The aftermath of a mass shooting in the United States is, at this point, a well-scripted affair. Usually, the dead are still being counted when the platitudes begin to roll in.
Thoughts and prayers are issued, moments of silence are observed, famous buildings are either illuminated or darkened, and candlelight vigils are held. Soon, the therapy dogs amble through broken towns, nuzzling people who feel numb. Then come the strongly worded editorials. A presidential motorcade arrives. After that, it isn’t very long before the homemade signs and teddy bears vanish.
Less than a week since the massacre at an Orlando nightclub, we are somewhere in the middle of this process. It is understandable why Americans might have, by now, resigned themselves to the idea that mass shootings are just part of what it means to live and die in the United States. Stricter gun laws proposed in the wake of mass shootings routinely fail in Congress. And in states with Republican-controlled legislatures, The New York Times found, it’s often easier to buy a gun after such an attack. “If even the slaughter of 20 small children cannot end America’s infatuation with guns,” The Economist wrote in 2012, referring to the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut, “nothing will.”
“It’s as if there’s a national script we have learned,” said Stephen Colbert, the host of CBS’s Late Show, in a somber monologue Monday night. “And I think by accepting the script, we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time, with nothing changing.” Instead, he argued, Americans must have the courage to act.
And do what, exactly?
“I call my representatives and senators every time this happens. I email them. I sign every petition until I am unsure [of] which ones I have or haven't signed,” Brian Riester, a Facebook friend, wrote in a status update this week. “What’s the next step? Can anyone at all share how I can lessen the ability of a person to effortlessly kill dozens of other people? I am sincerely interested to know everything I should be doing.”
Riester touched on some of the common wisdom. Citizens are told to make their voices heard. Call your lawmaker. Make sure you vote. But he also touched on the sense of frustration among those who have done these things and see nothing change. In an era in which people find and respond to news of mass shootings largely online, it’s not clear how much, if anything, can be accomplished by the now-typical responses to gun violence among those who want stricter laws. Signing online petitions and tweeting to members of Congress doesn’t seem to reduce gun violence any more than voting does.
“Anyone who’s involved with social change has to consider what levers they're trying to pull to accomplish the change,” said Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. “Most of us have been taught to pull the legal lever—passing laws, electing people to enforce them. Social media is particularly strong at pulling the norms lever—trying to change public attitudes on key issues.”
“What’s hard with gun control,” he added, “is that there’s such a deep split on norms that it seems unlikely that a social media campaign is going to change minds. And our legislative system—paralyzed on so many issues—feels utterly unlikely to make a move regarding gun control... It’s not that online activism never works. Unfortunately, this may be a space where online activism isn't as effective as we'd like.”
Or maybe it’s too soon to say. That could be in part because the anti-gun-violence movement is startlingly new. While the NRA’s messaging—don’t take our guns!—has been ingrained in American culture for decades, the other side isn’t even a decade old. Past coalitions, from an era when people talked about “gun control” instead of “gun safety” mostly dissolved after Brady bill efforts in the early 1990s, and the grassroots movement to enact tougher gun laws today is only just emerging. Advocates are focused on goals like banning gun sales and gun possession among people convicted of violent hate crimes, prohibiting suspected terrorists from buying guns, and requiring background checks for every gun sale in the United States. The movement’s nascence, many advocates say, is a cause for hope.
“It’s not actually impossible to defeat the NRA,” said Emily Tisch Sussman, a campaign director who focuses on gun violence at the Center for American Progress. “The anti-gun-violence side just needs to show that intensity.”
That intensity she’s talking about does not necessarily require logging off Facebook and marching on Washington, but it does mean channeling energies into the most effective action. As with any other area of life, there isn’t a clean split between the digital world and the non-digital world when it comes to political activism.
“Rather than a distinction of online versus offline, we should probably be making the distinction between organized and disorganized,” said Dave Karpf, an associate Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington and the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. “There are an awful lot of online acts of participation that are possible that weren’t possible before, and acts that are definitely visible that weren’t visible before. As singular acts of speech, they aren’t nothing but they are very little. And that’s because large-scale collective action takes a lot of time and is very difficult. There’s also all kinds of stuff that happens offline that is totally ineffective.”
Karpf gives an example from when he was a student at Oberlin College in the 1990s, and a group of environmental activists staged a rally to voice opposition to a land-use proposal in California. The students chanted on the steps of the student union, then went home. There was no media coverage, and certainly nothing posted on the internet. “They yelled a lot and afterward they congratulated themselves and went home,” Karpf said. “This was about a state decision in California. You are in Ohio. If a bunch of activists yell in Ohio, it literally does not make a sound.”
Making a sound, he says, requires not just organization but also the right strategy within an organized effort. For individuals who want to make a difference—on gun safety or any other matter—it’s essential to participate in a group that has a good track record of enacting change based on identifying the right target, or what scholars might call a “theory of change.” (This is the difference between just shouting that something is unfair, for instance, and proposing steps to make it right.)
Nearly four years ago, the day after the murder of 20 kindergarteners and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Shannon Watts found herself, like Riester, staring at her computer screen and wondering what she could do. She started by familiarizing herself with existing gun laws. “What I found out was terrifying,” she said. “I just assumed that my elected officials were protecting me. Not only were they not protecting me but they were sacrificing me for the profits of gun manufacturers.”
So she looked for an organization she could join. “I thought, ‘Surely there’s a Mothers Against Drunk Driving for gun safety,’ but there wasn’t,” she said. “So I started Moms Demand Action [for Gun Sense in America] the day after the Sandy Hook shooting.”
Watts insists that her story, and the story of the organization she founded, is proof that individuals can improve gun safety in the United States, and that online activism is a major component of that effort. “I was no one. I was just a stay-at-home mom of five kids in Indiana, and I started a Facebook page. Less than four years later, we have a chapter in every state.”
“We have never before had a grassroots movement,” she added. “And now we can pay for things like ballot initiatives that cost millions of dollars. We’re financed, we have boots on the ground, and we have a real network. This idea that nothing will work is wrong. Yes, this is an intractable Congress, but this is essentially the same congress we had that voted against background checks after the massacre of 20 six-year-olds. It’s going to take a few election cycles to get the wrong people out. Our voices do make a difference.”
Several other advocates who focus on gun laws told me that digital action—sometimes derided as “armchair activism,” or “slacktivism”—matters, too. (Remember, for instance, that Moms Demand Action began with a Facebook page.) Tweeting at a lawmaker, they say, is more than just screaming into the void. Some members of Congress check their Twitter accounts personally, which means a tweet from a constituent can be a more powerful mode of communication than a letter. (Letters and emails are usually categorized and counted by congressional staffers, but less likely to be read by representatives and senators themselves.)
Advocates say, too, that it’s particularly important for independents and Republicans who believe in stricter gun-safety measures to speak up. There is a perception among lawmakers, Republicans especially, that only Democrats want stricter gun laws. This belief leaves Republicans with the impression that calls for new gun laws can be ignored, when in reality, polling shows widespread support for tighter regulation. A CBS poll this week found a majority of Americans support a nationwide ban on assault weapons—that’s 57 percent of them, compared with 44 percent late last year. The support for such a ban includes 45 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Independents. (Assault weapons, gun-safety advocates point out, are only part of the problem. Handguns are “overwhelmingly the problem,” according to Everytown for Gun Safety.)
Speaking up in 2016 isn’t entirely different from what it was in the pre-internet era. Groups like Moms Demand Action organize big state-level turn-out to legislative hearings on gun laws. In other words, showing up in-person still matters. “We have helped pass background checks in 18 states, six of those since Sandy Hook, we are getting ready to do it in Nevada and Maine,” Watts, the group’s founder, told me. “Once those states close the background-check loophole, more than 50 percent of Americans will live in states that will do what Congress won’t.”
Watts urges people who care about gun safety to join a local chapter of her organization, saying that participation can be as easy as sending a tweet or making a phone call, or as involved as taking a leadership role to advocate for local policy changes. “You don’t have to be a mom. You don’t have to be a woman. Just join. You can’t stand on the sidelines anymore. It’s not an option.”
Other than that, voting based on a candidate’s position on gun safety, Watts says, remains the most important action a person can take. (“Personally, I can’t worry about the economy, education, and healthcare, until I know my 15-year-old is going to make it home from high school.”) In the meantime, digital communications tools are doing for gun-safety advocates what postcards and telegrams did for suffragists a century ago: People are getting their message out, and organizing with one another more efficiently—and on a broader scale—than was ever possible before. During a Wednesday filibuster by Democrats that ultimately resulted in Republicans agreeing to two votes on gun measures, variations of this tweet rippled across social publishing platforms.
I called my senators. If you're in the US, you should, too. https://t.co/C8no5v7q2F— MattDWilson AA-1125 (@TheMattDWilson) June 16, 2016
Along with advocacy groups like Everytown and Moms Demand Action, there are now sites like whoismyvoice.com, which lets people enter their ZIP code to see whether their congressional representatives accept campaign contributions from the NRA, and The Trace, a nonprofit news organization devoted entirely to covering guns in the United States.
Traditional publishers, too, are finding ways to incorporate digital tools in otherwise old-school approaches to influencing gun policy. The Boston Globe on Thursday published a dynamic editorial with the headline, “Make It Stop.” The online report includes a “take action” button, featured prominently on the top-right corner of the web page, which leads to a list of six senators in particular who have stood in the way of stricter gun laws. (The Globe singles out Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Rob Portman of Ohio, saying “the dynamics of the gun debate would likely change dramatically” if they’re ousted this fall.) Additionally, the Globe has also been tweeting the names of victims of mass shootings using the hashtag #makeitstop.
It’s hard to say what all of this attention will ultimately amount to. The existence of online platforms mean the barrier to collective action has been lowered dramatically, and massive calls for organizing can take place in real-time. “But the gap between the instantaneous political demonstration and the longstanding political movement is still problematic,” said Howard Rheingold, the author of the book Smart Mobs. This is part of why the group Black Lives Matter, for example, uses the tagline, “This is Not a Moment, but a Movement.”
“What works in favor of the catalytic effect of social media is you can get attention of a lot of people in a short period of time,” Rheingold said. “And that’s what its weakness is: that the attention of people does not stay in one place for a long period of time.”
Everytown has had what Rheingold calls “emerging impact” so far in large part because Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, has poured a huge amount of money into the organization. “It’s no secret that the NRA contributes a very large amount of money in elections,” he said. “I would say that those same lawmakers would probably be persuaded to change their views if a lobbyist against the gun manufacturers were to raise equally large amounts of money. Lawmakers pay attention to two things: votes and money. And they want the money so they can get the votes.”
As much as advocacy groups need funding to carry out their agenda, they also need serious participation from people who support the cause. Ultimately, several scholars and advocates told me, that’s the only way to convert a revolution into a movement.
“In the long term, if organizations are going to build a capacity that actually allows them to fight back against the NRA, they’re not just going to need mass numbers, they’re going to need deep leadership,” Karpf, the George Washington professor, told me. “Not only voting on election day but running for city council and doing stuff month after month, and year after year. It is not going to radically change over night. It is going to be hard. And it’s going to take a lot of work.”