One year ago, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the oldest gun-control advocacy groups, began reinventing itself with a focus on public education. It hired a new president, a New York advertising executive with no background in politics; ordered up web videos featuring celebrities; and eased out its vice president, who literally wrote the book on American gun policy.
Then came Newtown.
The Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school horrified and transfixed the nation, undercutting the need for a public message campaign on gun violence. It also spurred, for the first time in more than a decade, a serious discussion about federal policy and legislation.
On the pro-gun side of the debate, the National Rifle Association, established in 1871, has spent years preparing for and warning of such a showdown with a singular message: No new gun restrictions. Their adversaries, meanwhile, are caught without a clear playbook as Brady is transitioning and newer groups are just beginning to take form.
“I worry, broadly, how are we going to get everyone to work together?” said Sarah Brady, the wife of former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot during a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and for whom the Brady Campaign was named.
“We’ve got to,” she said. “We can’t all be doing the same thing. We need to divvy up tasks, otherwise the whole thing could lose momentum.”
Chris Lehane, a San Francisco-based Democratic strategist, compared the gun-control movement to whitewater rafting -- with some paddling fast, some slowly and some “smacking each other in the face.” Still, he said, because President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are piloting the effort, any disorganization may be masked because “all of these groups can simply just follow them. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a leading group right now.”
Obama initiated a campaign-style social engagement effort on guns today via a blast e-mail from his 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, asking backers to “stand with the president.” A link in the e-mail leads to a petition documenting the support and a request to share the president’s gun-policy proposals with friends and family. Obama also alerted his almost 26 million followers on Twitter to the petition.
With the presidential bully pulpit active, a smaller, public relations-focused group, like Brady, may not have a clear place in the current debate. Looking further out, some former Brady associates wonder what the organization’s long-term role will be under its president, Dan Gross.
“Policy was our brand, and we took a lot of pride in being respected for our insights on it,” said Dennis Henigan, who left Brady in September after 23 years, most recently as its vice president and legal director. In 2009, he wrote the book, “Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze Gun Policy.”
Gross said in an interview that Brady will “bring to bear the voice of the American public.” He was at the White House yesterday when Obama announced that he would push Congress to reinstate the ban on sales of assault weapons that expired in 2004, limit ammunition clips to 10 rounds and expand background checks on gun buyers.
Those are policy positions Brady has held for years.
“The thing that really addresses gun violence is the thing that Brady was set up to do, and that is federal legislation,” said Michael Wolkowitz, a New York filmmaker who was on Brady’s board of directors for 10 years until he left last July. “Brady’s people knew policy like no one else.”
Yet so many years of congressional inaction led to a decline in the group’s ability to raise money, Wolkowitz said, which is why the board wanted a new, less policy-focused mission. “It’s borderline Kafka,” he said.
The bullets fired by John Hinckley Jr. as Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton after a speech on March 30, 1981, wounded the president and paralyzed Jim Brady. Afterwards, he and his wife became active with Handgun Control Inc.
The couple lobbied members of Congress to win passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. It required background checks on people buying guns from federally licensed dealers. In 1994, the NRA suffered a second setback with passage of the ban on sales of certain semi-automatic assault weapons.
In November of that year, the NRA helped boost the candidacies of Republican newcomers, who ousted a 40-year Democratic majority. The political sea change led to almost two decades in which no major gun-control measures advanced in Congress and, after the 2000 presidential contest, the issue also was rarely raised in any campaign.
In 2001, the handgun group changed its name to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and its sister organization the Brady Center. By numerical measures, that first year under the Brady name was its high point.
A review of 10 years of tax documents for the Brady Center and the Brady Campaign, both nonprofits, shows the organization has never raised as much as the $11.5 million it pulled in that year. The headquarters, a few blocks from the White House, was buzzing with 50 or so employees.
Brady had also just absorbed the grassroots group that put on the Mother’s Day 2000 Million Mom March about a year after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in which 15 people, including students and the two teenage shooters, were killed. The show of hundreds of thousands of women on the National Mall was meant to urge Congress to pass tighter gun restrictions. Melding with the group gave Brady instant access to more than 230 chapters of mothers across the country, said Donna Dees-Thomases, the New Jersey woman who organized the march.
Still, Brady’s past two presidents were learning firsthand how difficult it was to sustain the organization while Washington avoided gun legislation.
“I’ve been asked why the fundraising got so tough, and there are two contradictory answers that are equally true,” said Michael Barnes, a former Maryland Democratic congressman who was Brady’s president from 2000 to 2006. “One, it’s the perception that the NRA is so powerful that there’s nothing the other side can do. And two is that progressives saw Obama get elected and felt there was no need to fund Brady because the president agrees with us.”
Barnes’s successor, Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, said he led two rounds of staff cuts, thanks in part to the 2008 economic collapse.
Brady saw an influx of money after each high-profile shooting. “The catch was always, would these donors stick around? Would they have given to us anyway? It was hard to plan a budget around that,” Helmke said.
The years of atrophy took their toll in other ways. The Million Mom March component of the Brady organization has largely gone dark; its website indicates that 26 states plus the District of Columbia are without chapters of it or Brady.
Brady’s 2011 tax documents show it raised $5.8 million, about half its haul a decade earlier. The staff on I Street had dwindled to 30 -- though Wolkowitz estimates the roster is now in the teens. Debra DeShong Reed, a spokeswoman for Brady, declined to say how many people work there.
After Newtown, Wolkowitz, who also co-founded a group called Faiths United Against Gun Violence, began fielding phone calls from people who had given up on the gun debate and now wanted to get back into the fight.
Fearful of Brady’s low staffing levels and commitment to use its resources on assisting the White House’s gun efforts, Wolkowitz said he has referred few people to the group he spent 10 years helping direct.
“I didn’t feel like anyone who needed rapid response would get one from them,” he said.
Grassroots activists are also on the move again; there’s a new “million moms.” Yet this one has nothing to do with the 2000 march or Brady. Twenty-four hours after the shooting, Shannon Watts, a mother of five in Indianapolis, put up a Facebook page called One Million Moms for Gun Control, which has collected more than 25,000 “likes.”
In e-mails and conversations, Dees-Thomases, who organized the first march, has encouraged Watts not to affiliate with another gun group, as she did a decade ago.
“The fact that Shannon is in Indianapolis is a breath of fresh air,” Dees-Thomases said. “She will thrive if she stays outside the Beltway.”
Other groups include Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an effort founded and partially funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
And last week, former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured in a 2011 shooting that killed six people, formed a political group called Americans for Responsible Solutions. Steve Mostyn, a Texas trial lawyer who gave $1 million to help start the group, said its aim is to counteract the political donations of the NRA, which invested about $20 million in last year’s federal elections.
The Newtown shootings have prompted $5 million in contributions to Brady’s coffers in the past month, Gross said, doubling the organization’s budget. The question now is how it fits into the changed landscape.
“Dan has brought an incredibly renewed energy to the organization and is helping to re-frame the conversation with the American public,” DeShong Reed said. “We’re in a great place. We’re expanding. We’re mobilizing. We’re growing.”
Gross has been involved in gun-control efforts since his brother was wounded in a February 1997 shooting at the Empire State Building. He formed a group that studied youth violence, first called Pax and then the Center to Prevent Youth Violence.
Sarah Brady, who said she put her “heart and soul” into the Brady Campaign and plans to be more involved, having just moved back to the Washington area from Delaware, said she believes Gross is “a go-getter with the best of intentions.”
“I hope Dan will be the one who draws all of these groups together,” she said. “I hope Brady will lead the way.”
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