This interview is part of a new series at Daily Kos called Five Questions. That’s how many we’ll be seeking answers for from a wide variety of politically engaged people, both the renowned and some you’ve probably never heard of.
Joe Sudbay worked on gun safety issues at Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign) from 1994-2000, back when liberals and Democrats leaned into gun issues, took on the National Rifle Association (NRA), and usually won. In fact, the first initiative he worked on was passing the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994; a string of successful pro-safety ballot measures followed in Florida, Colorado, Oregon, and Missouri.
In the early years of Obama’s presidency, Sudbay and I became comrades during the LGBT push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and pressure President Obama to embrace marriage equality. He became an integral part of the activist mix through his writing at AMERICAblog and his experience with advocacy on the Hill, which essentially meant that he was playing an “outsider” role but with “insider” knowledge. It was under Sudbay’s questioning in October of 2010 that the president first said he was starting to “evolve” on same-sex marriage.
I came to see Sudbay as a rarity in the Beltway—he manages to place himself at the heart of important progressive debates without getting too caught up in the “Washington circuit.” He currently works on immigration for the group America’s Voice, which means he has unique insights into three different progressive movements that have experienced varied success at different times over the last several decades.
This week seemed the perfect time to revisit what went right on guns back in the '90s and how to move back in that direction.
1) What is the most important thing for people to know about the gun issue, or perhaps, what is the biggest misconception people have about the gun issue?
The most important thing to know is this: The NRA is NOT invincible. For the past 15-16 years, the NRA has gone unchecked. DC-based Democrats and consultants believed fighting the NRA was futile. It’s all based on a warped analysis of the 2000 elections. That only empowered the group—and the GOP, because the NRA is a GOP group. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton, who was good on gun safety in office, was one of the main purveyors of that lie. After the 2000 elections, he said, “They (meaning the NRA) probably had more to do than anyone else in the fact we didn't win the House this time, and they hurt Al Gore." Now, imagine if Bill Clinton said, “No one expected Democrats to take back the Senate, but 5 Democrats used the gun issue to beat their NRA-backed Republican opponents. Imagine if Al Gore had leaned in instead of running from the gun issue.” Because that is what happened. Things would be much different.
2) What do you consider the NRA's biggest weakness?
Their biggest weakness is the gun issue itself. By that I mean that the American people overwhelmingly support key gun issues, like background checks and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Also, most Americans are still unaware of how weak gun laws are—they only realize it after something tragic hits their community. The NRA wants to keep the focus on the generic term “gun control” instead of the elements because they lose on the elements. When politicians lean in to gun issues, they win. Even the NRA won’t do ads saying, “vote for this Republican cause he opposes background checks.” They may say that to their members, but they don’t want that discussion publicly. Put it this way, even George W. Bush ended up supporting the federal assault weapons ban. Even he didn’t want to be on the wrong side - and the NRA still endorsed him.
3) Is there anything gun safety advocates can learn from the LGBT movement or the immigration movement?
The key thing I would say is that all of these issues were up against conventional wisdom. Many Democrats were afraid, on some levels, of all of these issues. Inside-the-beltway thinking had to change. Activists and advocates did it on immigration and LGBT issues by going big, having effective outside/grassroots strategies and being unrelenting.
What happened with the sit-in by House Democrats showed the thinking has started to change in DC. That was a good first step. Moving forward, gun control advocates should stop asking for discreet small bills. Go big. For example, in early 2009, the LGBT advocates outlined their agenda as follows: hate crimes, Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and repeal of DOMA. Marriage wasn’t on the agenda. And the inside-the-Beltway thinking was that hate crimes would happen in the first year, ENDA in the first Congress, then the others later. But, the activist community was way ahead and wouldn’t settle for just getting one bill—hate crimes—in the first two years. So now, we have marriage equality, and DADT was repealed. DOMA is gone. And unfortunately, ENDA never even got a vote, even though it was second in the line up. That’s because the advocates pushing for DADT repeal did a better job of utilizing outside pressure and grassroots energy than groups like the Human Rights Campaign that were originally pushing for ENDA.
4) You have often said to me that you learned more about progressive advocacy in the first two years of Obama's presidency—when Dems controlled the Congress and White House—than you had in all your previous years in Washington. What was it?
During the first two years of the Obama administration, Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House. There should have been a lot of legislation passed. Instead, many advocacy groups didn’t ask and demand action. Too many got caught up in their access - and access for the sake of access, not for progress. They participated in things like “Common Purpose,” hosted by the White House, where progressive groups got their marching orders instead of making demands. It became very important to get the right invitations. This sounds like I’m being petty. I’m not. This was real and really disillusioning. And, this is why it became important to have an outside game. Because activists not only push elected officials, they push the paid advocates to work harder and truly represent the community. In LGBT world, we had suffered a huge loss in California on the day Obama was elected when Proposition 8 passed. We had marriage rights taken away. So a lot of us were ready to fight. Our advocacy groups were less inclined to do that. Access for the sake of access not for the sake of progress is the bane of DC progressives.
5) What would be a good first step in making real change on gun reform—what goal should advocates set?
Go big. Demand votes on key issues, including the ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Don’t accept no for an answer. Don’t listen when “friends” try to tell you that it’s not the right time, or it’s complicated, or one of the other excuses often lobbed at advocates. On that, take a page from the NRA. If you’re allies aren’t being true allies, call them out. They’ll hate it, but they’ll pay attention. Importantly, don’t compromise with yourselves.
Also, don’t kid yourself, there is no middle ground on this issue—and that’s because of the gun lobby. They view any piece of gun control legislation as a threat. We learned a long time ago that there is no “third way” on guns. It’s critical to have a left flank within the movement to not only push politicians, but to push the groups and give them space to ask for more.
You have to change conventional wisdom - and that means defeating the NRA at the polls. The gun issue is inherently political and to win will require a political operation to elect friends and defeat opponents. Pro-NRA incumbents have to lose over their fealty to the gun lobby. Good legislation won’t pass in this Congress so start focusing on electing members of Congress who will vote your way.