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Gun Violence, Politics & Social Movements in the US - Is this time different?

By Dylan Waisman

In the wake of America’s largest and most recent mass shooting, the reignition of multiple rights-based movements has propelled the advancement of the gun-control discussion. Angered by the political inaction that has followed past mass shootings, gun-control advocates hope that Orlando may be the catalyst necessary to reinvigorate political debate, influencing change in Capitol Hill.

Despite a surge of solidarity among citizens, protests against the National Rifle Association (NRA), Democratic Leader walkouts and sit-ins, and comments by the President expressing hope that Orlando would be the tipping point to impose restrictions on the sale of guns, the Senate has rejected all recent proposals for the implementation of gun-controls.

Proposals ranging from the delay of gun sales to a terrorism suspect, to an expansion of background checks, have each been narrowly rejected, receiving between 44 and 53 votes, out of a required 60 to advance in Senate.

Following the proposals’ failure Monday, a bipartisan group of elected officials have written a compromise proposal dubbed the “no-fly, no-buy bill”, set to go to vote this week. If passed, the proposal will bar the sale of guns to individuals on the FBI’s “no-fly” and “selectee” lists, but it is more narrowly written than its predecessors, as people on the broader “terrorist watch list” may still purchase firearms freely.

The NRA has expressed their opposition to the compromise legislation, stating that “Keeping guns from terrorists while protecting the due process rights of law-abiding citizens are not mutually exclusive.” They instead suggest that Congress should focus on keeping the public safe from radical Islamists, a task they propose is distinct and unrelated to the restriction of the sale of firearms to terrorism suspects.

Scrutinizing the bill further, the restriction on disallowing those on “no-fly” lists to buy firearms will hardly affect gun violence in the country, but will give the government more power of surveillance on a particular class of people. That class of people is disproportionately Arab-American. Since 2014, the government had 680,000 people on their master watchlist, many of whom had “no recognized terrorist group affiliation". The passing of this bill would be the first step towards gun regulation in recent memory, but does that accolade outweigh its inherent deficiencies? 

Is this time different?

In 2012, 20 7-year-olds were shot in Sandy Hook. San Bernardino saw another 14 people murdered in 2015. Both were followed by the same public outrage and demand for change, culminating ultimately in legal inaction and reform proposal rejections. The saddening regularity with which America sees mass shootings, has many believing that reforms were not possible in an unremitting, vicious cycle. But is this time different? Is it possible that a combination of political will and active social movements can finally break the deadlock that has prevented reform in the past?

Gun Violence as a Gay Rights Issue

Analysts suggest that the Democratic party’s political will, combined with the organization and prowess of the gay rights movement, may be one of the factors that can finally influence congress, widening the scope of the issue from gun-control, to a broader issue of civil rights. The Washington Post has called the gay rights movement one of the “most effective political movements in recent American history”, due to their ability to organize quickly and effectively, citing the NOH8 Campaign, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG as recent examples of major triumphs in equality. Following the historical civil rights success of last summer’s legalization of gay marriage, LGBTQ supporters may be able to continue changing hearts and influencing courts. Activist and actor George Takei has described the fight for gun-control as “the next chapter of LGBT history”.

Gun Violence as a Race Issue

Ninety percent (90%) of the victims killed at Pulse Nightclub were Latino or of Latino descent. In their statements following the attack, many leaders including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and House Speaker Paul Ryan offered their condolences to the victims’ families and their solidarity with the LGBTQ community, but failed to acknowledge that the attack was also fuelled by racial hatred against a marginalized minority. The grave importance in acknowledging the multiple dimensions of the attack is to promote visibility of an invisible minority within a marginalized group.

Glossing over the racial aspect of the attack has been widely criticized as a “whitewash[ing]”. A New York Times article explains the statistics behind how LGBTQ people are at the highest risk of attack when compared with other minorities, but fails to discuss the risks faced by minorities within that identity group. This is in part due to the lack of statistics available for overlapping identities, but speaks to a greater issue of the struggle of recognition, and protection, faced by minorities within the LGBTQ movement. Despite the disappointing lack of acknowledgment by high-profile leaders, the overlap of race and sexuality has further solidified the convergence of civil rights issues, and has widened the scope for much needed conversation.

Gun Violence as a Feminist Issue

Gun violence is also very much a feminist issue. The unspoken side of gun violence is one of domestic abuse against women and children. 70% of mass shootings in the United States occurred in the home, with 57% of incidents involving a family member or intimate partner. The accessibility of firearms is not solely or predominantly an issue of terrorism. More people are killed by frequent, smaller-scale domestic tragedies than terrorist attacks. Where a domestic abuser has access to a gun, victims are eight times more likely to be killed. Furthermore, 64% of all victims in mass shootings are women and children. This matter is currently championed by Hillary Clinton, and will form a part of her platform on the need for better gun controls.

Congress & Senate Action

This focus on gun-control as a civil rights issue has also infiltrated Congress, and appears to be the strongest platform used thus far to influence legislative reform. Led by John Lewis, an African American civil rights icon, and current representative for Georgia, over 100 lawmakers participated in a sit-in on House-floor on June 22, demanding cooperation from Republican counterparts on gun-restriction proposals. During the 26-hour sit-in, participants waved signs with the names of gun-violence victims, and sang civil-rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome” in protest of inaction. Based on this wilfly successful campaign, Democrats have promised that more of this is to come. 

Online Social Movements

Grassroots campaigns have also materialized online, achieving unparallelled support on online forums. GoFundMe has raised an unprecedented $6 million to support victims of the Orlando shooting. The next highest earning fund has raised £1.3 million for slain British lawmaker Jo Cox, occurring within the same week. This outpouring of support reflects the far-reaching impact of high-profile gun violence. Online petitions demanding legislative change have also begun to emerge, and as the election moves into full swing, we can expect to see more movement in this space in the months ahead.


Despite deep pockets, (the NRA budget is seven times that of the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization) and even deeper entrenchment in the politics of conservative America, the NRA have reason to be concerned that “Our [gun] rights are under attack like never before”. The combination of political will and social movements could prove to be a potent combination that could finally break the cycle in this election year.

Legislative change may remain deadlocked for now, in a Republican-controlled house, but this time, lawmakers are far from inactive. Regardless of the outcome of the “no-fly, no-buy bill”, the influence of pressure groups, both online and offline, has shifted the conversation from one solely about gun-control, to a multi-faceted conversation encompassing wider problems of race, sexuality, and inequality, which are supported by a broad group range of social movements. With Clinton championing gun control as an election issue and the split in the Republican party against Donald Trump, we may be witnessing the US’s best chance yet to advance gun control measures.

Jun 23, 2016
Category: Issue Briefs