Follow the Data Podcast: An American Problem with an American Solution
“The truth is: The American people have always favored common-sense gun regulations – but that wasn’t enough. We needed Americans to demand action – and to put in the time and energy to achieve it. That’s what Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety have been doing for the past five years, and together, we’ve shown that the NRA is not invincible. Far from it.”
— Mike Bloomberg
At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we are dedicated to “following the data” — and the data on gun violence could not be more compelling or urgent. Americans are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. Every day, 96 Americans are killed by gun violence. And every year, approximately three million American children bear witness to gun violence.
Over the last four decades, the leaders of the National Rifle Association have steered the organization away from advocating on behalf of sportsmen and hunters and towards lobbying for the most extreme policies and opposing virtually all gun violence prevention legislation.
To support efforts to educate policy makers, the public, and media about the consequences of gun violence — and to promote efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people with dangerous histories — New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006. The original coalition of 15 mayors quickly grew to 855 mayors by 2014.
That same year, in an effort to combat the NRA, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action — a grassroots network of moms with chapters in all 50 states — joined forces to create Everytown for Gun Safety. Today, Everytown has more than 5 million supporters across America.
In this episode, Katherine Oliver of Bloomberg Philanthropies speaks with John Feinblatt, President of Everytown. They discuss Everytown’s tireless work fighting gun violence, how they use data to inform change, the future of gun safety in America, and the national movement to end gun violence.
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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver. Gun violence touches every town in the United States. Each day, 96 Americas are killed with guns. It’s a devastating fact illustrating why we must do more to stop the violence affecting communities across the country.
Research shows common-sense policies can save lives, but right now it’s simply too easy for the wrong people to get guns, leading to all kinds of violence—from deadly domestic abuse to suicide and school shootings.
To support efforts to educate policy makers, the public, and media, about the consequences of gun violence — and to promote efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals — New York City Mayor, Mike Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006. The original coalition of 15 mayors quickly grew to 855 mayors by 2014.
Then in 2014, in an effort to combat the vast influence of the National Rifle Association, Everytown for Gun Safety was founded. The organization, supported by Mike Bloomberg, brings together individuals, leaders, and organizations including Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Moms Demand Action – a grassroots network of moms with chapters in all 50 states. Today, Everytown has more than 5 million supporters across America.
In this episode, I speak with John Feinblatt, President of Everytown. We discuss their tireless work fighting gun violence, using data to inform change, the future of gun safety in America, and the movement across the nation to end gun violence.
John, thanks so much for joining us for this episode of Follow the Data. Great to have you here.
JOHN FEINBLATT: My pleasure.
OLIVER: Let’s be retrospective for a moment. Give us a little bit of history. How and why was Everytown started?
FEINBLATT: Well, I sort of divide it into two moments. One is sort of pre-Sandy Hook and one is the post-Sandy Hook, but I think that the origins, the pre-Sandy Hook moment really started with a piece of data where Mike Bloomberg was very focused on driving down crime.
OLIVER: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
FEINBLATT: So what we knew was that 90% of the guns that we were recovering on the streets of New York at crime scenes, were guns that were sold from out of state. And so it would be pretty clear to us and to Mike that in order to do our job we had to look at this issue nationally.
And what was difficult about it and what Mike knew was that Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress had walked away from this issue; third rail of American politics, not worth touching. But if there is anything that Mike is great at, it is looking at a problem where people have walked away, and him knowing there’s a solution to it.
OLIVER: So the timing was about 2006. And he joined forces Mayor Menino of Boston.
FEINBLATT: Right and said, “Look I know that mayors do not look at this issue the same way that senators and Congress people look at this issue.”
FEINBLATT: Because for two reasons. Mayors have an emotional attachment to this issue because mayors are the ones that get the call. Their cops have been shot. It’s mayors that are going to talk to a family about the fact that their loved one isn’t coming home. And to the most hardened, tough mayor, it gets to you at a certain point. Just how many times can you break the news that’s going to break a family’s heart and not be touched?
But the second reason it is, unlike a member of Congress, mayors are held accountable at the ballot box for whether the city is safer or not. And so those two connections, the political connection and the emotional connection convinced Mike that that mayors would just look at this issue non-ideologically. And here was the thing that we did. So one day Mike and I were in the bullpen and we said, “Let’s just—
OLIVER: At city hall.
FEINBLATT: At city hall. And we said, “Let’s just invite 15 mayors.” So we thought to ourselves, “Okay, who are the Republican mayors? Who are the democratic mayors? Who are the gun-owning mayors? Who are the non gun-owning mayors? Who are the rural mayors? Who are the big city mayors?” And what we tried to do was really get a cross-section to test whether our instinct and our gut about this was right.
And what we learned was that the glue that held all of these mayors together and there are many things they probably didn’t agree about, but the glue that they held them together was they felt that their constituents expected them to do something and they knew that the federal government was letting them down.
OLIVER: So those 15 mayors, that was in 2006 quickly grew to 855 mayors, not long after.
FEINBLATT: Not long after. When we decided to have a press conference at the end of that day with these 15 mayors, Mike said to me as he was going to the podium, “How many bears should we say we’re going to have in the next four months?” And of course before I could say anything I heard him saying, “We’ll have 250 mayors in the next four months.” I gulped. He was right because we quickly grew it way beyond any goals that we had set.
OLIVER: And then Moms Demand Action, another grassroots initiative folded into…
FEINBLATT: Mayors Against Illegal guns in April of 2014.
OLIVER: What was the genesis of that?
FEINBLATT: The genesis of that was after the Congress failed after Sandy Hook to pass comprehensive background checks. We just were aware of the fact that we needed to do a reset, and Mike and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. And the two things we decided to do was; one, go state-by-state, and the second was to build the grassroots. And in many ways the state-by-state decision, to the surprise of many, was based on Mike’s experience with marriage equality. So he’d been a huge proponent of marriage equality in New York State, and then as a philanthropist had helped ballot initiatives throughout the country.
But when he studied the political arc of marriage equality, he realized that the first efforts were based in Washington D.C. DOMA was the gift. Not exactly what anybody was looking for. And the people who were steering the marriage equality effort said that when you have a deeply held cultural issue the way to move Congress or the Supreme Court is to show where the American public stands, and you do that through state legislation and state ballots. And Mike said, “Look, I know there are a thousand reasons why marriage equality and gun safety don’t have a thing in common, but the one thing they have in common is that they’re deeply held cultural issues.” And that was really why we decided in ‘14 to go state-by-state.
Now we were incredibly lucky that there was a woman named Shannon Watts who, the day after Sandy Hook, was sitting at her kitchen table and felt she had to do something and put up a Facebook page and said, “I want to create the Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Gun Safety.” And that was the birth of the modern day gun safety grassroots movement. We were so impressed with her work and so impressed with the fact that after just a few months she had chapters in all 50 states that we decided to merge our effort.
OLIVER: And Moms Demand Action, was a great complement. Today Everytown has more than 5 million supporters across the country. When did you reposition to Everytown for Gun Safety and what was the reason for the name change?
FEINBLATT: We repositioned in April of 2014 when we decided to go state-by-state and decided to merge with Moms Demand Action because what we really felt was you needed to demonstrate that this was Everytown, everybody, every cop, every parent, every city. And we thought that that really evoked – the name Everytown really evoked what we were trying to say. That this is an American problem with an American solution.
OLIVER: The data is alarming. I mean, it’s startling. On an average day 96 Americans are killed by gun violence and hundreds more are wounded. Can you break that number down for us, what does that mean?
FEINBLATT: Well, I think some of the numbers even get worse when you start to break it down because you have to realize that firearms for instance are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens. Can you imagine? And you know what’s so interesting about this Katherine is, this is such a uniquely American problem.
We have 25 times the gun murder rate of any developed country in the world. And there is no doubt about it there are certain communities and certain people where this really hits much harder than others, and minorities are clearly an example of that where black Americans are ten times more likely than whites to die by gun violence.
It’s extraordinary when you think about it. So the 96 is a horrible figure, but then when you start to think about how it impacts the future of blacks and particularly black males living in our cities, and that it’s the second leading cause of death of young people. It’s extraordinary. Now the other statistic that most people don’t know is the suicide statistic.
OLIVER: And what are you doing? What is Everytown doing to combat this?
FEINBLATT: So there are really two ways that we’re working on this. One is the moms have created this incredible program called Be Smart, which basically is a door-to-door, person-to-person program that talks to people about safe storage. They’re not talking about whether you should own a gun or shouldn’t own a gun. They’re talking about how if you own a gun, how you should safely store it and give parents the kind of language that they need when their kid goes to a play date for instance to ask of the parents of the kid they’re visiting whether they have a gun in the home and how they store it. Because the truth is when you look at young people who take their lives, most often, overwhelmingly they’re getting a gun from the house that they live in, from their parents.
So that’s one way. And then the other is a legislative initiative that we call the Red Flag laws, which actually give parents and immediate family members plus law enforcement the ability to petition a court for the removal of guns if they believe that somebody is a danger to themselves or others. And what’s amazing about this is because you’ll often hear after a mass shooting for instance, particularly one on a campus where there are young people, “Well we were aware of the fact that the kid was having a breakdown. We knew that there were some serious problems.
We also thought that he or she had access to firearms, but there was no vehicle in which to actually remove the firearm.” And so this law gives law enforcement and immediate family members the ability to do it. And it’s so important, even though it’s just a temporary removal, it’s because you can actually interrupt suicide.
OLIVER: So it seems that communication is a critical part of this and helping people have difficult conversations or equipping them to have those kinds of conversations has got to be very front of mind. How do you as an organization form these close relationships or bonds with both the survivors and the cities that are affected by gun violence?
FEINBLATT: Well look. We’ve made a huge investment in mayors, and in fact the beginnings of Everytown was born out of a coalition of mayors called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. So we have very close ties to mayors, but in many ways it is our commitment to growing the grassroots that has allowed us to actually get to meet people all over the country. And how do we engage the people most impacted by gun violence? And that’s the survivors. That’s not always the easiest thing to do because these are people who are in pain, but what we know is that often the way that they can work through their grief is through helping making sure that it doesn’t happen to the next person.
OLIVER: Are there some standout moments that you’ve experienced either with staff members or families?
FEINBLATT: Well probably the biggest standout is Lucy McBath. And Lucy McBath was an airline stewardess for Delta. She lost her son in a shooting that got a lot of attention. He was killed for playing his music too loudly. Lucy came to us and started to volunteer working for us. She came as a survivor of gun violence. She quickly rose through the ranks and actually became the head of Faith Outreach for Everytown, a very important position. And this year after Parkland she decided that she was very happy with the fact that she had spent the last five years influencing policy, but she was ready to make policy. And she decided to run for Congress, and in a suburban district – suburban Atlanta. She announced late. She had virtually no name recognition. It was a three-way race. She won. Nobody got 50 plus one so there had to be a runoff. She won the runoff and she is now the Democratic nominee from Georgia six to the U.S. Congress.
FEINBLATT: It’s an incredible story, but that’s the story of somebody who is just propelling themselves and I hope will be a future member of Congress. But this past weekend we gathered in Atlanta again for something we call Gun Sense University where leading activists on the gun safety movement come from all over the country. 1,200 of them came for two and a half days of seminars and lectures. What’s the latest on the second amendment? Tell me how I pass a red flag law in my community? How do I actually diversify my grassroots base? Incredibly serious people who have made this their life calling.
OLIVER: So it’s back to school season. Parents, students, children are heading back with different sensibilities these days. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the new programs initiatives or even approaches to school safety that are being rolled out at this time.
FEINBLATT: There is no question about it that Parkland hit the psyche of the American public, and it’s had a profound impact in sort of almost every way we measure it, just in activism. You know, at Everytown our grassroots growth was phenomenal after Parkland. The number of people who wanted to volunteer was extraordinary.
Our Instagram account, which I think of as a proxy for youth because my kids look at the Facebook like it’s the dial telephone and only use Instagram, grew tremendously. But you saw that actually reverberate not just in the halls of legislature, but you also saw it reverberate in corporate boardrooms. 18 states have passed significant legislation since Parkland.
Nine of those states are governed by Republicans, nine by Democrats, which just shows that this has become much more of a bipartisan issue than it has in the past, but it’s hit the corporate board rooms too. You saw Hertz and Delta and their benefits to NRA members, and then Dicks took AR15s off our shelves.
FEINBLATT: Citibank and Bank of America relooked at their banking practices to the gun industry. And it’s interesting because I don’t think everybody gives as much significance to the corporate behavior as they do to the legislative behavior, but the truth is that corporate behavior’s a huge barometer of how the American public feel.
OLIVER: And the students themselves. I mean we saw the protest in Washington and other places. Has there have been momentum there or has that inspired corporate America as well?
FEINBLATT: 2.5 million people marched on March 24th. There were 750 domestic US marches. There were another 100 or so marches around the world. And one always worries about this in this business. You don’t want it to be a moment. You want it to turn into a movement, but it really has.
And so we actually in Everytown created Students Demand Action. I think there are 134 chapters already and you know what’re they’re focused on? Voter registration. And that’s exactly what they should be focused on because young people do not vote at the same rates as adults.
OLIVER: How nimble are you at Everytown to react to these things? Maybe talk a little bit about the work of the organization with these student groups or different organizations or different cities just in the in the aftermath and the days, weeks after an actual shooting.
FEINBLATT: So after Parkland happened, I’ll focus on Parkland, but we have a war room that comes together immediately and we have dealt sadly enough with enough mass shootings that everybody knows what their role is in the war room. And we come together first to understand the facts, because the facts don’t always reveal themselves immediately. Is there a piece of legislation that is implicated by the facts?
That is one of the first questions. Do we know any of the survivors or do our survivor networks members know any of the survivors? And we try to do outreach. What does the legislative climate look like in the state that the shooting happened? And so you go through the paces. What is the press saying? So we have to analyze every single thing that the press is saying and try to get a sense of where the messaging is going for and how people are reacting.
OLIVER: Of course at this time this is when the NRA comes out full force.
FEINBLATT: Yes. Exactly.
OLIVER: So their opposition to even the most basic gun safety measures really stands in stark contrast to even public opinion which strongly favors common sense gun safety law. So how is the NRA still a force in American politics?
FEINBLATT: I think they’re bearing the brunt of their approach particularly to mass shootings after Pulse, after Las Vegas, after Parkland. They just double down. And I think that they are losing the support of the American public because of it. The polls show that Americans support gun safety measures at the highest levels in a quarter of a century. The NRAs negatives are higher than it’s positive for the first time that I’ve ever seen it, and I think it’s because the American public doesn’t want the argument that the NRA wants to have.
They want to have an argument about, “Do you support the second amendment or don’t you support the Second Amendment?” That’s not what the American public want to argue about. They want to make sure their kids are safer when they go to school, or their kids are safer when they go to the movies, or their kids are safer when they’re going to church with them on a Sunday. And I think that the NRA is really losing ground because of the fact that they just are out of sync right now with what with the public is feeling.
OLIVER: There has been a great deal of energy focused on this distribution of the blueprints for 3D printed guns, which would allow anyone with access to the internet and a 3D printer to create an untraceable gun. Is Everytown engaging on this issue and how?
FEINBLATT: I think that this is a good example of how Everytown gets to work. Our first effort was to make sure that legislators were hearing about it. I think we sent 160,000 calls and emails within the first 48 hours after it became clear that the Department of Defense was deregulating, or proposed to be deregulate it. We then started to work with our friends in Washington D.C. about a piece of legislation that would actually reverse it. Then we actually sued in the state of Texas where the company was that was going to release the blueprints, and then worked with attorney generals around the state to make sure that we weren’t just the only people trying to litigate it, but people like attorney generals who have clear standing on this issue. So it’s just a good example of how we work on all cylinders.
OLIVER: Gathering the facts, putting out the information and the data points – equipping people with the right facts so that they can have these conversations.
FEINBLATT: And asking the question, what is our leverage? You always have to ask what’s our leverage. Legislative political grassroots.
OLIVER: To that point with the midterm elections coming close, what can Americans do to protect the country against gun violence? What are some of the things that Everytown is taking to ensure?
FEINBLATT: Well, we have a countdown clock that I look at every single day that tells me how many days, hours and seconds to the midterms. And I think the most important thing is first focusing on voter registration. Second, making sure that those people who register then get to the polls. And third, making it absolutely clear what people who are seeking elected office, how they stand on the issue of gun safety.
For the first time ever Moms Demand Action is giving out a Gun Sense Distinction Award for candidates who fill out their questionnaire successfully. It is six basic questions about their positions. And when you first introduce these grading systems, it takes quite a few election cycles for it to become part of the drinking water of an election. So we set very modest goals for our first year. 500 by Election Day. We’ve already given out 2,800, and we’re still 80 some days away from election. They’re literally selling like hotcakes. Democrats and Republicans, Independents at the state and federal level because candidates realize this is the year to run on gun safety.
OLIVER: If I’m going to the polls or I want to be well-informed beforehand — how do I know what my local legislator is for or against?
FEINBLATT: Just go right onto the Everytown.org website and put in your zip code. And I think that there is an actual page called the GunSenseVoter.org page, put in your zip code and you’ll find out.
OLIVER: So candidate look-up tools?
OLIVER: What is the most challenging part of your job?
FEINBLATT: I think that what has been always difficult about this issue is, it was not convincing the public, it was recognizing that there was a disconnect between officials and the public on this issue. And in some ways this is really a political fight of trying to diminish the NRA’s power, of getting elected officials to actually represent their constituents and vote for gun safety because that’s where the American public is. It always has been, but sadly this issue has become so politicized that it’s been hard to make progress.
OLIVER: And what motivates you and how do you then motivate your team?
FEINBLATT: Well, my job is talent. That’s what I always say, that the most important thing for me to do every day is to figure out what the needs of the organization are and how to find the talent that matches that. And I think that we have over the past several years hired some of the most gifted people, whether they be legal experts, or policy experts, or research experts, or grassroots organizers, and then letting them go because they’re experts at what they do and being confident enough that they will do their job and giving them freedom to do it.
OLIVER: Now you’ve taken us through the prep of the organization in the aftermath of a crisis, but what’s a typical day for you and for your team?
FEINBLATT: Well there are thousands of pieces of legislation every given year on gun safety issues. It’s a lot of reading and our lawyers, God knows why they don’t have migraines, but they are reading state legislation all over the country and then trying to make decisions about what they want to support, what they want to try to kill, because killing bills is important sometimes as passing them, and then translating that analysis to our grassroots, to our paid lobbyists throughout the country, and really gearing up for a legislative session. But my job is somewhat different than that. I’m their cheerleader, but I have to travel the country. And every week I’m on an airplane. Tomorrow’s San Francisco, and it’s talking to our supporters about what’s going on. It’s raising money. This is an expensive fight.
The NRA has a $350 annual budget. We have to be in a fighting position with them. So my day is often on airplanes and checking in constantly with what’s going on, but at Everytown in a given day you will have people analyzing legislation, creating the game plans to pass it, working with our Everytown cultural team, actors and actresses that have large footprints.
OLIVER: Amazing roster in the creative coalition.
FEINBLATT: It’s extraordinary.
OLIVER: Julianne Moore has been a great local leader for you and spokesperson, and it’s prompted a lot of others too.
FEINBLATT: Yeah, she’s been just an incredible leader. Actually she was with us at Gun Sense University in Atlanta for two and a half days, which was pretty inspiring to everybody.
OLIVER: What will the future of Everytown look like and what does success for your organization look like for you?
FEINBLATT: I can remember still when my kids were born and our pediatrician talked to us about how you make sure the kid can’t put their finger in an electric socket, or how do you make sure that the detergents that you have under the sink aren’t easily accessible. Well can you imagine if we got pediatricians all over the country talking to the parents of newborns about whether they had a gun in the home and how they stored them? So you’ve got to make progress by making laws, by changing habits just like Mothers Against Drunk Driving did, by making the product safer, and by changing the country’s attitude about gun safety, and mostly changing our politician’s views.
OLIVER: Okay so as we head to the polls for the midterms, what are just a few things to reflect on to better equip our listeners to making informed decisions?
FEINBLATT: The first thing is go to our look up tool and see how the people who are representing you at the state and federal level.
Type in your zip code. It’s really simple and you will see whether somebody is what we would call a gun sense candidate. That’s the most important thing. And look, we have to create what I would call the single issue voter for gun safety because actually what’s more important – I mean when you’re talking about protecting your family and protecting your kid at school, at church, in the movies. So this should be top of mind how your candidate has either talked about or voted or in this case answered our questionnaire.
OLIVER: Okay I think we’ll leave it there. John Feinblatt thanks for joining us today.
FEINBLATT: My pleasure.
OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to John Feinblatt for joining us. Visit everytown.org for more information. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, and Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro. Special thanks to Eric Sheppard. As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data. I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.