Grassroots Movements Shedding Light on Gun Violence in Colorado
Author: Chelsea Shelton
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/09/2014
In loving memory of Daniel Mauser, Lauren Townsend and the countless other victims of gun violence. Dedicated to my brother, whose strength, compassion and resiliency inspires me everyday.
Colorado in the United States of America is my home. It is also the state which has experienced two of the most devastating mass shootings in the US. One of which my brother experienced, through the walls of a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 2Oth, 2012. Fortunately, he was on the other side of the wall: free from physical injuries. However, he did not leave the theatre that night without helping to hide some of those in his theatre while waiting for the brave policemen, running in fear for his life, and witnessing members of his community suffer. My brother, like so many others in Colorado and the broader US, has been deeply affected by the gun violence in our country; I have been deeply affected.
This is my personal journey of finding hope within an issue that feels bleak, sporadic and unpreventable. I am searching for light in the midst of the darkness that prevails through gun violence in the United States with the aim of amplifying that light, and allowing it to shine just a little bit brighter for us all. I first glance at the news media: a natural first place to get information as a citizen. I then move on to a review of academic literature, in order to see what research offers us in understanding gun violence and the gun control debate. And finally, I reach out and talk to people from within my own community in Denver, to see what they are actually doing to address the issue of gun violence locally.
Background Information and Media Representation:
The gun control debate is very heated in Colorado, with strong emotions on either side of the issue. In September 2013, two Democratic Colorado senators were recalled due to their votes in favor of expanding background checks for private and online firearm sales and limiting the size of ammunition magazines to fifteen rounds. In November of 2013, gun rights activists were collecting signatures to recall a third Democratic senator, Evie Hudak, which would have changed the majority in the Colorado Senate from Democrats to Republican.
In my reading of American news, the majority of media sources portray the gun control debate in a way of extremities, which makes addressing the issue of gun violence seem out of reach. The middle ground citizens or holistic opinions are more often than not, left out of the picture. When we are shown only the two extreme positions of the debate, it feels as though we will only continue to fight with one another, with no promise of finding common ground. This type of media portrayal, which attempts to be balanced in the sense that it demonstrates two sides of the issue, in reality ends up dividing us further in our state that has been rubbed raw from gun violence.
In order to find some clarity around the issue, I look to academia. What are academics saying about this epidemic in America? Turns out, that academics are just as split on the topic as our politicians. The concept that gun control laws will reduce gun violence is heavily debated.
Miguel A Faria, a retired neurosurgeon and professor, refers to gun control lobbyists as “gun prohibitionists in … their crusade for gun control in place of crime control,” he sees the whole gun control movement as miss aimed. Faria, notes how the second amendment of the US Constitution was created and is important in order to keep the US government in check. He quotes Supreme Court Justice Story that wrote in 1833:
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
Faria also discusses that forbidding the right to carry arms only puts law-abiding citizens in more danger. He states, citing other various scholars, that the defensive uses of firearms outnumber the offensive uses. Between 25 and 75 lives are saved by a gun for every life lost to a gun in the US. In addition, when concealed carry gun laws have gone into effect in a given county, murders fell by 8%, rapes by 5% and aggravated assaults by 7%.
On the other hand, Ik-Whan Kwon a business professor and David Baack a doctoral student at the John Cook School of Business at St.Louis University, find a clear reduction of gun related deaths when comprehensive gun control legislation is present. Their multivariate study shows that the cities with the most extreme gun legislation decreases the number of gun related deaths between one to six persons per 100,000 individuals as opposed to states with lax gun laws. Kwon and Baack state that the discrepancy and debate between scholars is often because they only look at the effectiveness of one law at reducing gun violence as opposed to the many gun laws that may be in place. These scholars also show that socioeconomic factors equally influence the amount of gun violence and that effective social and economic programs may be helpful at reducing gun related deaths. A holistic look at gun violence reveals that both law and socioeconomic programs are needed to reduce gun violence.
Other academics choose to look outside the gun control debate for answers. Lance Lindeen, a student of Law at Indiana University states, “one merely perpetuates a bloody stasis by analyzing the issue through the narrow lens of regulating hardware—guns and ammunition—rather than addressing some of the reasons why people use guns in the first place.” He goes on to further discuss ways of decreasing gun violence by decreasing the need for people to have guns. Specifically Lindeen argues that a critical first step is to decriminalize the use of controlled substances, primarily Marijuana.
Joseph Blocher an associate professor at Duke Law School, offers the concept of firearm localism. He draws links between the type of locale, city or rural, and the presence of gun violence. In rural areas, there are few incidents of gun violence and gun culture is strong. In cities, gun violence is high and the opportunities for recreational gun use is low. Blocher argues that the second amendment and state laws should respond to the substantial differences between urban and rural gun use and enact differing regulations. Blocher sees this as a way forward in the stalled gun control debate.
Specifically discussing school shootings, Fox and Harding, both sociologists, view the events as organizational deviance. They consider school shootings as organizational deviance because they happen within an organization, deviate from formal goals and normative standards, and lead to injury or death. This construction of school shootings sees the root of the problem as information loss, or rather when certain students fall through the cracks. The students that carry out violent acts are unidentified and ill supported in their emotional and social problems prior to the massacre. These scholars recommend addressing the gun violence in schools through a variety of structural changes working to keep students from slipping through the cracks, perhaps by adding another counselor specifically for social and emotional wellness and providing teacher trainings.
There are many more scholarly opinions about the prevalence of gun violence in the US and ways to address the issue. In my opinion, the alternative ideas presented by some scholars may help us to get away from the pro-gun and anti-gun control debate, which presently has the US at a halt at making any progress. However, typically scholars only go so far; the majority of academics solely conduct research and present recommendations.
How do the discussions in academia connect to people on the ground? In order to answer this question I look to the grassroots movements. What are local people in my community in Colorado doing to address the issue of gun violence? Where do they find hope and inspiration, maybe I can find mine there too? I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to two grassroots peace builders; here are there stories.
Tom Mauser lost his son Daniel in the Library in the Columbine high school massacre on April 20th, 1999. Since Daniel’s death, Tom has been an advocate for gun violence prevention in Colorado. He was the lobbyist for SAFE (Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic) Colorado, a civil society based advocacy coalition for gun control following the Columbine shooting, which worked to close the gun show loophole in Colorado in 2000. This is what he considers the greatest grassroots success that he has been a part of. SAFE Colorado, decided to put the choice to the people and created Amendment 22 for the ballot. Amendment 22 to the State’s constitution, was formed so that people that purchased guns at gun shows had to go through a background check, just like if they were to buy it at a store. A team made up of volunteers for SAFE Colorado, ended up collecting 110,000 signatures for the amendment in just 90 days. When it came to a citizen vote on the November 7th, 2000 ballot, Amendment 22 passed with a 70% yes and a 30% no and the amendment has been in place ever since. Tom describes the win as one for the people, “It was really a grassroots movement, it was people who got together and decided- we’re going to change this.”
The reason why Amendment 22 specifically was such an important amendment for Tom was because of a conversation he had shared with his son. His story speaks for itself.
“Two weeks before Columbine at the dinner table he (Daniel) asked me a question. He said Dad, did you know there are loopholes in the Brady Bill? The Brady Bill is the national law that requires background checks when you buy one at a gun shop, it didn’t require them at gun shows. Then two weeks later he was killed with a gun that was purchased through one of those loop holes in the Brady Bill. That to me was a sign that I had to do something about that issue.”
Tom is now on the board of directors for Ceasefire Colorado, the current organization aiming to reduce gun violence in Colorado. Tom is really someone the community looks up to and can relate to on this issue. He testifies for every bill surrounding gun control in Colorado. Tom says, “I know a lot of people say, it’s the person not the gun, but the reality is, it’s both. It’s a person with a gun who found it very easy to get a hold of that gun because we have such weak gun laws.” Even though Tom’s advocacy mostly surrounds gun laws he sees the issue holistically and recognizes that other community initiatives are needed. “I’m not under the impression that gun laws alone will change that (violence in America), but the lack of gun laws doesn’t make it any better; I think it makes it worse.”
The work that Tom does is difficult at times, as he is very much in the public eye and receives negative attention from people arguing for the other side of the gun control debate. But, Tom is motivated to keep doing this work in order to honor his son Daniel. He wrote a book about the shooting, his grieving, his advocacy and his healing titled, “Walking in Daniel’s Shoes.” Tom was given the shoes that Daniel was wearing the day he was killed, and Tom wears them every time he testifies or speaks about the issue. In addition, he says his motivation to keep going comes from all of the other victims of gun violence that he meets. “I’ve come across quite a few people who are victims of gun violence; who share my belief, but they just say, I just cant do this, don’t count on me to be able to do what you’re doing. I feel like I’m speaking for them, for the people that cant speak up.”
The next grassroots peace builder I wish to highlight is Jacqui Shumway. Jacqui has been involved with a number of initiatives advocating for nonviolence in Colorado. She serves on the board of Colorado Ceasefire and has been very active in promoting gun violence prevention laws; however, Jacqui also works in other ways to address the issue of gun violence in Colorado. She and her partner, Joe Brady, are the directors of the Tai Chi Project that “partners with local and global organizations to promote the joy of responsible living through meditational martial arts and Traditional medicine.” The Tai Chi Project, with the help of a long-time student and survivor of the Columbine High School massacre, has developed and holds classes and workshops specifically designed for those that have been affected by gun violence. Jacqui believes in tackling the issue of gun violence holistically and that the issue surrounds a feeling of powerlessness. “I think it’s a serious problem that people feel disempowered so what they do is get a gun…and the gun is giving them control and power. But without the gun what are you? It doesn’t really solve the problem, the problem is about feeling power within yourself.” The Tai Chi project she says is particularly beneficial for survivors of shootings, by enabling people to recognize their own power within and to find peace of mind. In her teaching Jacqui shares an old Chinese proverb, “that a gun has a spirit of its own that cries out to be used.” In her belief, you cannot practice true Tai Chi and own a gun and that “awareness is your greatest weapon.”
In addition to her work with the Tai Chi Project and Colorado Ceasefire, Jacqui helped organize the second Silent March in Colorado April 18th 2013 to honor the lives that have been lost to gun violence starting with those that were killed in Columbine high school up until this past year. The first March was in 2000 after the Columbine shooting took place. The concept behind the Silent March for victims of gun violence began in the 1990s and was made even more meaningful by Tom Mauser, and the way in which he is inspired and motivated by walking in Daniel’s shoes. Jacqui and the other chair person rounded up shoes to represent all of the people that are no longer with us in Colorado as a result of gun violence, the total number of lives lost Jacqui said was an estimated 10,000 people within the past 13 years. She only managed to gather around 3,350 shoes but the event was still impactful. The Colorado community came together to line them up on the steps of the state capital. Bells were rung as the names of the victims were read over the city to raise awareness of the significant amount of lives lost. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, the silent movement became national. Jacqui hopes to do a silent march every April, and that one-day there won’t be any more shoes on the steps.
The importance of grassroots movements is undeniable. This is something that scholars and local people can agree upon. “Progressive social movements and their knowledge’s are central to any possibility for an alternative, democratic and humane future. They are indispensable to the creation of another world with the space for many worlds.” Part of engaging in this social debate on gun violence demands that we pay attention to these movements whenever they are present.
Shannon Frattaroli an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health sums up the unique ability of grassroots advocacy, specifically in the context of gun violence, “A movement with a strong, mobilized grassroots and a credible and compelling message will be able to create and take advantage of political opportunities, and bridge gaps between public sentiment and political reality.” Without the grassroots work of people like Tom and Jacqui, I am unsure of where Colorado would be today in terms of gun violence.
Jacqui spoke of the importance of grassroots work, “we can’t keep teaching pie in the sky ideas about peace, we have to get down to the ground level.” Tom also shared his opinion of the potential of grassroots movements.
“It is pretty easy to be skeptical about creating change in American society because of the power of money, the power of big organizations…but if there is anything that can overcome that it’s the grassroots movement. People respond to what they see as a movement of ordinary people and when those people can get together, as we did with amendment 22, and make sure their voices are heard it can really make a big difference.”
It is here on the grassroots level, that I find hope, support and inspiration. I am inspired by the initiatives of Tom and Jacqui as well as the many other local peace builders whom I was unable to speak with, but work everyday to prevent gun violence. I feel a sense of solidarity with them, that we understand and acknowledge each other’s experiences and that we have a common vision for a less violent America. I am now, more than ever, convinced of the power of the people to create change.
Conclusion and Recommendations:
The media, in my opinion should aim to be more inclusive to all perspectives on the issue of gun violence in the US. This will paint a more holistic picture of the many dynamics present within the debate and show that there are numerous paths forward. It is my hope that grassroots peace builders like Tom and Jaqui can also be highlighted in traditional news media so that more people can hear their stories and find a glimmer of light in the dark.
In addition, I recognize the potential for academics to help move the gun control debate out of its stalled position by offering alternatives; however, there is an obvious disconnect between academia and what is taking place on the ground. Scholarly language and sociological terms such as “organizational deviance” makes the issue feel far away: somehow less human.
In order for academia to truly be helpful with this issue, I believe that they must connect with people on the ground; to do so, emotion must be embraced within academic writing. Gun violence in Colorado and the broader United States is about real human suffering, and to not acknowledge emotion is dishonoring to all of those that have been affected. Including human emotion is not going to automatically connect academia and those on the ground, but I think it could be an impactful place to start. It is for this reason that I wrote this work the way that I have: including my own feelings and reactions. Some academics may label this piece as bias and that may be true; but nonetheless, it is a real exploration of the many underlying issues of gun violence in Colorado and those that are working to address them.
My recommendations have solely been developed through my personal journey of finding hope and warrant further research to demonstrate their applicability. I see the opportunity for further research to be done surrounding the polarization of the gun control debate in media sources and the subsequent effect that it has on the sentiments of the local population. In addition, there is a large need to find more ways to connect academics to the reality on the ground. The concept of utilizing human emotion in academic writing to begin to bridge this gap should be further developed. This piece has only begun to open up the conversation, which we all have the capacity to contribute to.
Blocher, Joseph. “Firearm Localism.” Yale Law Journal. 123.82 (2013): n. page. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
“Colorado gun-rights advocates plan another recall effort.”Fox News: Politics. 08 Oct 2013: n. page. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Conway , Janet M. “Identity, Place, Knowledge: Social movements contesting globalization.” Fernwood Publishing. (2004): 1-289. Print.
Faria Jr., Miguel A. “America, guns, and freedom: Part 1: A recapitulation of liberty.” Surgical Neurology International. (2012): n. page.Web.
“For Peace of Mind and A Healthy Body.” Tai Chi Project. N.p.. Web. 16 Nov 2013. <http://taichidenver.com/index.html>.
Fox, Cybelle, and David J. Harding. “School Shootings as Organizational Deviance.” Sociology of Education. 78.1 (2005): n. page. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Frattaroli, Shannon. “Grassroots Advocacy for Gun Violence Prevention.” Journal of Public Healthy Policy. 24.3/4 (2003): 332-354. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Kwon, Ik-Whan G., and Daniel W. Baack. “The Effectiveness of Legislation Controlling Gun Usage: A holistic measure of gun control legislation.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.. 64.2 (2005): 533-547. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.
Lindeen, Lance. “Keep Off the Grass! : An alternative approach to the gun control debate.” Indiana Law journal. 85. (2010): n. page. Web. 17 Nov. 2013
Mauser, Tom. Internet Chat Interview. 14 Nov 2013.
Shumway, Jacqui. Internet Videoconference Interview. 16 Nov 2013.
Bio: Chelsea Shelton is currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Peace Studies at the United Nation’s mandated University For Peace in Costa Rica. Chelsea has spent most of her life in Colorado in the United States, and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Colorado State University in May 2013 with a Liberal Arts degree with minors in Peace and Reconciliation, International Development and Sociology. She also studied Post-Conflict Transformation with the School for International Training in Gulu, Uganda and Kigali, Rwanda.