Earlier this month, when Washington state passed I-594, a citizens' initiative to require background checks on all gun sales, it proved two basic truths. First, Americans overwhelmingly support background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and other dangerous people. Second, it shows that it is a lot harder for the gun lobby to bully voters than it is to bully politicians.
It is understandable why many have been disheartened by the lack of federal legislative progress on the gun issue in recent years. When it comes down to it, on this issue more than most, there is such a fundamental disconnect between the interests of the American public and the actions of our elected officials. That is reprehensible, and ultimately it is what we must change. But the good news is we don't have to sit around waiting for that to happen in order to make real progress.
The victory in Washington resulted in a law that will save lives. It has also done more. It has created hope for others that meaningful victories are achievable, and it has done it by borrowing a page directly out of the playbook written by the freedom to marry movement. In football terms, it is the page about using "the ground game" to control the ball and stay on offense through relentless and strategic state-based campaigns that secure wins, create powerful momentum, and build a critical mass of states that ultimately leads to national victory.
In recent years, the historic progress on marriage has become a great inspiration for those working to prevent gun violence. Marriage went from a cause that so many thought was impossible to one where the momentum is overwhelming. How this came about is also inspiring to the gun violence prevention movement because it provides a roadmap forward.
For marriage, one of the seminal moments was securing and then protecting the freedom to marry in the very first state: Massachusetts. That's when so many people could finally see marriages of gay couples for what they were rather than through the distorted lens of the religious right. Also, the fact that we were able to protect the court victory when our well-funded and powerful opponents from the religious right and Catholic hierarchy promised to take it away gave hope to LGBT people across the country that the freedom to marry was winnable and, thus, worth fighting for. As we marched forward, no doubt there were setbacks -- lots of them. But we put in place strategic campaigns to protect court victories, achieve legislative wins, and secure victories at the ballot, all in furtherance of a national strategy to achieve marriage nationwide -- an outcome we knew we wouldn't be able to bring about until we had a critical mass of states and public support.
Here we are a decade later, and look at the success that strategy yielded. Same-sex couples have the freedom to marry in 32 states, and 60 percent of the nation live in states that issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. The momentum that came from winning states did in fact lead to change on the federal level that many would have considered unthinkable just ten years ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the insidious Defense of Marriage Act. Many of the politicians in Washington who once vocally opposed the freedom to marry are now either in support or stay silent.
The victory in Washington state is similarly powerful because it represents the same kind of seminal moment for the gun violence prevention movement as Massachusetts was for marriage. It is the opportunity for us to take control of the ball -- to go on the offense -- through smart, state-focused ground campaigns. It turns out that Washingtonians are not unique in their overwhelming support for background checks. The State is also not unique in having a ballot initiative process where citizens can vote directly on laws. In fact, there are 17 states that have similar processes, which do not currently have background checks on all gun sales, and in every one of those states background checks enjoy overwhelming support.
If we can pass expanded background checks in those 17 states, it will mean more than half of all Americans will be protected by stronger background check laws. That by itself is extraordinary progress. States that have expanded background checks see 38 percent fewer women killed by intimate partners and 39 percent fewer law enforcement shot and killed.
The marriage movement has given us a roadmap to show what can be accomplished on a seemingly intractable cause, by using the ground game -- by moving down the field yard by hard-fought yard, state by hard-fought state. Winning in individual states creates real and immediate progress. As powerfully proven by the marriage movement, it also creates real momentum that sets up even bigger national wins and, ultimately, a true political and cultural sea change.
Thanks to the citizens of Washington and the strategy torn from the pages of the successful freedom to marry playbook, a true path forward has been illuminated for real and lasting change on the gun violence issue.
This post appeared on The Hill's Congress blog on Tuesday, November, 18th, 2014.
Dan Gross is president of The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, is author of "Winning Marriage," released on November 12, 2014.