(NEW YORK) — Amber Gustafson, a mother of three, launched her campaign for the Iowa State Senate the day after the Las Vegas gun massacre.
She had been planning the event for weeks, so despite the terrible news and the calls she got from friends and fellow gun-safety activists all night, she did not consider postponing. The tragedy, in fact, underscored the reason she had gotten involved in politics.
The time for fighting from the outside had passed, Gustafson believed.
After spending years lobbying lawmakers to pass gun control solutions, she now wants to be the one in office.
Gustafson is one of a growing number of gun control activists, mostly women, seeking elected office next year, especially at the state and local level.
An increasingly powerful grassroots group
The trend is a perhaps a sign of a changing conversation nationwide over gun safety, but is also clearly the result of the work of an increasingly powerful grassroots lobbying group: Moms Demand Action. The organization has encouraged its volunteers to not only petition lawmakers, but run themselves.
Moms Demand Action was founded in 2012 after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 young children and six adults. Over just the past three years, it has grown from 4,500 active volunteers to nearly 70,000, with chapters in every state.
“For nearly five years, Moms Demand Action volunteers have been working in statehouses to demand that more is done to prevent gun violence,” the group’s founder, Shannon Watts, told ABC News. “I couldn’t be more proud of the volunteers who are now determined to run for their statehouses, school boards and city councils to ensure constituents’ voices are louder than gun lobbyists.”
She added, “Women hold just a fraction of elected positions in America, yet we are the majority of voters.”
Other gun control activists have noticed a change too.
“I definitely see a huge surge of candidates who want to run on this issue, candidates who want to make it a key part of their primary, who are trying to tell voters that being a gun violence prevention champion is a central issue of their campaign,” said Isabelle James, the political director at Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, an organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband. Giffords was shot in the head in 2011 while meeting with constituents in Arizona.
From unspeakable loss to speaking out
Lucia McBath said people had been telling her to run for office for years.
She became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in 2012 in Jacksonville, Florida, by a man who had complained about the loud rap music coming from the car carrying the teen and his friends.
A flight attendant at the time of her son’s murder, McBath started speaking out on gun-violence prevention and eventually joined the staff of Moms Demand Action as a national spokeswomen for the organization. This year, she decided it was time to run for office herself, and she is now candidate to represent a district in the Atlanta area in the Georgia House of Representatives.
“It became clearer to me that maybe only way we were going to be able to change what was happening in the country was to get in on the inside,” she told ABC News. “Yes, I have been helping to building this huge external movement around the nation. Yes, that’s fine and dandy, but if we cannot get gun control champions on the inside … then it is going to take much, much longer for us to beat the goliath of the NRA gun lobby.”
McBath said her son, Jordan, would have loved the idea.
“He would be the one pushing me, ‘Go get them,’” she said. “I learned how to champion other people through my child. … I have to be able to carry out his legacy.”
A need for people who will ‘talk to both sides’
Gustafson, who lives in Ankeny, Iowa, on the outskirts of Des Moines, says the qualities that come with being a mother – tenacity, problem-solving and persuasion skills — have made her team effective activists and will make her a good legislator.
“We can polite you to death. We are extremely persistent. We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but we will bring cookies,” she said. She said she honed her skills talking to the most hardened NRA supporters and learned not get her feathers ruffled.
“Mothers are used to getting toddlers and teenagers to do things they don’t want to do,” she said.
Gustafson grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa and owned guns from an early age. The first time a boy picked her up for a date, he had a .22 rifle in the rack in his car. “No one even batted an eye,” she said, laughing.
“We need more people who are willing to talk to both sides, who are willing to look across the aisle … and that is basically all we do as moms — both with Moms Demand Action and as mothers. I have three people who constantly disagree with me.”
Like many moms working on the issue, Gustafson said the Sandy Hook shooting was a turning point for her. She had a first-grader at the time, the same age as the children killed, and was horrified thinking about students targeted in their classrooms. Plus, the shooter had reportedly been diagnosed with autism as had her own oldest son. She worried about the tendency to blame mental illness. “If people are going to look at my child because he has autism and ADHD as a potential school shooter and treat him that way … I am not going to sit on the sidelines.”
“I thought to myself, ‘If I am someone who owns a gun, then it is my responsibility to be a part of helping fix this … I am not going to let a bunch of people who know nothing about guns make the decisions,’” she said.
‘Building a movement’
In Montana, Nancy de Pastino has a similar story. She also had a first-grader at the time of the Sandy Hook massacre and said the tragedy was the catalyst that drove her to volunteer on the issue of gun control. With Moms Demand Action building in earnest in 2012, de Pastino agreed to start the first Montana state chapter, even though, as she put it, “I had no idea what I was doing.”
De Pastino went out on a limb and found that building a movement could be lonely at times. She remembers calling friends and asking them to join her. She had to make a change quickly from being private citizen, a professional photographer, and a mom to talking to reporters and speaking in public as an activist and a leader.
“I had to come out of my shell, step outside of my comfort zone in major ways,” she said.
On the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, she held a memorial in Missoula that the mayor and 60 other people attended. “I knew then there were people who cared,” she said.
Now after five years of activism has decided to run for a seat in the Montana statehouse.
Like Gustafson, de Pastino said her experience working on gun safety legislation sets her apart from other candidates.
“There are more similarities than I realized” between activism and running for election, she said. “Campaigns are really about being organized and building a movement of people behind you.”
After getting the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action off the ground, de Pastino managed the group’s work in 17 other states and had a number of legislative successes. Her teams defeated local bills in some areas that would have allowed people to carry weapons without a permit or bring guns to schools. She said she is most proud of an expanded background check ordinance passed in Missoula in 2016.
“You have to make change where you can make change. And for us that meant going as small as the Missoula City Council,” she said. “That kind of power we found just in being there, just in showing up, is really what motivates me to go run for the legislature myself. … We are not going to get anything done until we have new people in office.”
Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.