lessons learned have included how to talk respectfully and effectively about gun violence across state and racial divides.
The negative impact that language has on the gun violence conversation can be substantial and alienating. Lauren Footman, Atlantic Regional Organizer for the Generation Progress Gun Violence Prevention Network and the president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference Youth and College Division, focuses on different phrases that can be color-coded and offensive.
“Different experiences have brought us to the same table. We can’t get anywhere until we come to the same place, are open-minded, and lay some ground rules,” she said. “Everybody can learn more and be more inclusive in their language.”
Devontae Torriente, the leader of American University’s chapter of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and a member of the Black Student Alliance, takes issue with specific words used:
“We need to think about what ‘criminal’ really means. People of color are oftentimes criminalized simply for the color of their skin in conversations about gun violence, regardless of why that violence occurred or what actually happened. Those false narratives are especially perpetuated in the media.”
For Footman, holding allies within the gun violence prevention movement accountable for inclusive language and action is just as important as holding the media and others accountable. “As activists, we like to call out the media and others not involved in the conversation. We need to be more mindful inside of the movement about how our language can impact our partners,” said Footman.
Working together, Goodwin says, is the only way to get the job done. “There’s a level of accountability that we entrust local groups with and we hold ourselves accountable to work with people who are impacted by gun violence every single day,” said Goodwin. “Learning from people who have been in the fight for a long time has been encouraging. We need a united voice in making policy.”
In order to advocate for policy change, activists say, all victims of gun violence need to stand together and recognize the numerous ways gun violence impacts our society.
“The fact of the matter is that people of color are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but the violence against them is only discussed a fraction of the time compared to their white counterparts. The conversation around gun violence should be all-encompassing,” said Torriente.
Indeed, the risk of gun violence falls disproportionately on black males. While 13 percent of Americans are black, in 2010, 65 percent of gun murder victims between the ages of 15 and 24 were black, according to Generation Progress’ Young Guns report. “Young black men in this age group are killed by a gun at a rate that is 4.5 times higher than their white counterparts,” the report explains.
Because of statistics like these, it is imperative to have young black men at the table to discuss prevention strategies. “The shared goal that we have is to have safe communities for everybody,” Parsons of the Center for American Progress said. “We are focused on and working toward making our movement stronger in that way. I hope we can continue to have conversations and continue bringing more people to the table.”
Holding webinars on different ways to create a more intentionally inclusive movement, Generation Progress’ Gun Violence Prevention Network has zoned in on this effort. In July, Parsons and Torriente spoke on the call, highlighting stigmatizing language that excludes people from the movement. Many of the other calls discuss intersections between police brutality and the gun violence prevention movement.
As the gun violence epidemic rages on, activists say they are looking to expand their approach and understanding of what it means to be impacted by gun violence. “I think that we are going to make progress if we are able to make an inclusive movement that [has] a robust partnership with the racial justice community,” Parsons said.
“[We are] making sure that the solutions we develop don’t inadvertently have a negative impact on the communities we are trying to help.”
There is a long way to go. As Goodwin and Parsons both said, the historical past of the gun violence prevention movement has been missing a critical piece of inclusivity.
“I think [it’s important] that we are making sure that the voices of people who are in these impacted communities are a part of the policy making process on a national level,” said Goodwin.
By including the voices of local communities who have been fighting against gun violence for a long time, national organizations are able to include first-hand experiences of violence when developing national policy. These small steps will hopefully lead to more holistic policy in the future, benefiting all communities.