Just as it was announced Tuesday that a group of U.S. senators had finally reached an agreement on a bipartisan gun violence bill, Daily Kos sat down with a gun reform activist from Moms Demand Action, a grassroots campaign that’s part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country with more than 8 million supporters.
Moms Demand Action is manned by volunteers such as Dr. Johanna Thomas, who uses her platform as a college professor and licensed clinical social worker in Arkansas to push for stronger gun control measures and more education around gun safety. She is also a gun owner, and as important as it is to her for gun laws to change—adding waiting periods, “red flag laws,” and a ban on assault rifles—it’s equally important to educate people on gun safety.
Thomas says she connected with Moms Demand Action in 2017 after an Arkansas law allowed students at the university where she taught to carry guns onto campus.
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“In the beginning, I was really just hoping for some talking points with my legislature. I had never really been involved in that process. So it was more about getting the word out about why [allowing guns on the campus] was unsafe and learning how to talk to lawmakers,” Thomas tells Daily Kos.
She says that ultimately, the organization was not able to change the laws in Arkansas, but the legislator who brought the law, former Republican state Rep. Charlie Collins, was voted out of office by a slim margin not long after Moms began organizing.
“And so that just showed me how powerful the group can be when we have a message that's cohesive and that we're ready for what's coming,” Thomas says.
Thomas’ advocacy work has changed in recent years: Today she spends a lot of her time educating other social workers and families on gun safety, writing papers about gun safety as an academic and looking for grants to fund her work around gun safety and gun violence prevention.
“I've created an online continuing education unit for social workers and others who want to learn about gun safety and what it means. In the first conference I ever held, in [the] very red state [of Arkansas], we gave away more than 200 gun locks, and that was just to social workers alone,” Thomas says. “There's obviously a need. One lady, as I was giving the presentation, said, ‘I'm going to get up and leave because I have to go call my child care provider. I’ve never asked if they have a gun in their home.’”
Thomas is a huge proponent of parents demanding to know the status of guns in someone’s home before their children are allowed to visit. “After starting with Moms, I had to ask another parent that hard question. She told me she had a gun in her car, and it wasn’t locked.”
It was a defining moment for Thomas. “I had to make a decision right then and there to educate her on the safety issues around having a firearm that wasn't locked up but also making a decision not to have my child ride in that car or go to that home. And she respected that, and she has since locked her firearm up in her car. But you have to have those very tough conversations,” Thomas says.
When I asked Thomas about teachers being armed in schools, she said simply, “It frightens me.”
“While we can do things to make our schools safer, it has to be in parallel with making our country safer. And so I think that is where we lose sight. … I think it's up to us as citizens to continue pushing back on that conversation because I don't think that hardening our schools is going to be the answer to ending mass shootings. Especially in our schools. It doesn't work like that.”
Although Thomas' work can be exceptionally hard, especially in a red state, she says confidently that there is growing momentum, and there has been a tangible change.
“We've seen more people join the movement. We've seen more people come to the table. The children after [the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School] Parkland have been involved. And so there is momentum, which keeps me moving forward, but also finding things that really hold my heart, like the Be SMART program and going out and talking to people in my community,” Thomas says.
Be SMART is a campaign that raises awareness about gun safety, including safe storage, storing guns locked and unloaded, and keeping ammunition separate from firearms.
“It's not always going to happen when you're talking to your state legislature or you're talking to your U.S. representative, but it could happen when you're talking to your neighbor, Sally. … Just one conversation at a time keeps me going. Sometimes it's a good conversation; sometimes it's a sucky conversation. But that’s how I stay in the game,” Thomas says.
As for the sweeping gun-control measure, advocates are working to get it passed Saturday, with Democrats putting it on a fast track, The New York Times reports.
“This bipartisan gun safety legislation is progress and will save lives,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said ahead of the vote. “While it is not everything we want, this legislation is urgently needed.”
The Good Fight is a series spotlighting progressive activists battling injustice in communities around the nation. These folks typically work to uplift those who are underserved and brutalized by a system that dismisses or looks to erase them and their stories.