Viewpoint: Real Gun Reform Doesn’t Come from the Capitol

Lasting change in norms comes from civic action, not from a law "preventing" the next Sandy Hook

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It’s now been a month and a day since the massacre at Sandy Hook. To those who favor a broad agenda of gun reform and responsibility — I am actively one of them — a month seems a long time. Reformers worry that the passage of time is the enemy of reform. The NRA is betting on it.

But as Vice President Joe Biden today delivers the recommendations of his gun-violence task force to President Obama and as the press prepares for an epic confrontation in Congress, we are probably paying attention to the wrong arena. Whatever policy changes are proposed in this legislative session, citizens in local communities will be the drivers of change in our culture, and that change will take place over years, even decades, not with the stroke of a pen.

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History shows that creative civic action often defines or expands the frame of the possible in policymaking. Consider the early civil rights movement, from sit-ins at lunch counters to the Freedom Riders. It took the coordinated, patient actions of lawyers, activists and everyday Americans to challenge the values of Jim Crow for years before politicians found the courage to dismantle the legal structures of Jim Crow. A century before that, abolitionists weren’t content to thunder from the pulpit; they pioneered all manner of organizing tactics and novel uses of print and song and “social media.”

In our own time, consider the movement against drunk driving and the emergence of the designated driver as a lasting social and cultural phenomenon, which in turn prompted and reinforced tougher laws and law enforcement. Sometimes, citizen activists and policymakers can be symbiotic partners in changing norms. This has been the case with smoking, where pressure from legislators, lawyers, everyday Americans and the media not only altered how cigarettes are made and sold but also made smoking seem fundamentally less appealing.

The epidemic of gun violence in America demands this kind of citizen-led movement. Sandy Hook revealed a collapse of responsibility. Yes, personal responsibility, since every gun killing involves a killer who is personally responsible. But mainly collective responsibility — for how guns are made, marketed, sold and circulated. Creating a stronger social ethic of responsibility means creating new coalitions of parents, faith leaders, teachers, neighbors, cops, small-business people — and not just to lobby for a particular law but to ask a simple question: How will you be more responsible for reducing gun violence?

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When tens of millions of citizens begin wrestling with that question in a sustained way, hundreds of Congressmen will eventually change their tune. A lasting shift of norms on guns will be the result only of a diverse, cross-partisan campaign of relentless persuasion that starts from the bottom up, in our cities and towns.

That means listening to gun owners and recognizing that they are not monolithic. In fact, great numbers support reform. It requires a strategic effort to isolate and shame the most intransigent, irresponsible status-quo defenders. And it means making a case for reform that isn’t about “preventing” the next Sandy Hook: no law can absolutely prevent a disturbed person from killing innocents. The point is to lower the odds that such acts occur and to reduce the scale of bloodshed if they do.

There’s a proverb that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is today. So it is with planting the seeds for reform. It shouldn’t take 20 years to get laws for more responsible gun ownership, commerce and use. But they won’t sprout overnight either. And if we want reform to endure, that’s all right — as long as we the people are doing the work of planting.

MORE: Andrew J. Rotherham: A Sportsman’s View: We Need a Moderate Alternative to the NRA