What if you opened your ballot this autumn and saw this question:
Shall we eliminate gun violence in America? □ Yes □ No
For most of us, it would be easy to vote in favor of that, wouldn’t it?
It’s a nice piece of wishful thinking, but things probably won’t go that way.
Occasionally, gun violence prevention (GVP) efforts result in high-profile ballot measures, like California’s Proposition 63, passed in 2016. Prop 63 prohibited the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and required certain individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition. Washington’s Initiative 1639 also passed in 2016; it raised the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, added background checks and increased waiting periods.
It’s a drag about all the lawsuits that follow. But they’re part of the long haul we’ve signed up for.
Small electoral steps toward gun violence prevention
Still, our voices are making a difference, as they did in the Virginia legislative election in 2019. There was nothing on the ballot as cut-and-dry as “Shall we eliminate gun violence in Virginia?” However, there were other measures (and people) on the ballot that led to electoral victories. As a result, Virginia’s governor and lawmakers have been equipped to pass meaningful, common-sense legislation designed to prevent gun violence.
In fact, where GVP meets the ballot, the most common steps are small ones. That’s why we work to elect GVP-minded judges, city councilmembers, county supervisors, state representatives and even school board members. Gun violence prevention candidates show they will lead with gun safety in mind, whether at the top of the ballot or the bottom.
For that matter, in a year like this, we encourage you to look even deeper than the ballot.
The problem of voting access
We like the Voting Access Saves Lives campaign that our member organization Brady United has kicked off with two youth groups: Team ENOUGH and March for Our Lives. If the way to end gun violence is through votes, then this campaign goes a level deeper: to voting access. For everybody.
As they point out, if you are Black in America, you are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a gun homicide than a white person. Yet an estimated 1 out of every 13 Black Americans cannot vote due to a past conviction — four times the rate of other Americans.
Lengthy polling lines and wait times are most likely to happen in Black and Brown communities. Data shows that voters in majority-Black neighborhoods are more likely to wait longer than those in majority-white neighborhoods. A 2019 study based on smartphone data found that residents of entirely Black neighborhoods waited 29% longer to vote. They were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place. And in Arizona’s 2016 primary election, poll closures disproportionately impacted the city’s Latinx population, resulting in almost double the time waiting to vote.
The problem of human nature
Then, there’s that vexing human factor.
“Why doesn’t EVERYbody vote?!” you ask in despair, pulling your hair and worrying about the near future.
For a solid century the League of Women Voters has been guided by that question. More than thinking about it, they’ve been doing something about it. We like the list they’ve published with 100 ways to get ready for election day. Among them:
10. Find out who’s funding the candidates running for office on your ballot. (FollowTheMoney.orgis a good resource for this.)
16. Check if you need an ID to vote. Some states require it.
38. Check in with a young person in your life. Are they registered? Do they need help voting?
66. Join the People Powered Fair MapsTMcampaign as a volunteer to stop gerrymandering.
76. Demand action from Congress to protect the 2020 election. Call your Senators today at 1-888-415-4527 to ask them to include $4 billion in funding to secure our elections in the next stimulus package (or fill out our contact form).
The vote: Use it or lose it
Again, with the power of the vote we can change gun laws. Just know that it will take you more than checking a “Yes” box on one ballot.
It’s a long road to get the kind of gun laws you want by voting. Meanwhile, keep in mind the words of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA):
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful non-violent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
John White is a volunteer with SD4GVP.