How to Combat Gun Violence

Former Congressman Steve Israel and alum Filmmaker Sarah Ullman say that voters can disarm the gun lobby
Sarah Ullman and Steve Israel talk to a Tufts audience
“If they start shooting members of Congress and that doesn’t change things, what will?” Steve Israel said. Photo: Anna Miller
October 31, 2018

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On January 8, 2011, police pulled then-Congressman Steve Israel out of a veterans’ event and escorted him home. His friend and colleague Gabby Giffords had just been shot in the head at a constituent meeting in Tucson, and they feared other members of Congress might be next.

“If they start shooting members of Congress and that doesn’t change things, what will?” thought Israel, who addressed Tufts alumni in Boston on October 29 in a Tisch College-sponsored panel event titled “Bringing in the Big Guns: How Voters Can Disarm America’s Gun Lobby,” just two days after a gunman killed eleven people and wounded six more at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Listen to the Tell Me More podcast with Steve Israel and Sarah Ullman>>

Israel, who went on to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and this semester is teaching a Tisch College course called “Topics in American Politics: Inside Congress & The 2018 Midterm Elections,” has never stopped trying to answer that question, most recently in his satirical book Big Guns, published in April.

Part of the problem is the strength of the opposition to stricter gun control, he said. “Progressives will vote against you on every issue with respect to guns, but will still vote for you because you’re OK on choice. They’re too forgiving on the issue,” Israel said. “On the other side, these intense gun voters are unforgiving—and that’s why we can’t get it on the front burner.”

There also isn’t a lot of gun safety messaging out there around election time, said Sarah Ullman, A10, co-founder of the One Vote at a Time super PAC (political action committee), which creates video messaging for progressive candidates. “A lot of the districts we need to flip for meaningful change to happen are those where it doesn’t make sense for candidates to focus on it,” Ullman said. “I think mostly people are not talking about the policy.”

The result, according to moderator Julie Dobrow, is that this year the United States has seen almost 50,000 incidents of gun violence, which have caused some 12,000 deaths. More than one hundred of these incidents were mass shootings, such as the one on October 28, which Tisch College Dean Alan Solomont acknowledged with a moment of silence at the talk.

But change is possible, said Ullman, noting that Florida has passed gun safety measures thanks to advocacy by survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland. “These Parkland kids are theater kids who know how to use their voices and are passionate and angry. I think you’re seeing them marshal that anger,” said Ullman, pointing out that emotional storytelling is often more persuasive than policy discussions. “It’s going to take those kids getting to the polls and getting their parents to the polls to create [more] change, but they’re certainly well on their way.”

Israel agreed, recalling the 3,000 people who gathered for a rally at Huntington Town Hall in his district of Nassau County, New York, following the Parkland shooting. “I think the Parkland kids are going to change the dynamic, because they are bringing the voter intensity up on the other side,” Israel said. “That’s what I think is going to change things this midterm election.”

In the short term, Israel said, change will happen when we choose representatives who will support stronger background checks and “no fly, no buy” lists, and ban cop-killing bullets—in other words, when we “toss out people who vote for the gun lobby and replace them with people who are going to keep kids safe in schools.”

But in the long term, bigger steps will be necessary, Israel said. “Nothing defines a far-right district in a Republican primary more powerfully than the issue of guns,” he said. “The most effective way of disarming the gun lobby is to stop partisan gerrymandering—then we will have districts where compromise is valued.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu