Taking on the Big Guns

Gun violence in America pushes moms to become unlikely activists.

Women gather in a house across the street from a Tulsa high school. An attractive fruit tray, cheese and other hors d’oeuvres cover the dining table. As guests fill the kitchen, dining room and living room, they hold glasses of wine and mingle, laughing and talking. It could be a Bunko group, a PTA committee meeting or a book group, but not for these women. They are gathered for a common goal – to end gun violence. They have come to hear about a new grassroots organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

In the United States, an average of eight children under the age of 20 are killed by gunshots every day according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The campaign’s website also states that nine out of 10 Americans support universal background checks, yet Congress recently voted down legislation that would have provided those background checks.

Moms Demand Action (MDA) is a non-partisan, national organization founded by Shannon Watts, a mother of five, which encourages members to lobby their Representatives in Congress to pass common-sense gun legislation in order to better secure the protection of children and families. The Oklahoma chapter of MDA is co-led by Tulsa resident Sabine Brown and Yukon resident Jennifer Joy, both of whom are mothers themselves.

Brown and Joy initiated the Oklahoma chapter in March of this year. They have held in “stroller jams,” where mothers bring their strollers and children to the front of Senator Coburn and Senator Inhofe’s offices to encourage stronger gun legislation. On Mothers Day, Joy and Brown organized a Mother’s Day Walk at the Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City to honor the victims and families who have been affected by gun violence. An Oklahoma mother who lost her son to gun violence spoke at this event, and citizens who participated carried eight flowers to symbolize the eight children and teenagers lost to gun violence every day.

Both women became activists after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

“The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December really had a profound effect on me,” Joy said. “I have a 6-year-old daughter who was in first grade at the time, and I realized that could’ve happened anywhere.”

Joy explained that as she grieved with those Sandy Hook parents who lost a child, she also began to pay closer attention to the news and learned more about gun culture in America. Sabine Brown’s reaction was very similar.

“Sandy Hook really drove it home for me because somebody walked into a school and killed 20 children,” Brown said. “It’s really easy to see how that could happen to anyone or in any community.”

While Sandy Hook was the driving motivator for Joy and Brown to organize an MDA chapter in Oklahoma, they are also concerned about the direction the Oklahoma Legislature is taking regarding gun safety.

“The other event that really motivated me to act was when the Oklahoma House passed legislation to allow teachers to carry firearms in the classroom [later defeated in the State Senate] shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting,” Brown said. “I felt like this was a huge safety concern, and I did not want my children to attend school in [that] environment or feel like, in order to be safe in this world, they have to carry a gun.”

In May of 2012, Oklahoma passed a state law that allows any concealed license holder to legally openly carry a handgun. Since this law was enacted, the number of gun license applicants has increased tremendously, setting new all-time high records this year according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. This law is not the kind of action Brown and Joy are hoping to see more of from state law-makers.

“I just don’t think it makes us any safer,” Brown explained. “I think it would [only] create more mayhem.”

As a former physician’s assistant, Brown worked in the emergency room where she often saw the effects of gun violence.

“It was a pretty regular occurrence,” she said. “There are those you can’t get out of your mind. Like the two kids who had been shot by a drive-by shooter.”

On a national level, MDA would like to see House Bill 1565, also known as the King-Thompson bill, passed. It is a bipartisan compromise pushing for the expansion of the current background check system to cover all commercial firearm sales.

“I think right now, they are up to 150 co-sponsors, but only a few of those have been Republican,” Brown said. “That’s where we have a huge chance to make a big impact in Oklahoma, seeing as how all of our officials are Republican.” She explained that this bill is something MDA is focusing its efforts on right now and said they’d like to see some Oklahoma Congressmen sign on as co-sponsors. “We’re effective because we’re all just a group of moms. Calling your legislator makes an impact. There’s a video of a mom making a phone call on the [MDA] website. It’s important. Anyone can do it.”

And going up against the politically powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) doesn’t scare Brown. “Our motto is this is a marathon and not a sprint,” she said. “The background check legislation had 90 percent support from the American public and it still failed. We hope it’s been a wake-up call, and that common-sense gun safety legislation becomes a voting issue.”

Brown and Joy both believe that proper gun regulation could prevent more events like Newtown from happening in the future. Brown also stated that they think combat-style weapons should be left in the hands of military and police.

Gun Shop Regulations

Franson Firearms gun shop owner Lia Franson of Tulsa does not believe more gun regulations are necessary.

“The police are like the cleanup crew,” Franson said. “It isn’t guns that are the enemy, it’s the criminals.”

Franson and her husband explained that in order for a person to purchase a gun at their store, he or she must first meet a few requirements. A person is only legally allowed to purchase a gun at a gun shop if he or she is 18 years old, though the Fransons said that each gun shop runs differently. At their gun shop, they believe that 21 is a more appropriate age to purchase a gun. Aside from the age restriction, a buyer must also obtain a Federal Firearms License (FFL). After picking out a gun, that person must then have a federal background check through the NICS system, as required by law.

The fact that the federal background checks are mandatory in gun shops is important to gun safety advocates, but according to the Brady Campaign, the U.S. background check system only applies to about 60 percent of gun sales. The other 40 percent includes gun sales advertised over the Internet and purchases made at gun shows or from person to person. Moms Demand Action is working to close this loophole, so that all guns sold would require a federal background check.

Brown explained that she and other moms want to see principles of the licensed gun shops expanded so that the rules are the same for everyone.

“We would like to see background checks on every gun purchase; we’d like to see magazines limited to ten bullets; we’d like to see a ban on the assault and combat style weapons, and to see gun trafficking made a federal crime with stiff penalties. “

Curt Risner is an Oologah resident and a Franson shop regular who is now retired after having worked in various Tulsa public schools for 36 years. Like Lia, he doesn’t believe more gun laws are necessary but thinks current laws should be better enforced. Risner supports stiff penalties for those who commit crimes but has a different perspective than Brown’s when it comes to putting guns in the hands of school officials.

“I have a friend who is principal of a rural school, and their closest law enforcement is twelve miles away, so the district made a local rule that allowed the principal of the high school and the superintendent to carry a firearm onto school property because the reaction time in case something happened would be so long,” Risner said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that. You feel safer knowing that someone’s there to help.”

Risner also believes that harsher punishment for illegal gun activity would deter criminals.

“What we need are the rules to get the guns out of the hands of the bad guys, and I don’t see us doing that, ” he said. “We just aren’t tough enough on what people do illegally with firearms.”

Garage Sale Weapons

Lia’s husband, Donald Franson, explained how sales between individuals are completely different, (though just as legal) as the selling and purchasing process through a gun shop.

“Say somebody was walking down the street, and you asked them if they wanted to buy a gun,” Donald Franson said. “They say ‘yeah,’ you hand them the gun, they hand you the money… [There’s] nothing illegal about that. No background checks, nothing. It’s just like a garage sale.”

This “garage sale” operation is surprisingly quite common. Joy saw it for herself one day when she noticed a gun for sale on a social media site.

“I saw a listing for an AR-15 US Army surplus rifle with several 30-round magazines and another 1,000 rounds of ammunition on a Facebook garage sale site that I am a member of,” Joy said. “This was before I joined Moms Demand Action, and I was shocked that anyone could buy this combat rifle and ammunition without a background check. I can’t imagine why anyone would need a gun and ammunition like this.”

Brown said it is exactly that type of situation that motivated her to get involved with Moms Demand Action. As the law currently stands, a private citizen can go on the Internet and sell a gun to anyone, including someone who intends to use it illegally or someone who may have mental health issues or a violent past.

High-Calibur Ammunition

Retired police officer and grandfather Rex Berry supports MDA’s goals and explained his perspective, but not before sharing a little bit about his past experiences around guns. Berry grew up on a farm where he and his relatives often practiced shooting for fun. As an adult, he was involved in the military in Kabul, Afghanistan, Baghdad, and Palestine teaching site security. Before retiring, he was a police officer for 26 years.

Like so many others, Berry grew up around guns and is a gun owner himself.

“I will sort of agree with the ‘gun rights’ guys that say guns don’t kill people, but it ends right there – it’s the ammunition that kills people,” Berry said. “The fewer bullets a person can shoot, the more often they have to reload, and the more opportunity for someone to get away. That’s quite simple. The good guys lose [in a gun altercation]. That’s why we have police.”

Berry pointed out that if magazine sizes were limited by law, it would benefit the innocent person and hinder the criminal.

“Six people got away during Sandy Hook because Adam Lanza had trouble with one of his reloads, and just think if he would have had to reload three times as often.”

Knowledgeable about gun dynamics and capabilities, Berry painted a picture of what some may sound like a dark nightmare, but is actually reality in America regarding ammunition.

“You know the old movies with tanks, and they had the 50 calibers on top?” Berry began. “They [ammunition manufacturers] took the 50 caliber bullets that were on the tops of the tanks and put it into a rifle. This rifle is called the Barrett 50 caliber.”

Berry described them as semi-automatic weapons with bullets a half-inch in diameter and several inches long.

“[The bullets] go clear through concrete walls,” Berry said. He described a scenario where if he had possession of that gun and had bad intentions, he could shoot a few rounds at a building from a mile or two away. It’s lethal up to a staggering five miles.

“I would be gone before they could get the first calls to 9-1-1, and they wouldn’t even know where I was. Anyone can get them for around $4,000-$12,000; just go online with your credit card.”

Berry said that because these guns are sold and purchased online, there is no required background check. Virtually anyone can own a gun with this capability. There is also a huge profit motive for ammunition and gun manufacturers to lobby against gun legislation.

The extreme killing power of these powerful guns is one of the reasons why MDA is pushing for universal background checks.

Marketing to Children

Brown admits that she is also concerned about children’s access to guns at home. It is completely legal to give a child under the age of 18 a rifle or gun as a gift, but sometimes placing guns in the hands of children can be fatal.

In May, a 5-year-old boy in Kentucky accidently shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with his .22-calliber rifle he received as a birthday gift, previously reported by CNN. Brown has a 5-year-old son, Hudson, and a 2-year-old daughter, Kenzie, and believes that this age is too young for a child to obtain a gun.

“I don’t think at five years old you can be responsible enough to shoot a gun, and I think there’s a problem [when] we start marketing guns to children and marketing guns that look like toys,” Brown said. “I mean, you can find guns that are pink with Hello Kitty stamped on them and that makes the child think that this is a toy. It does not teach them about responsible gun ownership and the potential damage that can be done with this.”

Marketing guns to children doesn’t just appear on shelves in a store. It often occurs in video games as well. In many violent games, gun manufacturers pay for “product placement” of their firearms in the game.

“There is a new initiative to ask video-game manufacturers to stop making financial deals with gun manufacturers to feature and promote real-life guns in video games,” Joy said.

Moms Demand Action

Brown said she thinks there is a lot of misconception about MDA’s mission and wants people to understand that she, Joy and the other members of the organization are not out to ban all guns or stop responsible gun ownership.

Moms Demand Action lobbies for sensible gun legislation that the majority of the public wants. For example, Brown pointed out that over 80 percent of Oklahomans support universal background checks.

“I immediately felt connected to everyone I communicated with in this group and no longer felt alone in my grief, as well as my desire to help prevent future tragedies and protect our children,” Joy said. “I think [Brown and I] were both looking for a way to turn our emotions into constructive actions in hopes of preventing similar tragedies in the future.”

“I felt like we could do better,” Brown said. “I felt like someone had to stand up and say that more guns are not the answer.”

Joy and Brown hope to raise awareness about gun safety and to encourage others to lobby Congress to pass sensible legislation that successfully secures the safety of children and communities from gun violence.

“Nothing can be 100 percent, but just because you’re not going to get rid of it 100 percent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make some sort of effort,” Brown said.

Erika Quinn, one of the women at the organizational meeting in Tulsa, said that she wants to get assault weapons off the streets and enact universal background checks. “I have a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old. I think we’re starting to pick up support. It’s sort of trial and error. None of us is really an activist, but I’m optimistic that there are a lot of people who feel as we do. We want to raise awareness and get more people talking. And I have no problem going up against the NRA. Change has to be at the grassroots level, starting with two or three people.”

The Oklahoma chapter of Moms Demand Action plans to hold monthly meetings in both OKC and Tulsa. Moms Demand Action has 90 chapters in 40 states. For more information about MDA, visit momsdemandaction.org. Locally, email ok@momsdemandaction.org or visit their Facebook Page.

Moms Demand Action’s Goals Include:

  • Require background checks for all gun and ammunition purchases.
  • Ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
  • Track the sale of large quantities of ammunition, and ban online sales.
  • Establish product safety oversight of guns and ammunition, and require child-safe gun technology.
  • Support policies at companies and public institutions that promote gun safety.
  • Counter the gun industry’s efforts to weaken gun laws at the state level.
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