“This is a movement, not simply a moment, and this is only the first step in our long process.”
—Kara Litwin, Pope High School Senior
The new mobilization against gun violence has made my generation reflective. Many of us are the veterans of multiple movements—the Watts and Vietnam protests, the women’s and civil rights movements, the Million Woman and Science Marches, among many others. How did we learn what we needed to know to make a difference? Many of us had mentors, who pulled from their firsthand experiences in student protests, teach-ins, labor union organizing, strikes, and boycotts to bring us into the largely oral body of knowledge that has informed social resistance movements over time. But today, that knowledge is far more robust and accessible than it once was, and it has much to offer this new anti-gun violence movement.
While we continue to offer up stories, we also have strategies, theories, and evidence to share. Social movements do not have to be cooked from scratch; they can be wickedly concocted from recipes passed down and tested by those who came before. Even in our failures, there are lessons to be gleaned.
What are the key ingredients that those building today’s movements should consider as they go about the hard work of mobilization? Below, I draw from the framing and social movements literatures to offer three recommendations for the early care and feeding of an effective movement against gun violence.
- Tell an Explanatory Story. Every social movement tells a story and even social issue storytelling needs to follow the contours of narrative, but the kind of story you tell is critical to the long-term success of your movement.
- Build It Big. If you focus in too tightly on a small issue, your cause can easily outgrow your own movement and force you to start over.
- Build It to Last. Think about the organizations and infrastructures you can put in place to carry your vision far and wide over time.
Tell an Explanatory Story
Successful movements are about meaning-making. They challenge our acceptance of the world as immutable and provide both critique and optimism. As a result of the way they structure our understanding of the world, we feel engaged to reform and contest the status quo. But, in order to realize this potential, they must fit some of the basic parameters of the stories we know. Consensus has emerged across academic disciplines that study narrative: Stories must include an orientation, a plot, and a resolution.
But not all stories that meet these basic criteria work for social change. Those that do focus our attention on the social systems and structures that need to be fixed by revealing how they impede the outcomes we value. These “how the world works stories” fill in missing pieces in people’s everyday repertoire. They invite what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” overcoming the tendency to instantly evaluate all social issues through one’s partisan lens.
The crafting of explanatory stories holds great promise for those mobilizing against gun violence. Public opinion polls consistently show that, historically, Americans have been fairly evenly divided over stricter gun laws—but when the question is framed in terms of more specific gun restrictions, support for control climbs.1 This suggests that people’s thinking about guns benefits from focused, pragmatic discussion of “what causes what” without the hyperbole of polarized partisan politics.
What are the stories that have characterized the gun debate? On the gun rights side, the argument is largely framed around “principle, law, and practicality,” while on the anti-gun side, the arguments often “begin with numbers.”2 Opponents of gun control have a story that meets the criteria laid out above, while proponents do not. Here is how the two match up:
- GUN CONTROL OPPONENTS: This is about freedom (Orientation). A deranged person used a gun to kill people (Plot). We must arm ourselves if we are to be strong enough to protect against these people. (Resolution).
- GUN CONTROL PROPONENTS: 33,000 firearm deaths are enough (Orientation). The NRA and corrupt government are not even keeping children safe in our schools (Plot). A new generation will hold lawmakers accountable. (Resolution)
For want of specific research on guns—FrameWorks is now in the field doing just that!—we can still use framing theory and what we know from past research to outline a more effective explanatory story. That body of work strongly suggests that storytellers focus on how policies shape the structures and environments that influence outcomes for individuals and groups, and help people see how policies can help remake these contexts.
- A BETTER STORY FOR GUN CONTROL PROPONENTS: This is about responsible management of all our communities to ensure that everyone is free from violence (Orientation). It is irresponsible to have a system that allows so many guns to be in the hands of so many people. This is making us all less free and less safe (Plot). Our leaders need to fix the antiquated distribution system of guns to protect our communities. To do that, they will need to address the criminal justice and campaign finance systems, which make some communities even less safe and free. We will hold them accountable for these changes (Resolution).
This narrative puts the guns where they belong: as a tool in the larger story, an accomplice in actions that lead to Americans’ loss of freedom. This allows mobilizers against gun violence to contest the fundamental aspirational rationale of their opponents’ story: freedom and safety.
Moreover, the attention is no longer on the troubled individual, their family history, and missed signs, but rather on the history and volume of guns in communities, and the political behaviors of our leaders which allow this to continue. It specifically invites attention to communities of color, where violence has been used as a form of marginalization and social control. The call to action is about pragmatism, making progress in controlling machines that were not meant to be used in this way, and reforming systems that perpetuate risk across populations. This is to be accomplished through mass protest against the status quo, but also through the ballot box.
In this way, the new narrative comports with the most fundamental requirement of movement framing: “the conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understanding of the world and themselves that legitimate and motivate collection action.”3 Both parts of that equation are critical: a story that explains and highlights a role for collective action.
Facts can support a narrative—they just can’t be the narrative. The flooding of communities with guns, the unnecessary regression from earlier laws that banned many types of assault rifles, the lack of reliable data bases, the figures showing the wildly disproportionate risk of violence from police in communities of color…these are all important proof points in the story. But without a storyline, most people will struggle to make sense of those numbers.
So, to the student leaders of this new movement: Be explanatory storytellers. Use the power of story to make people smarter about the issues you know so well. Connect the dots for people and give them a complete story about how the world works that they can share with their social circles. Be explicit about the role that movement participants can play in that change.
Build It Big
“Why do citizens sometimes fail to act collectively on their shared grievances when the structural conditions appear otherwise ripe?” ask two scholars of social movements. Among their answers is the absence of a resonant master narrative, an overarching story that is big enough to allow the issue to grow and avoid constraining future actions and framing efforts.4 Or, as Jay Rosen defines it, “the story that organizes all the other stories.”5
Put simply, the way you explain the rationale for your movement now needs to be able to account for policies and actions that will need to be addressed down the road. Movements are costly, in terms of money and energy. And they take time to build and take effect. Their durability is directly related to the flexibility of the master narrative they craft and whether it can be relied upon to explain subsequent developments.
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The casebook example is the nuclear freeze compared to the civil rights movement. The former narrowly homed in on a mechanism of transport and, despite the fact that it was ubiquitous in the 1980s, was not sufficiently supple to allow subsequent anti-nuclear advocates to frame their policies within its narrative boundaries—it couldn’t “stretch.” By contrast, the civil rights movement, with its big, core belief of interdependence and the shared consequences of inequality, has been expansive and had space to fuel the women’s movement and gay rights, among many others.
In terms of gun violence, careful scrutiny needs to be used to make sure the master story you build is big enough to prevent it from being overtaken by events. To their credit, the Parkland mobilizers have already been quick to underscore an inclusive theme in their story. They have reached out to communities of color and have explicitly acknowledged that, for some, gun violence is a daily reality. But what’s needed ultimately is a story that’s bigger than guns, one that can accommodate multiple kinds of violence—with guns and without, in schools and in communities, by terrorists and by police. The story also needs to make visible the recent history of deinstitutionalization in this country and the budget cuts that have eroded prevention and treatment of mental illness.
Movement communicators can easily discover that the example becomes the story. The specificity of a setting (schools) or an antagonist (racist or mentally ill individuals) or a victim (an “innocent”) becomes so vivid and is repeated so often that it establishes criteria—it literally defines the story. Oh, we say, that is not “gun violence” because there wasn’t a gun (it was domestic or family violence) or because the gun was in the hands of a policeman, not a deranged person (it was police brutality). The story must be reinvented—pulled and stretched—each time if the action is not in schools, if the victims are adults, if the guns are in the hands of the police, if the violence is not an incident but ongoing, etc. How can students of the new gun control movement reframe their story?
This is one of the reasons that real inclusion is not window-dressing. When the framers of the master frame bring in multiple stakeholders, they are able to build out chapters in the metanarrative that map on to multiple examples. They can judge whether the narrative you are building works to explain the violence they experience, and this builds bigger coalitions for your story.
So, build it big enough to embrace multiple stakeholders, to endure both wins and losses and real-world changes, to move to new frontiers as they open up. The master narrative is one of your most valuable assets. Build to big principles that allow multiple instances of violence to be explained over time within your metanarrative.
Build It to Last
In the past, scholars have argued that “there has not been a true gun control movement in America.”6 By this, they mean that efforts to support gun control have not been as organized, sustained, or strategically focused on changing norms and laws as one might expect given the size of the social problem, the amount of media attention, and the incipient support for change. These observers assert that anti-gun efforts thus far have followed more of an interest-group model than a social movement model.
But there are important structural changes post-Parkland that suggest the emergence of a sustained social movement. First, there are new organizational players with staffs and resources that have been able to mobilize instantly. The New York Times reports that “by evening, one anti-gun group had…already sent out its first email” offering experts and resources.”7 This new infrastructure is able to deliver people to rallies, make calls on Congress and keep up the pressure when spring break or summer pulls students out of their networks. As Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) explained, “When Sandy Hook happened, the gun lobby was ready for us. They had been preparing for 20 years to take down those parents…There was no anti-gun movement. It just didn’t exist. Now, there is an increasingly mature political movement that can combine with the unique moral authority of the kids.”8
Young people have been at the center of both the Parkland mobilization and the Black Lives Matter movement. But by necessity, these young people will move in and out of activism as they pursue jobs and schools, run for office, or join on to other issues. Sustainability is among the anti-gun movement’s major challenges.
To overcome this challenge, the movement must be “housed.” It needs its own Highlander School, places where people can come to learn and share the tools of advocacy. The Advocacy Institute may be gone, but community organizers like PICO are going strong. Moreover, many colleges and universities offer courses in social movements and community organizing. But still, such places are currently few and far between.
And here is where philanthropy can play a major role in the movement. Social media may have helped to build the movement, but more diverse venues will be needed. Those coming up in the gun control movement need places to go to hone their skills, to compare tactics, and to argue through alternatives. By staying connected through organizational memberships and participation as well as through knowledge networks, today’s marchers should be able to move in and out of active periods and still contribute. Why are these places still so hard to find, so underfunded, so disconnected from movement scholars and practitioners?
No movement was built in a day. On this point, there is no one more eloquent than Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing about the importance of reflection and tactical reconsideration after what he considered to have been his failure in desegregating public spaces in Southwest Georgia through the Albany Movement, King said:
There is no tactical theory so neat that a revolutionary struggle for a share of power can be won merely by pressing a row of buttons. Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. Time and action are teachers. When we planned our strategy for Birmingham, we spent many hours assessing Albany and trying to learn from its errors.9
Every day brings a new variation on a question: Will this new movement against gun violence endure and succeed? We shouldn’t leave the answer to that question to chance. All of us have a role to play in rethinking, relearning and re-engineering the core ingredients of movement-building. As the recipes are rewritten and passed down, they become even more potent.
- Pérez-Peña, Richard. “Gun Control Explained.” New York Times, October 7, 2015.
- McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes—towards a synthetic, comparative perspective on social movements,” in Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6.
- Snow, David A. and Robert D. Benford, “Master Frames and Cycles of Protest,” in Aldon D. Morris and Carol M. Mueller, eds., Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press, p. 138.
- @jayrosen_nyu on Twitter.
- Goss, K. 2006. Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 11.
- Baker, Peter and Michael D. Shear. “Another Shooting, Another Gun Debate. Will the Outcome Be the Same?” New York Times, February 22, 2018.
- King, Martin Luther. 1964. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row.
Further Reading from FrameWorks
Bales, Susan. (2005). “Framing Lessons from the Social Movements Literature.” Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.
Bales, Susan. (Spring 2018). “The Case for Explanatory Stories.” Change Agent. Washington, DC: The Communications Network: 65-69.
O’Neil, Moira. (2007). “Movement Building Not Marketing: Framing Lessons from the Social Movements Literature.” Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.