Connecticut Moms Mobilize for Gun Violence Prevention in Wake of Shootings

 

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To call our new laws a result of “the Mom effect” may seem to suggest dads aren’t participating in gun-law reform but they are, and their numbers are growing. “I’m definitely seeing a lot more stubble,” says CAGV’s Labella. “I’d say that at one time the percentage of women to men in the movement was 80-20; now it’s closer to 60-40.” But polls indicate that there’s still a significant gender gap on the gun issue. “It’s about 20 points—almost as big as the gap we see on reproductive issues,” says Ron Pinciaro, executive director of CAGV. “This just seems to be a higher priority for women. When you talk to men one-on-one about events like Newtown, they’re just as horrified, but there isn’t the same passion for change. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired.”

After Columbine, Labella volunteered for a number of gun-law reform initiatives, lobbying at the Capitol in Hartford and helping organize the Fairfield County chapter of the Million Mom March, a gun-control rally held on Mother’s Day, 2000, that drew 750,000 to Washington, D.C., and another 200,000 to satellite marches around the country. A year later, she became co-executive director of CAGV, an organization founded in 1993 by 11 women outraged at the accidental gun death of a 5-year-old in Bridgeport. Labella spent eight years there before leaving for a job at the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. Now, she’s taken a leave of absence from that job, and is back at CAGV as a volunteer, managing the organization’s community outreach.

There’s more to that role than simply dealing with the tidal wave of new memberships (35,000 at last count) that have come in since Sandy Hook. Labella also focuses on coalition building—to date, more than 300 clergy and over 50 organizations have signed on to support CAGV’s legislative agenda for comprehensive gun-violence prevention laws, including Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, the National Association of Social Workers and the Violence Policy Center of Washington, D.C. She’s also interested in fostering the many new grassroots organizations for gun-violence prevention that have sprouted in Connecticut this year. “It’s really a loose coalition of people that have never done this before,” Labella says. “We’ll go and speak to them if they want us to, and offer guidance regarding legislative lobbying, to help them understand the process better. We share information on how to testify at a public hearing, how to go about contacting legislators.”

One such grassroots connection has turned into a permanent partnership with March for Change (MFC), co-founded by Fairfield moms Meg Staunton and Nancy Lefkowitz. They sat down with CAGV’s Pinciaro the day after the Sandy Hook shootings, and announced a general meeting for the following Monday on Facebook. “We thought we were going to get together with five people around my kitchen table just to talk about, ‘Okay, how do we become part of the gun violence conversation?’” says Lefkowitz.

By Monday, they found they had 250 people signed up to attend, including 4th District U.S. Rep. Jim Himes. The group ended up meeting in a Westport church. “We knew there was going to be a lot of raw emotion in the room, and we decided to be the conduit,” she says. “We also knew that CAGV had been lobbying in Hartford on behalf of commonsense gun laws for a very long time. We decided to bring them what they were missing: Noise. We describe ourselves as the passion behind the politics. Our motto is, ‘Change the conversation, change the culture, change the law.’”

MFC’s first public event was a Valentine’s Day rally, featuring Gov. Dannel Malloy and Sen. McKinney. A crowd of 5,500—dominated by moms and kids who came on school buses—filled the grounds of the state capitol. “We support the Second Amendment, and an individual’s right to own a gun,” says Lefkowitz, echoing the attitude of other grassroots Connecticut organizations. “We just think it shouldn’t be without rational and reasonable regulations and limitations. Not everyone agrees, but this is a great country. You’re able to stand up for what you believe. What a wonderful thing to be able to show my kids.”    

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (MDA)—originally known as One Million Moms for Gun Control—is a coalition entirely built on the Web. Founded by Indiana mom Shannon Watts in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, it now boasts more than 80,000 followers and 80 chapters, including three in Connecticut. Based on the model of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, MDA’s specific goals are to: 1. ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds; 2. require background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases; 3. report sale of large quantities of ammunition to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and 4. counter gun industry lobbyists’ efforts to weaken gun laws—on both the local and federal level.

The first three are clearly legislative goals; the fourth is no less challenging given the gun-lobby’s reputation for intimidating and co-opting politicians. Still, the organization’s Connecticut membership spent the first quarter of 2013 tirelessly phoning, emailing and meeting with legislators, going to hearings and town halls and establishing a presence at events like the March for Change, Moms on the Hill in Washington, D.C., and Lobby Day in Hartford. The latter, held March 11, was initially set up as an opportunity for gun-rights groups to talk to legislators after Gov. Malloy and a bipartisan panel had announced proposals for state gun-law reform.

“There are times when we feel our freedom of speech is seriously squelched,” says Anne Tortora, head of MDA’s Eastern Connecticut chapter. At at day of testimony run by a General Assembly task force in January, NRA members and supporters “yelled at us and shouted us down,” says Central Connecticut chapter head Deborah Lewis. “It was just horrible.”

They’ve also dealt with their share of sexism from the opposition. “When the Stamford Advocate ran a piece on me, someone commented, ‘Ms. Baekey, why don’t you go back to your housework?’” says Kara Baekey, head of MDA’s Fairfield County chapter. “Little do they know I’m a director of operations for MRM Worldwide in New York City, one of the world’s biggest ad agencies.”
 

Connecticut Moms Mobilize for Gun Violence Prevention in Wake of Shootings

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