Five years ago this month, a white supremacist armed with a gun he shouldn’t have been allowed to buy walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire. The shooter killed nine Black parishioners who were gathered for Bible study and who had welcomed him into their circle. A loophole in our gun laws—now known as the Charleston loophole—allowed the shooter to purchase a gun even though he couldn’t pass a background check, simply because that check could not be completed within three business days.
Rev. Sharon Risher’s mother, Ethel Lance, her cousins, Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and her childhood friend were taken in the Charleston shooting. Now a member of the Everytown Survivor Network and a Moms Demand Action volunteer, Rev. Risher uses her voice to disarm hate across this country. That work is more important than ever, because our latest report found that more than 10,000 hate crimes in the U.S. involve a firearm each year—that’s equivalent to more than 28 per day.
With the president himself amplifying racist messages from the White House and the threat of white nationalism around the world, we’ve seen what can happen when hatred turns violent, including tragic instances of Black people in America killed at the hands of police officers.
Racism and hate have deadly consequences in our country. Former National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice wrote that “our domestic fault lines remain our greatest national security vulnerability, and race is our oldest and deepest rift.” Last Monday, I sat down with Ambassador Rice to discuss how we can address gun violence, racism and systemic inequities during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with National Security Advisor Susan Rice here:
Below are just six of the many lessons that came out of my conversation with Ambassador Susan Rice.
Racism is a systemic problem.
“Even so many years after the end of slavery and the enactment of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the election of an African American president, we still have fundamental issues of racism that pervade every aspect of our society,” Ambassador Rice told me during our conversation. “We’ve seen it very starkly in police killings and police brutality, and the patterns and practices of too many police entities around the country.” Far from being a problem caused by a “few bad apples,” as the Trump administration likes to describe it, police brutality and racist policing are systemic problems. It’s also crucial to acknowledge how systemic racism affects every part of the lives of Black and brown Americans, Ambassador Rice said.
“Beyond policing and criminal justice, this is a problem that pervades every aspect of society,” she added. “The inequality is rooted in everything from housing to education to the environment to healthcare. These disparities persist, and they too require systemic solutions—solutions that finally and fully address these disparities for African Americans and other people of color in this country, so we can fulfill our national promise of being a truly equal society.”
It’s our right to protest, and we must protect it.
Ambassador Rice called President Trump’s decision to deploy the military in response to peaceful protests in Washington, D.C., “absolutely inappropriate. It’s infuriating, it’s counterproductive, and in my judgment, frankly, it was designed to inflame,” she said. “He invoked segregationist rhetoric—‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ he talked about calling out dogs. These are not dog whistles to racists, these are bullhorn calls for racially-charged violence in this country.”
“This is not how responsible leadership responds to peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights,” she added. Expressing our views—as millions of Americans have following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many other Black Americans—is how we achieve real change. We cannot let our president or armed extremists intimidate us and prevent us from turning out in the streets and voicing our views.
White Supremacy is a real and deadly threat.
Recently, we’ve seen white supremacists openly carry guns in an effort to intimidate those who are peacefully protesting as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. And it’s sadly nothing new; open carry is a favorite tactic of white supremacist groups, our research has shown.
And yet, we don’t see the Trump administration discouraging white supremacy—instead, the president seems happy to fan the flames of racist hate. “The reality is that far more Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists with white supremacist leanings than by foreign terrorists in recent years on our soil,” Ambassador Rice said. “That should be a wake-up call to our federal institutions, our Justice Department, our Department of Homeland Security, to prioritize domestic terrorism—white nationalist terrorism—as the threat that it is.”
This is the most important election of our lifetimes.
We know that change happens through protests and advocacy work as well as at the ballot box. This November, Americans face a stark choice. The visions presented by President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden for the future of our country couldn’t be more different—and we must vote for a president who will bring us together, not exploit and deepen our divisions.
“A president of the United States should proceed from the premise that we are all Americans, that we all matter equally, that we’re all in the same boat and we sink or swim together,” Ambassador Rice said. “To have a president who instead goes out of his way virtually every day to divide and inflame our division is reprehensible. It’s dangerous, and frankly, it threatens our cohesion as a nation and our survival as a democracy, which is one of the many, many reasons why I think this is the most important election of my lifetime and why we absolutely, positively have to get Donald Trump out of the White House, and replace him with somebody—as Joe Biden is—who understands that we are stronger when we come together.”
That’s true when it comes to confronting America’s gun violence epidemic, too, which is why we need Vice President Biden in the White House and Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, she said. “Vote out those who are doing the NRA’s bidding and vote in those who would make change,” Ambassador Rice said. “That is absolutely essential.”
Americans want gun safety legislation.
Ambassador Rice spoke about the fact that the vast majority of Americans favor common-sense gun safety laws like background checks on all gun sales. But for too long, the NRA has “bought too many members of our Congress and has prevented this from happening. But I think that can and will change.”
It already is changing, because we’ve scored victory after victory against the NRA in the 2018 midterms and in the 2019 Virginia legislative elections. Now, we’re poised to defeat the gun lobby and its deadly agenda in the 2020 election, too. This is a pivotal opportunity for the gun violence prevention movement, because the NRA—racked by political and financial scandals—is weaker than ever, while we are stronger than we have ever been.
With Vice President Biden, Rice said, we have a candidate with a strong record of fighting for gun safety legislation. He was a critical sponsor of the Brady Bill in 1993 and of the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine ban and the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, she explained, and “he has a very, very detailed, clear-cut, aggressive, comprehensive platform to go against all aspects of gun violence. He’s taken on the NRA twice and won.”
We at Moms Demand Action know all about taking on the NRA and winning. Moms are, and have always been, the yin to the gun lobby’s yang, and an extremist’s fear of losing his guns pales in comparison to a mother’s fear of losing her child. Ambassador Rice understands that fear, too.
“And as a policy leader, it’s unthinkable to me that even though vast majorities of Americans favor common-sense gun restrictions—universal background checks, bans on assault weapons—we have a very powerful lobby that has effectively prevented so much of that from being enacted. It’s absolutely outrageous, and it makes me as angry as anything.”
Gun violence survivors push us forward.
June is an important month for gun violence survivors. It’s when we marked National Gun Violence Awareness Day and gathered for Wear Orange weekend to honor the more than 100 Americans who are shot and killed on average each day, as well as the hundreds more who are shot and wounded. On June 12, survivors and families marked four years since the horrific shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando that killed 49 people and wounded 58 more, many of them LGBTQ and Latino.
During our conversation, Ambassador Rice and I were joined by Rev. Risher, who spoke about how she’s turned the pain of losing four loved ones at the Emanuel AME Church five years ago into action. “I think it’s extraordinary that from your pain, you have found the critical mission and purpose of advocating as a survivor for an end to gun violence, for the kinds of laws and policies that would have made what happened five years ago impossible, and what happened at the Pulse nightclub four years ago impossible,” Ambassador Rice told Rev. Risher. “Your leadership, your personal passion, the pain that you bring to this issue is so powerful and so motivating to all of us. It’s the voice of somebody like you and those who have survived the worst of this that can bring this issue to the front and center as a matter of human concern.”
Gun violence survivors have always been the North Star of Moms Demand Action, and we proudly stand with them in this fight. Grassroots gun violence prevention work is more crucial than ever, Ambassador Rice said, particularly as some cities have seen sustained or increased gun violence during the COVID-19 crisis.
“When you consider that we have lost more Americans to gun violence than we have lost in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam combined—40,000 deaths a year to gun violence in this country—it’s just unbelievable,” Ambassador Rice said. “And the only way it’s going to change is through the kind of effective, grassroots action that you all are leading and taking.”
With just 133 days to go until Election Day, Moms Demand Action and Everytown have committed ourselves to the hard work and activism it takes to keep gun safety front and center on the campaign trail—as well as making sure people are registered and turn out to vote for gun-sense candidates this November. And we won’t give up, because, as Ambassador Rice said, “the American people want common-sense gun laws.” To join us, text READY to 644–33 to connect with your Moms Demand Action chapter.
Demanding Women: Quarantine Conversations About Gun Violence
I’ve been hosting conversations with women leaders from around the country. Catch up on the conversations!Watch here
Shannon Watts is a mother of five who, prior to founding Moms Demand Action, was a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive. The day after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Shannon started a Facebook group with the message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence. The online conversation turned into a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country and is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, with nearly 6 million supporters. In addition to her work with Moms Demand Action, Watts is an active board member of Emerge America, one of the nation’s leading organizations for recruiting and training women to run for office.