America’s gun violence epidemic didn’t end the moment the coronavirus pandemic began—in fact, two deadly crises are compounding one another and putting under-resourced communities at greater risk. Our country’s long-standing racial inequities in housing, healthcare, education, employment and everyday life have meant that Black and brown Americans experience higher rates of gun violence and are now more likely to die from COVID-19. Now more than ever, it’s imperative we take an intersectional, community-based approach to solving these public health crises.
On Monday, I spoke with Sen. Kamala Harris about how we can continue to fight community gun violence during the COVID-19 crisis. And in the coming days, more inspiring women leaders will join Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action’s new series #DemandingWomen: Quarantine Conversations About Gun Violence. I’ll be sharing some of what I learn from these powerhouse women.
You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with Senator Kamala Harris here:
Here are just six of the many lessons that came out of my conversation with Sen. Harris.
Because these crises are urgent, lawmakers must respond with urgency. If they don’t, they should be held accountable.
During our conversation, Sen. Harris spoke about how many families in America are struggling with record levels of unemployment and food insecurity, lining up for hours to receive help from food banks. She also pointed out how gaps in students’ access to technology and the internet are sure to widen disparities in education during this time of distance learning.
Racial disparities in healthcare impact Black and brown people while they’re battling COVID-19 and when they’re accessing healthcare in general. But while many Americans are struggling right now, people of color are being disproportionately impacted. “Ninety percent of women- and minority-owned businesses did not get relief from the paycheck protection program, because so many of our smaller businesses that are women- and minority-owned don’t have the relationships with the big banker,” Sen. Harris said. “They may not even have a line of credit, and so they were not a priority in terms of who got the outreach and who got the benefit.”
Sen. Harris criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for refusing to view coronavirus relief as urgent, and said it’s on all of us to remind our legislators that our families need help now. “It is going to rely on the American people, on all of us together, to say, ‘This is an urgent matter and we need leaders to lead,'” she said. The same goes for the life-saving background check legislation that’s been sitting on Sen. McConnell’s desk for more than a year as he continues to refuse to bring it up for a vote. And if politicians like Sen. McConnell refuse to lead, they should be held accountable this November.
Voting access and safety requires every American’s attention.
Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action volunteers are working around the clock to get out the vote this November.Reminding people what’s at stake and why their vote matters is at the heart of those efforts. But, Sen. Harris said, this November, we have the extra challenge of spreading the word that it’s safe to vote.
“Folks can look back at us and say, ‘That’s fine, you’ve given me reasons why I should vote, but I also have reasons why I shouldn’t vote, which is I don’t want to get sick.’ This is going to be one of our challenges in November,” she told me. Sen. Harris has proposed legislation that would provide $5 billion to ensure nationwide early voting options, expand vote-by-mail in states that don’t already have it and include options like curbside voting and wait-time standards that would reduce long lines at the polls. “What we can do is use our advocacy to demand safe voting so that no one, no one, has to make a choice between their health and their right to exercise their vote, especially in this election when there is so much at stake,” Sen. Harris said.
It’s on all of us to call out racist laws and work to stop new proposals, and roll them back where they already exist.
Sen. Harris and I discussed the tragic shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, both young Black people who were killed by gun violence and whose families are fighting for justice. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by two white men while he was out jogging in Georgia on Feb. 23. Ahmaud’s killing has once again shed light on dangerous laws that allow people to shoot first and ask questions later. Stand Your Ground laws and citizen’s arrest laws “have often and frequently been used an excuse—if not a cover—for people who are motivated by racism and racial profiling,” Sen. Harris said.
Georgia is one of 26 states with Stand Your Ground laws, which are associated with clear increases in gun homicides and encourage violence, often among perpetrators with violent backgrounds. And when white shooters kill Black victims, the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable 11 times more frequently than when the shooter is Black and the victim is white. Stopping Stand Your Ground laws has always been one of Everytown and Moms Demand Action’s top legislative priorities.
Remember why we do this work—so that no other families must carry the weight of surviving gun violence.
Survivors have always been the North Star of our movement, and they are the reason Sen. Harris continues to push for life-saving laws as well.“I will be here always standing and fighting for what is right because the goal for all of us is that not another mother has to shed a tear, not another father has to shed a tear or a sibling, or a child, because the person they loved, that they relied on, that they respected was tore down by gun violence,” Sen. Harris said during our conversation.
Part of what makes the gun violence prevention movement strong is our diversity and commitment to valuing each person’s life equally. “We understand that each one of these lives is precious, and equal in value to their families, to their community and to us as a society,” she said. That’s why it’s critical that even during the pandemic, volunteers “continue your advocacy. Remind [legislators] of the stories and the people behind these stories,” Sen. Harris added.
During our conversation, Julius Thibodeaux, the strategy program manager for Advance Peace Sacramento, an organization that works in Black and brown communities with a high risk of experiencing gun violence, asked Sen. Harris about how he can make sure lawmakers are listening to community-based violence advocates like him. While we can’t currently travel to Washington, D.C., to knock on our lawmakers’ doors, Sen. Harris said, there are still many ways to make our voices heard.
Moms Demand Action has held virtual advocacy days in California and Minnesota, and there is plenty of work to do to prepare before Congress gets back to business as usual. Then, it’s about sharing our stories so lawmakers take notice. “Reach out to your congressional offices to demand that they hold hearings on these issues so that you can go before Congress and testify about what you are seeing, what you are hearing and what you are feeling as a reflection of what whole communities are experiencing,” Sen. Harris said. (Note: Moms Demand Action volunteers are currently fundraising to support Advance Peace Sacramento, and many other of our community partners across the country. Support their efforts by donating here.)
Make sure lawmakers know the difference between a grassroots movement and astroturf.
Armed protesters have stood outside statehouses demanding that some states reopen now, despite ongoing and serious public health concerns. These protests are often organized by gun rights extremists and well-funded, right-wing groups masquerading as the voice of ordinary people. While Sen. Harris said she will always stand up for Americans’ right to peacefully protest, she feels “deeply disturbed” by protesters carrying semi-automatic weapons. “The reality is that it is a political agenda that is not connected with what they profess it to be, which is about fighting for working Americans,” she said. “And their agenda is to go after particular governors who have taken a very courageous, difficult stand in the face of what their responsibility is for the public health and wellbeing of their communities.” What those astroturf groups are doing is extremism, but what we do is activism, driven by a desire to keep our families safe. I have no doubt that we’ll win.
We’re in this together, and when we fight, we win.
Sen. Harris said that even amid the pandemic, our life-saving advocacy work can and must continue. “This is a moment where we’re literally all in this together and this pandemic has made that clear, and so we should be standing together and rejecting forces and voices that are trying to separate us,” she said. Gun violence prevention work isn’t just about changing hearts and minds, she added, but about changing laws. And that work must continue until all of our families can live without the fear of gun violence.
“Continue with your advocacy and know that you are speaking for so many people, you are having an impact on the lives of people who you may never meet and may never know your name, but their lives are forever improved and uplifted because of your advocacy, your selfless work and your commitment to this issue,” Sen. Harris said.
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.