A Million-Mom Army And A Billionaire Take On The NRA What happens when a billionaire businessman and politician teams up with a moms-against-gun-violence group with millions of supporters?
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A Million-Mom Army And A Billionaire Take On The NRA

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A Million-Mom Army And A Billionaire Take On The NRA

A Million-Mom Army And A Billionaire Take On The NRA

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As has happened before, the mass shooting in Orlando has reignited the debate over gun control. For many years, the National Rifle Association has been a lone gun-lobbying superpower. No gun control group had anywhere near the money, political power or boots on the ground - that is, until now. Advocates for gun control have their own Goliath, including billionaires, lobbyists, a citizen army of moms against gun violence. And they're bringing the fight to the NRA. NPR's Chris Arnold has this profile.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Yesterday on Capitol Hill, Tina Meins and other survivors of gun violence joined Democratic senators the push for tougher gun control laws.

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TINA MEINS: While at a work event with the San Bernardino County Environmental Health Department, my dad, along with 13 of his co-workers, was killed. In mere seconds, my life and the lives of my mother and sister were irrevocably changed.

ARNOLD: It's no accident that an articulate daughter of a shooting victim was up at the podium with the senators. In just the past few years, a powerful new gun control group has emerged. It's called Everytown for Gun Safety. And it's trained Tina Meins and more than 800 hundred other survivors to meet with politicians, do public speaking, write op-eds as part of a growing nationwide movement.

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MEINS: I think about my dad every single day. I lost my father, my best friend. I want my story to remind others that it doesn't have to be this way. It's time we take a stand in this country and disarm hate.

ARNOLD: Much of the groundswell behind this crusade comes from just regular people pulled into it for their own reasons. For a woman named Shannon Watts - she was drawn in by another mass shooting, the murder of 20 school children, 6 and 7 years old, in Newtown Connecticut. Watts wasn't there. She lived 800 miles away in Zionsville, Ind. She was folding her kids' laundry, actually, when the news broke. And she wanted to do something.

SHANNON WATTS: I was obviously devastated. But I was also angry. And I went online. And I thought surely there is a Mothers Against Drunk Driving for gun safety. And I couldn't find anything.

ARNOLD: Watts had never done anything political before. But she made a Facebook page. And she called it "One Million Moms For Gun Control."

WATTS: I only had 75 friends on my personal Facebook page. And it was amazing. I mean, I can remember watching the likes go from the hundreds to the thousands to the tens of thousands.

ARNOLD: Soon the group had outgrown its name. So "One Million Moms" became "Moms Demand Action." And as it grew, the group caught the notice of a powerful billionaire politician in New York, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg was already active in gun control. And he was getting ready to launch Everytown for Gun Safety with a pledge of $50 million.

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MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Eighty-six Americans are killed with guns every single day. And shootings regularly occur at our schools and universities, including last week's tragedy at Santa Barbara.

ARNOLD: That was Bloomberg speaking at Harvard's commencement in the spring of 2014, shortly after he founded Everytown. Bloomberg already had some heavy-hitter political types, plus hundreds of mayors from around the country to support his group. What he needed was foot soldiers. And that's where Shannon Watts came in. The two groups merged and joined forces.

WATTS: That's what made this merit such a good pairing because we already had the boots on the ground. We had the army.

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JENNIFER HERRERA: My sorrow over the tragedy in Orlando runs deep. But make no mistake, we are making strides every single day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes we are.

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ARNOLD: On Wednesday evening, Jennifer Herrera spoke with local politicians at a vigil in front of City Hall in Alexandria, Va. She's the state chapter leader for the group. Everytown says it's been modeling its strategy after the marriage equality fight that is passing laws at the state level that have popular support.

So far in Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Oregon and nine other states, Everytown has helped push through legislation to block domestic abusers from owning a gun. Last year, it got a universal background check law passed in the state of Washington and similar initiatives in the ballot in Nevada and Maine. OK, so what does the NRA think about all this? We called up Jennifer Baker. She's a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association.

Is Everytown for Gun Safety making Americans safer?

JENNIFER BAKER: Absolutely not. They are a front group for Michael Bloomberg's gun control agenda.

ARNOLD: Baker says Everytown is getting some legislation passed at the state level. And it's pushing for a lot more legislation. But...

BAKER: None of the proposals that they are pushing would have prevented any of the high-profile tragedies that they exploit as reasons for pushing this agenda.

ARNOLD: Shannon Watts says that's not true. And she says she's not part of any liberal scheme to take away Americans' guns.

BAKER: Many of our moms are actually gun owners. Some are members of the NRA. So this is not in any way about being anti-gun. We believe that common-sense gun laws can go hand-in-hand with the Second Amendment.

ARNOLD: The head of Everytown's Survivor Network says he doesn't want to take away law-abiding American's guns either. Collin Goddard was an Army ROTC as a student and learned rifle marksmanship at Virginia Tech University. And he was in his French class there on April 16, 2007, when the campus shooting started.

COLLIN GODDARD: We heard this loud, like, bang, bang, bang coming from outside of our classroom.

ARNOLD: The shooter burst in. Goddard dove under his desk. But he was still shot four times. By the time it was over, 10 students in that French class alone were dead, along with their teacher.

GODDARD: I loved that teacher. Madame Couture was the best teacher I ever had. I had one glimpse into the room as I was getting dragged out by the EMTs. And just seeing just shell casings everywhere and blood and bodies on the floor, I mean, it was insanity.

ARNOLD: Now, by lobbying and training other survivors, Goddard feels like he's fighting that insanity. But still - after the press conference in Washington yesterday, he said every time another one of these shootings happens, he has to wonder whether any of this is really doing any good.

GODDARD: It kind of brings you into despair and sadness and then anger. And then you have to try to find a way to use it to strengthen your resolve to keep fighting and keep pushing.

ARNOLD: Shannon Watts says, though, despite Orlando - yet another horrible mass shooting - right now, she's feeling hopeful. Over the past week, her group organized more than 50 vigils, met with scores of lawmakers, made 13,000 phone calls to members of Congress, plus sent in 50,000 petition signatures urging congressional action.

WATTS: That's amazing grassroots power. Our side has never had that before. The NRA has been able to generate outrage in emails and phone calls and rallies with the flip of a switch. We can do that now, too.

ARNOLD: Just what, if anything, might get passed in Congress, we don't know yet. But one thing appears clear. There are now two gun-lobbying superpowers in this country. And Watts thinks that's shifting the landscape in a big way. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This report refers to Shannon Watts as one in a group of "regular people" who began advocating for stricter gun control measures in recent years. After the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., she created the "One Million Moms for Gun Control" Facebook page. It later became "Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America." We should have noted that Watts has a background in corporate communications. From 1998 to mid-2012, she was a corporate communications executive or consultant at such companies as Monsanto and FleishmanHillard. Before that, Watts had what she says was a nonpolitical job as a public affairs officer in the Missouri state government.

Our report also states that Watts had never "done anything political" before the shootings at Sandy Hook. We should have noted that Federal Election Commission records show she began contributing money to Democratic campaigns and political action committees earlier in 2012. According to those records, she has made about $10,000 in such contributions, and about one-third were made before the Sandy Hook shootings.]

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