Do not be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.
A journalist in Arizona called to ask if I had any thoughts on how Richard Martinez, the outspoken father a young man killed in last Friday’s shooting in Isla Vista, California, could craft a persuasive gun control message. In his grief, Martinez has said that he is determined to speak and to act until something changes. But the journalist had her doubts. Angry, grieving families and rising body counts aren’t persuading those opposed to measures such as universal background checks, limits on high capacity magazines, stricter gun trafficking laws, a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, and addressing the inadequacies of our mental healthcare system.
“I’ve been following the gun legislation debates since Arizona congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was shot three years ago,” she told me. Nothing has changed. I told her that many of the religious leaders who took up the cause for sensible gun legislation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, including me, thought that the tide was turning, and that we could finally overcome those who financially benefit from the sale and illegal trafficking of increasingly lethal guns. We were wrong.
While small gains have been made in some places, to date, we haven’t been able to move national legislation. And so the shooting continues, every day, somewhere, as if this were normal; as if, in the words of the satirical newspaper The Onion: There is No Way to Prevent This.
And yet, I told her, if you want to understand the kind of work we’re engaged in, think back on other changes that we take for granted now that seemed impossible as people fought for them. When you watch an episode of Mad Men or a movie from the 1960s, you see people chain smoking cigarettes everywhere. Do you remember how impossible it felt to change laws that affected our smoking habits?
Or consider, I said, the long struggle for basic civil rights for African Americans and other citizens of color in this country. While we have a long way to go toward the goal of racial equality, fifty years ago people were beaten, arrested, and even killed for trying to integrate restaurants and buses. Can you imagine living in that America now?
Or remember even as recently as a decade ago, when the idea of marriage equality for gays and lesbians was unimaginable, and the forces opposed to gay marriage—even the most basic of civil unions—prevailed in the cultural debate. That tide has turned in ways that even the most ardent, hopeful marriage equality advocate of ten years ago would have found hard to imagine.
Did we all suddenly wake up one morning and change our minds? Did our politicians decide on their own to vote differently? Of course not. Social change is always slow and incremental at first. For years, often decades, people struggle with seemingly nothing to show for their efforts. Looking back, we recognize hinge moments, when things seemed to shift quickly and dramatically. But never did those shifts occur separate from the hard and strategic work of organizing and of shifting the moral center of debate.
That’s what happening now. Even as the killings continue, we are organizing across the country, and each day the coalition grows stronger. Richard Martinez, in his grief, is now part of the growing movement that will one day prevail in seeing our gun laws change. I’m proud to be part of that movement and to stand alongside so many of you.
In years to come, we will look back on this time and wonder how we could have possibly accepted this level of gun violence. Just as we think in horror now on parts our past, our children’s children will shake their heads in disbelief that we took as long as we did to end this public health epidemic during which, on average, two mass shootings occur every month and over 30,000 Americans die each year by guns. But until that time, the work continues. There are ways to prevent this, and we know it.