Hope Demands Action: One State’s Fight for Gun Reform

On August 18th, the Tennessee branch of Moms Demand Action had a day of action across the state. It was just weeks after the mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH and would quickly be followed by the mass shooting in Odessa, TX. Although the news media picks and chooses which of the hundreds of shootings that involve the minimum of four people shot to meet the threshold to be called a “mass shooting,” there was a time when we called them all massacres.

The calls for action have been getting louder. But it’s not simply outrage. There is a growing movement led by groups like former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Shannon Watts’s Moms Demand Action backed by Everytown for Gun Safety and more recently the March for Our Lives group. These groups have assembled victims, gun owners, gun enthusiasts, and concerned citizens to push for smart gun laws to reduce gun violence and to ensure that legally obtained guns are stored properly to prevent accidents, or worse, theft. But the groups haven’t been fighting for these common sense measures with anger or threats. Instead, they’re building communities. 

The series of events across the Volunteer State in August drew hundreds of people, according to volunteer organizer and @Momsdemand regional trainer Kristi Cornett, who talked to Majority 60 for this piece. This topic is an undeniably political issue, but the events were not about partisan politics. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, and office holders were all welcome. Several local heavyweights attended to lend their support. Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), who gained notoriety for his KFC political theater during Bob Barr’s no-show hearing, attended an event in Memphis. In the capital, Nashville Mayor David Briley and the presumptive Democratic nominee for the vacant US Senate seat, James Mackler, attended events. Other speakers around the state were: Anna Cornett with Students Demand Action, Dr. Heather Lehmann, a community pediatrician, Stella Pierce from a domestic violence support organization called HomeSafe, Brenda Harper with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, Pastor Becky Yates, and Haviland Whiting, a Nashville youth poet laureate. 

There were tributes to victims of gun violence that included songs and poems. Children in attendance were optimistic in the way we’ve come to expect, they are preparing to grow up into the leaders who will make positive change if today’s elected officials continue to fail them. So, what has Moms Demand Action been doing to push for the changes they believe in?

“[When] the Senate was on recess, our local Senators refused to meet with us face to face. We have met with their staff members, but they would not take the time to listen to us,” Cornett explained. “So, we held rallies in all 50 states to show them that the American public wants change. The House has passed comprehensive background checks on every gun sale as well as a strong red flag law. It is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk. We are sending a loud message that if Congress doesn’t change our gun laws, then we will change congress.”

Women like Cornett don’t get paid for the work they do for Moms Demand Action. She volunteers her time to help the group organize and grow. “At times it’s a roller coaster,” she told me. “You can go from such highs like having successful rallies or passing good bills in the legislature which you know will save lives to being utterly shattered by losing hard fights.”

Cornett’s teammates felt the sting of defeat this year when Tennessee legislators turned their backs on live firearm trainers by gutting the permit system in the state and allowing anyone to carry a gun without ever having fired one. “But,” said Cornett, “one thing I’ve learned over my years of volunteering is that we are always moving forward even if we are losing. Because we are making gains in relationships, in laws nationwide, etc. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. I think having that mindset is helpful.”

For Cornett it isn’t just about policy. “This is the only organization that I have been a part of that truly sees people. And what I mean by that is they see your potential and allow you to participate.” Moms Demand Action’s ability to train and support without micromanaging their volunteers has given their tens of thousands of volunteers a level of autonomy that sparks innovation and grows leaders. “We are always making room at the table and making the table bigger. We care about inclusion, equality, and diversity,” Cornett said. The goals of the group are as simple as they are politically difficult—they promote laws that aim to “keep firearms away from people with dangerous histories; such as domestic abusers, make sure that every gun purchased has a background check, and limit access to people who are in crisis and want to harm themselves.”

Cornett’s own chapter of Moms Demand Action managed to get the mayor of their county seat in Gallatin, TN, to issue a proclamation on Gun Violence Awareness Day. The mayor delivered that proclamation in the backyard of gun manufacturer, Beretta USA. There is a message within that message, and it is that people want to feel safe moving about their communities. They want the people in their lives who need help to get help, before they hurt themselves or others. And most importantly: victims of gun violence are not statistics—they are people.

Just in the first two days of this month, four people were shot in Toledo, OH, including Roy Barringer, a local boxer. In Hartford, CT, 17 year old Usher Hanns was killed and three others injured. Hanns was shot to death a month before his 18th birthday. Seven people were shot when a disagreement about a football game escalated in Valley, AL. In Rocky Mountain, NC, at least four, likely 5, people were shot outside a Moose Lodge. And the next day, a fourteen year old boy killed his father, stepmother, 6 year old stepbrother, 5 year old stepsister and his 6 month old stepbrother.

These gun shots—and thousands of others—will reverberate through these lives and the lives of the people around them for years to come. Many of the cases are preventable. The message to the nation’s leaders is simple: Do Something.