From tragedy to action: Using media advocacy to advance gun violence prevention legislation

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How one advocate helped pass 11 gun violence prevention bills in the aftermath of the country's deadliest mass shooting.

On Sunday, June 12, 2016, Mark Chekal-Bain was looking forward to a rare day of rest during his busy week as district director for California Assemblymember Phil Ting. As it turned out, that day would be anything but restful. In the morning, Chekal-Bain was awakened by a TV broadcast about tragic news from the night before: An armed gunman had entered Orlando's Pulse Nightclub to carry out the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

News of the attack hit Chekal-Bain hard. As a gay man, he knew that this was not a random act of violence; it was an assault on a safe haven for largely Latino members of the local LGBTQ community. And, as one of California's leading experts on gun violence prevention legislation, Chekal-Bain also knew that this was a strategic opportunity to transform his grieving into action.

By coincidence, the California legislature would be voting in just two days on 11 pieces of gun violence prevention legislation that Chekal-Bain and others had been working to craft for the past several years. He knew that media advocacy could increase the odds of the bills becoming law. "If I had anything to do with it, I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass," Checkal-Bain said.

Chekal-Bain's experience with media advocacy — the strategic use of media to support community organizing and promote policy change — and longstanding relationships with advocates and policymakers throughout the state uniquely positioned him to create impact. It was as a graduate student in public health at U.C. Berkeley that Chekal-Bain was first introduced to the idea that policy advocacy could be a public health strategy. Prior to that, Chekal-Bain had largely understood public health as a matter of encouraging people to make healthier life choices. His time at Berkeley taught him "to look at policy and environmental change as opposed to behavioral change," Chekal-Bain said. It was a lesson he would carry with him.

After completing doctoral work in public health at UCLA, Chekal-Bain immediately began working on public policy as the director of state and external relations at Americans for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group. A formative experience in this stage of Chekal-Bain's career — and in the history of violence prevention in California — was the successful, coordinated effort to ban the manufacturing of so-called "junk guns": cheaply manufactured weapons that had a propensity to discharge accidentally. Despite their inherent dangers (junk guns were also disproportionately used in crimes), junk guns remained poorly regulated due in large part to the strength of the gun lobby. In 1996, by coordinating their efforts, advocates were able to overcome their formidable opposition and achieve the passage of a series of bans on the sale and manufacture of these junk guns in cities and counties throughout the state.

Chekal-Bain brought this experience to Sacramento, where in 2003 he was offered a special assistant position under California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to focus on gun violence prevention legislation. The experience helped establish Chekal-Bain as a statewide expert in gun legislation, and he would frequently testify at hearings and lobby for gun violence prevention legislation on behalf of the state.

After working on gun violence prevention legislation for many years, Chekal-Bain had learned a sobering lesson: When gun violence was not in the news and not on the minds of lawmakers, legislation tended to stall. "When there is a mass shooting, people introduce gun bills," he said.

Sadly, over the past year, it was a pair of tragedies that created the political pressure necessary to push forward gun control legislation. First there was the San Bernardino attack of Dec. 2, 2015, in which 14 people were killed and 22 were seriously injured. In the aftermath of this shooting, Chekal-Bain worked with a number of representatives to help them draft legislation that would, among other steps, prohibit "bullet buttons" that allow for quick reloading of magazines, restrict the purchase of long guns to one per month, and prevent individuals who falsely report lost or stolen guns from purchasing firearms.

Then, there was the June 11, 2016 shooting in Orlando, which killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The day after the tragedy — just two days before the key vote on the 11 gun violence prevention bills — Chekal-Bain suggested to Assemblymember Phil Ting that they hold a news conference the next day. Ting agreed, and gave Chekal-Bain free rein to organize the event.

Chekal-Bain's first step was to contact Ting's colleagues in the California Assembly who were also champions of gun-control legislation. He also reached out to gun violence prevention groups and leaders of the Islamic and LGBTQ communities in San Francisco. Because some media and pundits were blaming Muslim communities for the Orlando shooting, it was important for their press conference to present a united front. Each of the groups Chekal-Bain contacted offered powerful statements of unity and in support of the legislation. This broad base of community support helped attract media attention and made a strong case for the proposed legislation.

Using the respective statements of allies and advocates, Chekal-Bain carefully crafted a news release, media advisory and talking points for the next day's news conference. "I just worked from 11 o'clock that morning until 9 that night," he said.

All the preparation paid off. Seventeen media outlets attended the news conference, held at 10 a.m. on Monday. In addition, Chekal-Bain sent a recording of the news conference to two additional outlets and conducted a phone interview with a local radio station whose reporters were unable to attend the event. "I just knew this would make front-page news," Chekal-Bain said. "I've been doing this long enough to know that."

He was right.

The next day, the story appeared in the all of California's major newspapers and some ethnic media. The story blanketed the TV news that evening.

Such extensive media coverage elevated the importance of the legislation and put pressure on policymakers to act. All 11 bills were promptly approved by committees and by both houses of the California legislature. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed six of these bills on June 30, just 17 days after Chekal-Bain organized his news conference. Last month, on January 1, they went into effect. They aim to prevent gun violence by:

  • requiring that individuals who purchase ammunition undergo background checks;
  • creating a new state database of ammunition owners;
  • making it illegal to possess magazines holding more than 10 bullets; and
  • limiting individuals' ability to loan guns to others.

The enormous success of this media advocacy campaign holds several lessons for advocates. Here are four to consider:

  1. Build personal relationships. It was the cultivation of personal relationships that allowed Chekal-Bain to move quickly, identifying key spokespersons and drafting a news release.
  2. Do your homework. It may have been a coincidence that a major shooting occurred just days before a major vote on gun violence prevention legislation. But, by doing the initial preparatory work of drafting legislation, the pump was primed to use media advocacy when the time was right to push the laws over the finish line.
  3. Move from tragedy to action. Chekal-Bain faced some criticism in response to his idea of holding a news conference so soon after a tragedy. Some argued for a more measured approach, with an initial news release simply focusing on the need for the community to come together in the face of tragedy. But, as an experienced media advocate, Chekal-Bain understood that tragedy needed to be turned into action. Yes, the community needed to come together, but they needed to come together around a law that could protect health.
  4. Don't let "the perfect be the enemy of the good." Reflecting on his experience, Chekal-Bain recognized that not everything went perfectly or according to plan. After the news conference, he thought of other spokespersons that he wished he had contacted. But the fast-paced nature of news cycles does not always afford advocates the luxury of perfection. Chekal-Bain knew that he had to be willing to take risks and settle for arrangements being "good enough" to be able to seize the opportunity and act.

These pieces of legislation are likely to prevent gun violence and save innocent lives. Their successful passage shows that with persistence, courage and careful attention to strategy, community organizers can overcome strong, well-funded opposition to achieve important public health gains. Chekal-Bain hopes that these victories will inspire organizers in other states to follow California's lead in creating safer communities.

 


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