Interview with John Gruber of the Brady Campaign
The Brady Campaign is one of the oldest national gun violence prevention national organizations in America. It is named after its founders, Jim and Sarah Brady. Jim Brady was Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who was shot during the assassination attempt on Reagan, suffering debilitating injuries. Following that, they devoted their lives to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people, ensuring that people who should not have guns due to mental or criminal factors are not able to get them. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Brady Background Check bill into law after years of lobbying by Jim and Sarah. But it didn’t cover everything. We spoke with John Gruber, a campaign manager at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence here in Chicago, to learn more about the continued work of this organization.
Interview by Kyle Gaffin
Kyle Gaffin: What is the focus of your work at the Brady Campaign?
John Gruber: We really focus on three things: We focus on closing every loophole, so that every gun in America is sold with a background check, whether it’s your cousin selling you a gun, or it’s online, or at a gun show. The second thing we focus on is going after the “bad apple” gun dealers. Only 5% of gun dealers sell 90% of guns used in crimes. So we look at how gun dealers end up in that very small number of dealers that supply most of the crime guns in America. And we see that they are doing the bare minimum that they are required to do. So we go after those dealers and ask them to reform their businesses. The third thing is our ASK campaign, which seeks to keep guns out of the hands of children. You know, there’s a litany of news stories involving kids that get their hands on a parent’s gun because its unlocked and loaded and shoot themselves or another person – there was a story out of Idaho where a two-year old reached inside his mother’s purse in a Wal-Mart, grabbed his mother’s gun and fatally shot her. It’s really a public pressure campaign, promoting safe storage, asking if there are guns in your children’s lives. If you bring your child over to someone else’s house, you might ask, “Is the liquor cabinet locked?” Similarly, you should ask, “Do you have a gun? Is it locked up?” So those are our three focuses, and we have 91 chapters nationwide, including the Million Mom March.
KG: With objectives like closing loopholes and reforming bad apple dealers, is most of your work legislative and policy oriented?
JG: With closing the loopholes, yes, it is mostly legislative. President Obama recently clarified what it means to be engaged in the business of selling guns, but that’s not really going to stop that many sales. There will still be many sales without a background check, which is why we need Congress to pass expanded Brady background checks for all gun sales. But if you look at bad apple dealers, there are a lot of things that must happen. For example, in Chicago, they have identified the bad apple gun dealers that are responsible for supplying many guns in Chicago streets. I mean, one of these dealers sells one in twelve crime guns in Chicago [Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, IL]. We go after them on the legislative front, trying to force them to reform that way, but we also put community pressure on them. Take Father Mike Pfleger [of the Faith Community of St. Sabina in Auburn Gresham], he is out there talking about this issue every single day, that’s an example of public pressure. And then Brady will sue bad apple dealers on behalf of the victims of the crimes they helped facilitate, and reform them that way. This was the case with Badger Guns [in Milwaukee, WI], a dealer who knowingly sold to straw purchasers, people who buy guns for someone who shouldn’t have them. So it’s not entirely legislative, there’s also this large community organizing aspect.
KG: On the legislative front, what have you found to be the biggest challenges?
JG: I think the biggest challenge is that despite the fact that 85% of Americans support expanding background checks to all gun sales, and most NRA members support it when they actually look at the facts, the dominance of gun manufacturers in the NRA impedes much progress. Which is not how it used to be. The NRA used to support expanding background checks, but that’s changed as manufacturers have become so dominant and so powerful in that organization. They use fear and lies to misinform people, and the worst part is they use a lot of money to stop people [who are pushing for reform] from presidential candidates on down to local, state, and Congressional representatives. The other very powerful thing they have in terms of social outreach success is this group of people that are so angry and good at yelling, and they are damn persistent. So you look at that dynamic and see this organization, whose sole objective is basically selling more guns, misleading the American people and hindering the government from making real reforms. I think that is our biggest obstacle.
KG: You mentioned earlier President Obama’s recent executive actions and his comments related to gun safety measures. Do you see that as a signal that some real change is going to be happening in the coming years, or are you doubtful?
JG: I’m optimistic about it, and I think the whole movement is optimistic. What President Obama did is not going to stop the gun problem in America. It’s pretty hard to count the number of guns out there, but it’s a lot – 300 million is one estimate. I don’t think it’s going to stop gun violence anytime soon, but I think what President Obama did was a first step, it was taking a stand, saying, “Being a Democrat and being in this office means being responsible.” He took a step this Congress wouldn’t, and what he does can be picked up by the next presidential candidate. It’s now entered the mainstream conversation. If you look at marriage equality, for example, it’s similar. There were setbacks – Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, and then there was DOMA, and Prop 8 in California. It’s this back and forth. But you look at this moment and you see it becoming a major part of public conversation when it wasn’t before. And I think if you look to history, the side of common sense always prevails, and there’s only so much fear mongering that can happen. I do think we’ve hit this tipping point in America, where people are starting to look at things differently. Because these mass shootings keep on happening, people are really, I think, becoming more enlightened and looking at the facts on this issue. So I think the NRA’s hold is going to be more and more based on money and funding instead of perhaps public opinion. It’s become more commonplace to understand and promote common sense gun laws. I also think we are going to see more of a movement for social responsibility. You are going to see more on domestic abuse and how that ties in with gun violence. You’re going to see more on bad apple dealers.
KG: You’ve worked in other states besides Illinois. How do Illinois’ gun laws stack up against other states?
JG: Illinois actually has moderately good gun laws, we have a FOID card system, Chicago has great gun laws, though Chicago’s not the whole state, and when you get out of Cook County it’s easier to get guns. But if you look at the states bordering Illinois, they have terrible gun laws. Missouri, right next door, Indiana, terrible gun laws, Wisconsin, pretty bad gun laws. But it’s those states with terrible gun laws that contribute 60% of the guns to the gun violence problem in Chicago. Across the nation, though, you see this trend that states with better gun laws do have fewer gun deaths. But let’s compare New York, LA, and Chicago – they all have pretty strong gun laws. Of the three, New York has the lowest gun violence rate, but it is bordered by Connecticut and New Jersey, which also have strong gun laws. LA has fewer gun deaths per person than Chicago, but also sits next to Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, where guns are smuggled in. So it’s not necessarily about how one state’s gun laws impact its own gun problem – they do impact it – but if you’re a state sitting next to another state with terrible gun laws, then you’re still going to have a terrible gun violence problem.
KG: What can be done to address that? Can we make our borders less porous in that regard, or do we simply need a nationwide, uniform set of gun control laws?
JG: A couple things. There are many states that have passed expanded Brady Background checks and have seen a decrease in gun violence. That’s a fact. But we need a federal measure, because, again, if I live in California I am only as safe as the guns coming from Nevada. And the other thing is – and this is important – don’t use the term “gun control.” “Gun control” is bait language for people that immediately want to write you off. If you say, “gun violence prevention,” that’s more accurate. We are not trying to control people or control guns, we just want to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong people.
KG: How can people take action on this issue through the Brady Campaign?
JG: You can go to bradycampaign.org and explore and learn more. A quick thing that doesn’t cost any money is you call your Congressperson wherever you are and you say, “I support expanded Brady background checks.” There’s that line from, I think, President Roosevelt: “Give me an excuse to do it.” Give them an excuse to vote their conscience. These legislators are with us, they just hear more from the other side than they do us. So we can change that dynamic. The other thing people can do is sign up to stop bad apple gun dealers, there are bad apple gun dealers in every state, every city, supplying guns for crimes. So they can sign up and get involved with the campaign, and do protests to increase public pressure for reform.