Tell Me More: Congressman Steve Israel and Filmmaker Sarah Ullman

Israel and Ullman talk about what it will take to stem the tide of gun violence in America and what they are doing to help
Sarah Ullman and Steve Israel at Tufts
Sarah Ullman and Steve Israel at a talk at Tufts. Photo: Anna Miller
October 31, 2018

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

To date this year, there have been 297 mass shootings in America, including the recent tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In this episode, former U.S. Congressman Steve Israel and filmmaker Sarah Ullman, co-founder of the super PAC One Vote at a Time, offer their perspectives on gun violence and gun control—one of the most divisive issues in America today. Israel is the author of Big Guns, a satire of America’s gun lobby. Ullman is a 2010 graduate of Tufts University.

Recommended links:

Steve Israel website

Twitter: @repsteveisrael

Sarah Ullman website

Twitter: @thesillysully

One Vote at a Time website

TRANSCRIPT

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

This year, to date, there have been 297 mass shootings in America, including the recent tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In this episode of Tell Me More, former U.S. Congressman Steve Israel and filmmaker Sarah Ullman, co-founder of the SuperPAC One Vote at a Time, offer their perspectives on gun violence and gun control, one of the most divisive issues in America today.

Israel, who formerly represented New York’s Third Congressional district, is the author of Big Guns, a satire of America’s gun lobby and of the political system in which it operates. Ullman’s SuperPAC One Vote at a Time is devoted to supporting progressive candidates committed to ending gun violence in their communities. She is also a filmmaker and a 2010 graduate of Tufts University.

Israel and Ullman spoke as invited guests at a Tufts event entitled, “Bringing in the Big Guns: How Voters Can Disarm America’s Gun Lobby.” Here, they speak candidly with Julie Dobrow, the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Tufts and a senior fellow in media and civic engagement at Tisch College.

Let’s listen in.

JULIE DOBROW: Thanks so much for joining us today. This podcast seems scarily relevant in the light of the events that just happened this past weekend in Pittsburgh. According to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-partisan, online access site, there have already been almost 50,000 incidence of gun violence in the United States in 2018. This includes almost 12,000 deaths. More than 2,300 teenagers have been killed or injured, and over 500 children under the age of twelve have been killed or injured. There have been well over 100 mass shootings since the tragedy at Parkland High School alone.

So Congressman Israel, I want to ask you first. Your book Big Guns is really a biting satire of America’s gun lobby and the political system in which it operates. What inspired you to write a satire? And do you think that in the current political climate we need to have something other than just constant news about gun violence to get something done?

STEVE ISRAEL: You know, I served in the House of Representatives for sixteen years and served in the Democratic leadership as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In those sixteen years, there were fifty-two mass shootings in America, including Sandy Hook Elementary School, a nightclub in Orlando, a church in Charleston, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. After every single one of those shootings, the number one question that I faced as a member of Congress from my constituents was this: “When will Congress do something about this?” And the question didn’t just come from progressives; it came from NRA members. The vast majority of Americans support common-sense gun-safety measures. The real answer to the question—the honest answer that I couldn’t give people—was “Never.”

Congress will not act for as long as members of Congress put the interest of their next election ahead of the interest of children in their schools. So I decided the most effective way I could answer the question, and the most effective way that I can make a difference was not to write a law that wouldn’t pass, but to write a book exposing why Congress acts the way it does—or it doesn’t—act the way it should, and to do it in the best way I know: through comedy, through satire, through snark, and from deep inside the United States House of Representatives.

DOBROW: Sarah, first of all I just have to say that I’m so proud of you. Here you are, a former student and you are doing all of these really cool and really important things. So it’s really a thrill to be able to ask you some questions as well.

I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about some of the work that you’re doing as co-founder of One Vote at a Time, a superPAC that’s devoted to supporting progressive candidates committed to ending gun violence. I guess I’d ask you a similar question. Since some of your work is through film, is there something about the platform of film—or something about entertainment—that you think is going to help break through the noise of the news?

SARAH ULLMAN: One Vote at a Time is a team of female filmmakers and we make free, in-kind campaign videos for candidates who believe in gun-safety legislation. This year we worked in ten different states, with 190 candidates, and we made 570 videos. To answer your question, yes, I think there’s something enormously powerful about storytelling in a time when facts are few and far between, people are decrying legitimate journalism as fake news, and people don’t know where to turn. I think that storytelling has a real opportunity to cut through that confusion and to inspire people to action.

DOBROW: Great. Congressman Israel, do you hope that your book is going to persuade readers to change their opinion on the topic of gun control, or do you actually have a different goal in mind?

ISRAEL: The goal that I had in writing Big Guns was to try and change some opinions, but also bring people into the system. You know, it’s unfathomable to so many people that we have a Congress who would allow children to be killed in their schools and not vote for strengthened background checks, or “no fly, no buy.” It just seems to me that there’s this kind of divide between the American people and their Congress and it’s really a divide that is based on a misunderstanding. People just don’t understand—they don’t get why Congress doesn’t get it.

So, I wrote this book so that people would understand the dynamics of this debate in Congress, in a very farcical way. The pretense of the book, of course, is that Congress decides to pass a bill—or to try to pass a bill—that mandates, that mandates!—that every American must own and carry a gun with common sense exceptions for children under the age of seven. So I bring people into that paradigm, which when I began writing this book, it just seemed to be so farcical. But if you listen to President Trump after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, what’s the first thing he said? Well, they should have had guns inside the synagogue. No! We shouldn’t have guns inside the synagogue. More guns is not going to create less gun violence. What we should do is have fewer military-style assault weapons on the streets or make it harder for people to get them.

The point that I try to make in the book is that we have a Congress right now that really believes in many cases that the answer to gun violence is to just have more guns on the streets, on people’s hips, without any background checks, or without any reasonable controls.

DOBROW: Sarah, I know that you started this work in a really personal way. I wonder if you can share with our listeners why it is that you felt so compelled to start this very important work that you’re now engaged in?

ULLMAN: It’s one of those rare projects where you actually have a distinct memory of the moment that it started. It was after the Pulse night club shooting in June of 2016. I was sitting on my couch Chromecasting CSPAN as one does—as a millennial does, I suppose—I saw Senator Chris Murphy taking a stand, a literal stand, to try and force the Senate to vote on gun safety legislation.

I used to intern for him, I admire him as a leader, and I’m from Connecticut. I just—I was done. I just had had enough. I was tired of tweeting, calling, donating, and I thought, “Where do I sit? What do I know how to do?” And what I know how to do is make videos that do well on the Internet. So, I decided to try and help apply that skill to get more good people elected to office, to change the people who were there.

DOBROW: Question for both of you. What do you think is the single biggest thing that has to happen on a national level to affect change when it comes to America’s gun lobby?

ISRAEL: The issue is voter intensity. Right now, the intensity is all with people who are opposed to gun-safety measures. They will forgive a member of Congress who votes against them on every issue, but as long as that member of Congress votes with them on guns, they’re going to vote for that member of Congress.

On the other side, you have many progressive voters for example, who have members of Congress who may vote against strengthening background checks, may vote against “no fly, no buy”—but they’re okay on things like climate change, choice, or other issues. When voter intensity is as strong with constituents who want gun-safety bills as is it with the current group constituents who are opposed to gun-safety bills, that’s when political calculations on Capitol Hill will change.

ULLMAN: I think that the expansion of the right to vote is the thing that could make the difference on this issue and frankly most others for progressive people. Voter suppression tactics—since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act—have been virulent and devastating to people who just want to exercise their right to vote.

Republicans have been targeting voters of color with surgical precision with voter-suppression tactics. I think that voters of color very often are progressive people and want to see gun-safety legislation in place. They are most impacted by gun violence. Communities of color are the place that gun violence is the most devastating on a day-to-day basis. We’re seeing this expand to our suburban schools—children being slaughtered in their schools, but what we’re sometimes neglecting to talk about in the media is that it’s happening every day in communities of colors—not just in school, at home, in other places.

I think that the expansion of the right to vote, and also . . . this might come as the height of irony from a person who has a super PAC, but I do think that public financing of election and massive campaign finance reform would also go a long way towards solving this issue in a one fell swoop.

ISRAEL: The other structural change that will lead to a better outcome with respect to passing gun-safety legislation is ending gerrymandering. The problem that we have right now is that members of Congress may agree with “no fly, no buy.” They may agree with strengthening background checks, but their districts have been drawn so far to the right that they fear a primary. They know if they vote, for example, for strengthened background checks, that vote is going to draw a primary opponent. That primary opponent is going to win that primary on that one single issue with those single-issue voters.

So the one smart thing we can do, not only with respect to reducing gun violence in this country, but just leveling the playing field across the board, is to stop the partisan gerrymandering that is drawing districts to the extreme, and create more districts where compromise and common sense is valued.

DOBROW: So I’m hoping that in some ways this is a moot point given the horrific events that we’ve just experienced over the past weekend in Pittsburgh, but I wonder what you both think as we look as the midterms. Up until this point, it has seemed that, despite the very best efforts of gun control activists—like former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the amazing young people from Parkland High School—gun control just hasn’t been a front-burner issue. Why do you think this is? Is there anything apart from literally ripping stuff from today’s headlines that can make gun control into more of a front-burner issue?

ULLMAN: I think the reason that the Parkland students have had some success in moving the needle and making more people care is because they’re in a time of life when they’re old enough to be almost voters. They’re almost adults—they’re young adults. They’re people who aren’t afraid and haven’t been molded and shaped by society to quiet their opinions. A lot of them are theater kids, and they’re happy to express themselves, and express themselves in a way that makes a lot of people feel deeply uncomfortable about where we are, in a way that me talking or you talking about this issue just won’t do.

I think their honesty, their bluntness, their lack of fear—because they’ve faced the most terrible thing that one could face as a child. What else is there to be scared of? Except for it happening again, to their friends, to their family, to the people who love them. So they are activists—not by choice—but they have certainly forced us to reconcile the world that we have allowed to exist and our role in the creation of that world.

ISRAEL: I’ll answer your question about how you bring this issue to the front burner with a true story. After the Parkland shooting, I was asked by a group of young people to attend a rally at my local town hall with people on this issue. I’d retired from Congress and I’m trying to throttle back on the number of speeches I do so I can write more, but I didn’t have the heart to tell these kids that I wouldn’t do it. So I woke up on a Sunday morning, a cold Sunday morning, went to the Huntington Town Hall on the north shore of Long Island.

Now I had been a town councilman in that town hall and I can tell you that whenever we held a rally, if we served free pizza on a good day, we’d get fifteen people. So I went to this thing thinking, “All right, what are there going to be? A couple of dozen?” I showed up—3,000 people in the parking lot of the Huntington Town Hall, a suburb about fifty miles from New York City.

But my political antenna went up immediately. The first calculation I made as a recovering Congressman was: half this crowd are kids—they can’t even vote. What a waste of time this is. Then my new antenna went up, and I looked at the crowd and said, “Half this crowd are kids, the other half are the parents who had to drive them here.” If those kids can drive their parents to the polls this November and watch them vote, and demand that they vote for members of Congress who are going to keep them safe in schools, we’re going to win this election. We’re going to have a fundamental change on the issue in Congress. In most elections, parents drive to the polls, they bring their kids to watch them vote because it’s fun. In this election, on this issue for the first time, children are going to demand that their parents drive them to the polls so they can watch them vote to keep them safe. That change of the narrative could change public policy on this issue.

DOBROW: Another question for both of you. Congressman Israel, we’re fortunate enough here at Tufts that you are teaching a class for us this semester. You are working regularly with young people. Sarah, you’re certainly a millennial. You’re of the demographic that needs to get out to the polls and vote. Can you both talk a little bit about what you think it’s going to take for young people to get involved on the grassroots level? What can they do, other than the students who have been directly affected by gun violence like the students at Parkland, like the students at so many schools throughout the United States— that for students who haven’t been touched directly, students who feel some degrees of complacency, students who are of that demographic who just don’t get out and vote, or at least they haven’t in the past—what’s got to change? What do we need to have happen to make that change?

ULLMAN: I think you’re seeing it change because people are more and more seeing the visceral consequences of not voting, and the safety of their friends, the safety of their communities. It’s not just gun violence. It echoes throughout many other issues. We’re seeing the results of a lack of participation. I was on a panel the other day and someone said this about women of color: you get a black woman to vote, and she brings not just herself but her family, her block, her sorority—and sort of, that impact echoes. That impact ripples throughout her community because she convinces other people who are close to her to come along, and to exercise their power to vote as well.

I think that, to Congressman Israel’s point, kids, or young adults, or people who are seeing their communities very viscerally threatened are saying to their friends, “No, it’s not a choice, it’s not your private choice right now. It’s an obligation, and now is our time to do what we can to protect ourselves.” It’s not just about advancing a political future now. It has very serious life-or-death consequences. Voting is not about taxes anymore—I mean, sure, it’s about taxes for some people—but for the people we’re talking about, it’s not just about taxes. It’s about, “Do I have access to a doctor? Do I have clean water to drink? Will I get shot in my school?” And those are all very serious things.

ISRAEL: I couldn’t have said it better.

DOBROW: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you both for bringing such deep insights from each of your perspectives. A final question for both of you. Congressman Israel, can you tell us one more thing about yourself that people don’t know? It can be anything.

ISRAEL: Well, yes, I will admit on this podcast, for the first time ever, that I was rooting for the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. I say that as a fan of the New York Mets.

DOBROW: I, too, am a Mets fan. I grew up in your district, but I’ve been living in Boston so many years and all four of my kids have grown up rabid Red Sox fans. So, I’m very happy about the last night’s results as well. Sarah, same question for you. Can you tell us something that people don’t know about you that you think they should know?

ULLMAN: Oh, goodness. Julie, come on! If we’re talking about sports, I guess the deep dark secret is that now that I live in L.A., I’m a Dodgers fan. It was a very big shift for me, and my whole family’s Red Sox. I got daggers at the dinner table last night when talking about, “Oh, the Dodgers game?”—they’re like, “It’s the Red Sox game! Excuse you?” So, I hope my mom doesn’t hear this and my dad doesn’t hear this, but yes, there you go. I don’t know that that’s the thing that I want people to especially know about me.

ISRAEL: Hard question.

ULLMAN: Very hard questions.

DOBROW: Great, well thank you both so much.

ULLMAN: Thank you. Thanks.

ISRAEL: Thank you. Thank you so much.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Tufts Lawyers Association, the Tufts Social Impact Network, Tufts Alumni Boston, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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