Day 6

The gun lobby doesn't always win: The democratic workaround that beat the NRA

After the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, Eric Liu took his proposed gun control laws directly to the people of Washington State in a referendum that circumvented elected officials completely. It worked.
A woman makes a sign at a vigil on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct. 2, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The U.S. is once again picking itself up after another deadly mass shooting.

The massacre on Oct. 1, 2017, at an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, is now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. modern history.

58 people were killed and nearly 500 more were injured.

Eric Liu is the co-founder of the 'Alliance for Gun Responsibility' and a former adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton. (Citizen University)
The deaths in Las Vegas have already produced calls for more gun control, and in the days after the massacre, Republican legislators, and even the NRA, nodded their support for tighter restrictions on "bump stocks," — devices that modify a rifle to fire bullets as fast as a machine gun.

But at the same time, there's a bill making its way through the U.S. Congress which would loosen federal gun laws even further.

This is why, Eric Liu is by-passing elected officials entirely when it comes to his work on gun laws. 

"It may be true that in the United States Congress, as currently arrayed, gun reform legislation isn't going to move," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "But the beauty of the United States is we have a federal system. And in states and jurisdictions all around this country, change is not only possible, it is happening."

Liu is a former speechwriter and adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton.

He is also part of a group of citizens that formed the Alliance for Gun Responsibility in the days after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, which left 20 children dead at an elementary school in Connecticut.

Dozens of people in Newtown, Conn. attend a vigil for the 58 people killed in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017. 20 children were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown in 2012. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


First a losing battle

The Alliance, which is based in Seattle, Wash., set out to change gun laws in Washington state. 

Liu says they first approached their elected representatives and were hopeful about their prospects, especially because Washington State had a Democrat-controlled House and Senate, and a Democratic governor.

But he says they quickly realized they were "quite wrong" about their chances with this tactic when a bill to legislate universal background checks died before it even got a vote to the floor of the House.

"We learned how effective the NRA, and the gun lobby generally, have been at playing the 'inside game' ... both cultivating and cowing legislators."

Liu says that when he and other Alliance members approached Washington state legislators to ask why they wouldn't support them, they were told one of two things: "Either, 'I'm hearing from some of my other constituents who don't want me to do anything,' or 'If I do this the NRA is going to put a bullseye on me and mobilize their membership to un-elect me.'"
Editorial cartoon by Bruce MacKinnon (Bruce MacKinnon/Halifax Chronicle Herald)


A populist bypass

That's when they settled on a new strategy.

Washington State is one of dozens of U.S. states with some form of what Liu calls 'direct democracy,' referring to ballot initiatives and referendums.

Liu and the Alliance saw an opening here that would allow them to bypass the elected officials and go directly to voters, who Liu says were strongly in favour of universal background checks for firearms.

"We knew that the people were with us," he says. "It's just that in an 'inside game' with legislators, the NRA was able to rig the game."

"It was a harder, longer and more costly route," says Liu. "But, in the end, beneficial — because having to go forth and collect several-hundred-thousand signatures required us to activate bottom-up, citizen power."

When one of us decides to invite two or three or five or seven other people to begin to organize, we're performing an act of magic. We're generating brand new power where it did not previously exist."- Eric Liu

Less than a year after the group formed, Washington State became the first to pass, by direct vote of the people, universal background checks for gun purchases.

The initiative, which ended up winning with close to 60 per cent of the votes, also led to a second victory.

"We subsequently passed another ballot measure that would empower law enforcement to take firearms out of the hands of people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others — what are called 'extreme risk protection orders,'" says Liu.


Why the NRA didn't fight harder

Then NRA is a powerful and effective political force. But in the case of the referendums in Washington State, Lui says they were less engaged. 

"They didn't frankly bring as much firepower — so to speak — as we thought they might."

Liu attributes that to the NRA being aware of the same opinion polls that he and the Alliance had seen. But, he adds, "the NRA plays an 'inside game' because they know it's costly to start fighting ballot measures in states all across the country. And they did not want to begin, I think, playing a game of 'Whac-A-Mole.'"

The official emblem of the National Rifle Association, or NRA. (NRA)

"We had NRA members who were in support of our ballot measures," Liu says. "And there is an actual disconnect and a disjunction between most responsible gun owners and the more radicalized leadership of the NRA."

Liu says his organization is deliberately called the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

"We don't use the language of 'gun control'. We're not trying to control anything ... we have rights in The Constitution of the United States that allow us to bear arms. But with those rights come responsibilities."

The Las Vegas shooter rained down gunfire just under 350 metres away killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 others before killing himself. (David Becker/Getty Images)


Could it happen elsewhere?

Twenty-two U.S. states have a mechanism by which voters may propose a bill and have a popular vote on whether it will become law. Nevada is one of them. 

But of course the ultimate question is do enough citizens support tougher gun laws?

To this question, Liu says he finds hope in other recent changes.

"Think, for instance, about marriage equality," he says. "Long before the Supreme Court weighed in, this was a fight that was happening at the state and local level. They began to force this question into public debate and began to force open conversations — citizen to citizen, family member to family member, parent to child ... about the meaning of marriage, about the power of love."

And after the carnage in Las Vegas, Liu says he sees signs of that conversation happening around gun reform.

A man lays on top of a woman as others flee the Route 91 Harvest country music festival grounds after a active shooter was reported on Oct. 1, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (David Becker/Getty Images)

"I see how much pushback there is against the very standard refrain you often hear following every kind of mass shooting: 'Now is not the time.' But right now, people are saying: 'No, actually, now is precisely the time.'"

"And when one of us decides to invite two or three or five or seven other people to begin to organize, we're performing an act of magic. We're generating brand new power where it did not previously exist."

To hear the full conversation with Eric Liu, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.