The morning of the Sandy Hook massacre my friend Nick Hanauer and I were flying back to Seattle from an event in North Carolina. We were distraught. On that long flight, we decided we had to act, at least in our own community.
The next day we asked a small group of friends and active citizens to meet us for breakfast. Out of that breakfast would emerge a grassroots group called the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Less than a year later, Washington became the first state in the Union to enact, by direct vote of the people, universal background checks for gun purchases.
How did we get there? First, by rejecting the refrain that follows every mass shooting: “Now is not the time to talk about politics.” Second, by reminding everyday citizens how powerful we in fact are.
“Now is not the time” — which GOP leaders have said again after Sunday’s Las Vegas massacre — is more than a stall tactic. It’s a tell. It reveals a core strategy of those who oppose reform: to assert that gun violence is a natural, apolitical phenomenon — and that seeking to address it suddenly and wrongly politicizes it.
We challenged this premise directly by reminding people that America’s high baseline levels of gun violence are not natural. They are the direct, predictable result of an array of rules and social norms that encourage gun violence. Those rules and norms are, in turn, the result of political acts and omissions. Every mass shooting is inherently politicized — long before the trigger is pulled.
The question is what to do afterward. This is where the second part of our work came into play: activating citizen power.
Initially the Alliance focused on the state legislature. We thought that with a Democratic House, Senate, and governor at the time, a bill to create universal background checks had a good chance of becoming law.
We were wrong. The NRA and the gun lobby played a very effective inside game, controlling and cowing enough legislators — Democrats — to kill the bill before it could come up for a vote. So we had to bypass the inside game and go straight to the people.
We collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to put the background check measure on the ballot. We organized house parties and teach-ins and rallies. On Election Day November 2014, we won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. We prevailed not just in deep-blue Seattle but in some rural counties.
Since then the Alliance for Gun Responsibility has led another successful statewide ballot measure that empowers law enforcement to temporarily keep firearms out of the hands of people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. We have reset the frame of the politically possible in our state.
To challenge the status quo, citizen activists must change the game, the story, and the equation of power. Our Alliance changed the game by abandoning the NRA-dominated capitol and going to the ballot. We changed the story by focusing on gun violence as a public health issue that could be addressed just as we address car accidents and unsafe driving: as a matter of responsible rules and norms, not control or confiscation.
We changed the equation by activating not only faith leaders, survivors, educators, and law enforcement leaders — all of whom had standing to lead — but also interested bystanders and ordinary neighbors who until then had felt too powerless to act. They did more than vote for our initiative. They “cast their whole ballot,” as Thoreau said, bringing their voice, relationships, and local standing to awaken others.
All these strategies are available to all Americans right now. Even in states that do not have ballot initiatives or where the elected leadership is pro-NRA, citizens can organize right now to change minds and challenge public notions of what is acceptable.
We may disagree on what the Second Amendment allows or requires — that’s politics. But we can all agree that to exercise power and responsibility as a citizen means acting when circumstances demand — not when officials give us permission.
Now is precisely the time for gun responsibility. Now is always the time to act for justice.