Retired four-star Gen. Michael Hayden has confronted more than his fair share of threats throughout a 39-year career in the U.S. Air Force and tenures atop the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
In a video released Monday by gun violence prevention group Giffords, Hayden cites a sobering statistic to underscore the urgency of his latest mission to protect.
“We’ve had more Americans killed in high schools in this country in the last year than have been killed in Afghanistan,” Hayden says.
He could have gone further. So far this year, the number of people killed in school shootings is more than double that of all U.S. military personnel who have died in combat zones around the world, according to a recent tally.
Hayden partnered with Giffords for “There Is No Other Side,” a new veteran-focused campaign meant to bridge longstanding political and cultural divides in the gun debate. In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, Giffords will be actively recruiting and organizing veterans in a number of states to lend their voices to conversations around firearms in the United States. The push will feature paid and earned media ― including a series of videos featuring high-ranking generals such as Hayden ― as well as veteran press conferences, meetings with legislators and others days of action.
Guns remain a deeply contentious issue in the U.S., and the inability to establish common ground has led to hyper polarization and a status quo of political inaction. These splits often fall along broader partisan or regional lines, but organizers at Giffords say there’s a particularly divisive narrative at the core of the gun debate that they hope veterans can combat.
“If you asked someone to summarize the gun debate, they’ll say there’s one side that wants to take away all of the guns and the other side that doesn’t want to do anything,” said Stasha Rhodes, manager of engagement at Giffords.
Supporting the Second Amendment right to gun ownership and wanting to take steps to ensure that firearms don’t fall into the wrong hands are not mutually exclusive positions, Rhodes said. Lots of people understand that, including many who’d likely consider themselves to be pro-gun. But portrayals of the gun violence prevention movement as dominated by anti-gun liberals who know nothing about firearms haven’t always made it easy to reach across that gap, she added.
With the help of veterans, Giffords is hopeful they’ll have more success engaging non-traditional gun safety allies.
“Veterans have a unique ability to reach out to gun owners, conservatives, NRA and former NRA members that actually do support ... common sense steps to end gun violence,” said Rhodes. “They’re highlighting the importance of taking the partisan air that inflates this debate out of the conversation.”
Ultimately, the campaign’s message is pretty straightforward. “When it comes to saving lives from gun violence, there is no other side,” reads the tagline. Giffords hasn’t attached specific policy objectives to the campaign, but veterans working with the organization could help lobby for state-level legislative initiatives.
Giffords has previously made a point of amplifying veteran voices in their gun violence prevention efforts. The group, founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, a Navy combat veteran and former NASA astronaut, has assembled a veterans coalition of more than 20 generals and admirals committed to reducing shootings in the U.S. Members include Gen. Wesley Clark, Adm. Thad Allen, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.
Although high-profile mass shootings in schools and public places appear to be of particular concern to Hayden, gun violence also affects veterans in specific ways. Around 20 U.S. veterans die by suicide each day on average, and two-thirds of those deaths involve firearms, according to federal data. They’re among the more than 35,000 people in America who die in firearm-related deaths every year.
The failure to take meaningful steps to reduce this death toll has clearly left generals “frustrated” and wanting to contribute, said Kelly.
“On this issue, we know what works and we know what doesn’t,” Kelly said. “Most of us realize that more guns in more places is not going to make us safer, it’s actually just going to result in more people getting shot and more people getting killed.”
Like Kelly and Giffords, many of the veterans getting involved with the campaign are gun owners themselves, sympathetic to people who choose to own a firearm for protection.
“Nobody here, not me, not Gen. Hayden, not any of these other veterans, are trying to prevent somebody from protecting their family in their home ― that’s a right,” said Kelly.
But Kelly said many generals feel that as a country, we’ve “lost our way” on the issue of gun policy.
“We make it very easy for felons, domestic abusers, even suspected terrorists to buy firearms. The dangerously mentally ill can get access to firearms,” said Kelly. “It doesn’t need to be that way.”