It’s time to bring back public shaming. I’m not saying that we should throw people in the stocks and humiliate them in the public square, but we should force the senators who voted last week against sensible measures to reduce gun violence to answer for their vote.
It’s long past time to amplify how cowardly and antidemocratic their votes were—how irresponsible to their office, insulting to those killed and injured by gun violence, and craven to a cadre of gun-industry lobbyists, whose extreme opposition to common-sense gun laws contrasts with the 88 percent of gun owners in this country who support universal background checks.
The good news, however, is that the public shaming has begun. In a fierce and eloquent column in The New York Times the day after the Senate vote, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), one of the survivors of the January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, wrote:
Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them. …
I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.
When the Senate voted last Wednesday, a group of gun-violence survivors was watching from the gallery. “Shame on you!” shouted two of the survivors right after a bipartisan amendment to expand background checks was defeated. The outburst came from Patricia Maisch, who had disarmed the shooter in the Tucson killing spree, and from Lori Haas, the mother of a young woman who had been wounded in the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007. Both women are now advocates for effective gun regulation, and their impassioned outcry reflected the frustration and anger of many Americans.
The next morning Joe Scarborough heaped more shame on the senators during his TV show “Morning Joe.” “This sort of extremism is going to be called out by the 90 percent,” Scarborough said, referring to the 90 percent of Americans who support universal background checks. “We’re the 90 percent, and we are going to win. This is just the first battle.”
Later in the day President Barack Obama criticized the senators who had voted against the gun measures for putting politics ahead of the needs of the American people. “All in all, this is a pretty shameful day in Washington,” President Obama said.
Yet despite the loss in the Senate, advocates are determined to press on. They know that their efforts are a marathon, not a sprint—that they need to maintain pressure on elected officials and keep the issue of gun violence front and center in the public eye.
The No More Names project is one way of doing that. The broad-based coalition is raising public awareness about gun violence through social media, information kits, education campaigns, and more. The coalition is also increasing public support for sensible legislation through a variety of efforts, including petition drives, citizen lobbying, and faith advocacy. In addition, the project sponsors public readings of the names of those killed by gun violence since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut; in fact, a reading was held outside the Capitol before, during, and after the Senate vote last week. More readings with new names are being planned. In addition, groups such as Lifelines to Healing and Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence are mobilizing thousands of Americans across the country to keep applying the pressure.
Gun-industry lobbyists are hoping these efforts will fail. They are hoping that Americans will have a short attention span and will soon go back to “business as usual” so that these lobbyists can continue to strong-arm elected officials with threats of losing elections and promises of financial support if they vote against even modest measures to prevent gun violence.
But this time is different. “Enough is enough,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall in a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral just days after the Sandy Hook shooting. “Everyone in this city seems to live in terror of the gun lobby. But I believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby, especially when we stand together as people of all faiths across the religious landscape of America.”
Hall is reiterating an age-old truth: In the end, money power is no match for moral power and people power. At some point the gun lobby will lose. As we pull back the curtain on its undemocratic tricks and expose its undue influence, the public will rise up and vote out of office those lawmakers under its sway.
“Shame on you” was the refrain these past several days. It offered much-needed clarity to a debate that too often gets bogged down in technicalities and unnecessary obfuscation. In their efforts in the days ahead, advocates should turn that three-word refrain into a loud and sustained chorus.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.