For years, advocates of stricter gun laws have rallied at the barricades of the National Rifle Association's annual meeting. But this year, as the gun lobby convenes in Indianapolis, there's a new posse in town. They're mothers, they're survivors of gun violence, and some of them are both. And they're dead set on disarming the NRA of its outsize political power.
They operate as Everytown for Gun Safety, a new organization combining the grassroots group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, launched after the Sandy Hook massacre, and Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns. At a press conference in a packed downtown hotel conference room on Friday, the group unveiled a forceful new report and political ad.
"We are in Indianapolis to send the NRA leadership a message," said Shannon Watts, the 43-year-old mother of five who founded Moms Demand Action. Americans can no longer abide by "a Washington lobby run by extremists," she said.
"Not Your Grandparents' NRA," a heavily annotated 21-page report, makes the case that there's a schism within the nation's biggest firearms group. "Today's NRA has remained true to its roots in some important ways," it begins. "The organization's gun safety and marksmanship programs remain useful contributions to the shooting sports and to public safety. And it is largely because of these nationwide programs that the organization is well known, and relatively well liked, in much of the country. This is the NRA most American gun owners know and trust."
Then the report presents a stockpile of evidence showing how the NRA's leadership "puts Americans at risk" by fighting for the interests of gun manufacturing companies under the guise of defending citizens' constitutional freedoms. The Everytown report documents how the NRA has made it easier for felons to get guns, has fought local gun laws, and even backed an Indiana measure that would have expanded Stand Your Ground to include using lethal force against uniformed police officers. Everytown also calls out the NRA for blocking doctors from discussing safe gun ownership with their patients, as well as trying to keep military commanders from asking soldiers at risk of suicide about their personal firearms.
The new political ad, which airs in Indianapolis and Washington, DC, through the weekend, uses the pro-gun advocates' own words to make the case against them. "The presence of a firearm makes us all safer," intones 30-year-old Antonius Wiriadjaja, reciting the words of NRA figurehead Wayne LaPierre as he pulls up his T-shirt to reveal multiple scars. Wiriadjaja, whom I interviewed in Indianapolis, was shot in the chest in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, on July 5, 2013. The intended target was a young pregnant woman who was being hunted by her domestic partner; Wiriadjaja was a bystander caught in crossfire. The woman was shot in the leg and miscarried.* Others easily could have been hit, Wiriadjaja said: The shooting occurred in the middle of the afternoon, with children nearby. "There were two little girls and their mother and an elderly man very close to me when it happened." (The suspected shooter is in custody.)
Wiriadjaja maintains a blog where he details his recovery process with photos. "It was painful for me, but it's been even more difficult for my family and friends to watch me go through it," he told me. "They're hurting too. I wanted them to understand how I'm healing."
Getting survivors to tell their stories may be one of Everytown's most formidable weapons. "I'm a supporter of the Second Amendment, I'm a gun owner, and I'm paralyzed as the result of random gun violence," Jennifer Longdon said. Her then-fiancé, who was armed at the time, was also gravely injured when someone in another car riddled their car with bullets in 2004. "He was a good guy with a gun," she said, but it was no help.
Indiana state Rep. Ed Delaney spoke of the legions of responsible gun owners in his state. And he denounced the NRA leadership for using the premise that gun rights are under attack to get legislators to ease restrictions on guns. Just last month, lawmakers here passed a controversial bill allowing guns in school parking lots. "There is no threat to gun ownership in Indiana," Delaney said, anger rising in his voice.
A few blocks from the Everytown press conference, the NRA was raising the curtain on "spectacular displays" of weaponry from "every major firearm company in the country," banquets for its million-dollar corporate donors, and red-meat speeches from the likes of Sarah Palin, Oliver North, and Franklin Graham (who blamed Sandy Hook on godlessness).
There are plenty of responsible gun owners among the estimated 70,000 people enjoying the entertainment and firearms on display in Indianapolis. Polls show that the majority of gun owners also believe in universal background checks for buyers—a policy the NRA leadership continues to vigorously oppose.
Indeed, some striking data from the Pew Research Center makes clear that the NRA leadership is glaringly at odds with the views of most of its members. (The NRA, of course, has its own data suggesting the exact opposite.) According to Pew's polling from last year, no less than three-quarters of Americans who live in a household where they or someone else is an NRA member favor regulating private gun sales and sales at gun shows with background checks. A third of people from NRA households support a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And 28 percent of gun owners believe that the NRA exerts too much influence over the debate about gun laws—as do 44 percent of all women.
If the well-financed and growing Everytown succeeds, those numbers may well rise and become even more conspicuous by the next time the NRA convenes for its annual bash.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the woman was not injured.