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AUSTIN, Texas — Central Texas Gun Works is in a nondescript strip mall in the southern part of Texas’ capital city. It’s a gun store and firearm training center that’s located, somewhat improbably, two doors down from an acupuncture center. Customers can buy handguns and long guns, as well as a miniature pink firearm with “My First Rifle” engraved on the stock. Posters from the National Rifle Association gild the waiting room. T-shirts saying “Buy a Gun. Annoy a Liberal” are also for sale.
It’s into this Texas microcosm that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dropped a depth charger.
Using $50 million of his personal fortune, Bloomberg last month launched a coalition to champion issues like mandatory background checks for private firearm sales. Called Everytown for Gun Safety, the alliance, which has rolled out in 15 states including Texas, intends to counter the cultural and political might of gun rights groups by introducing legislative reform in statehouses. It focuses not on the limitation of gun rights — a red flag to Second Amendment advocates — but on the reduction of the types of violence brought about by lax gun-safety laws. Everytown will concentrate on the lack of background checks in private sales, gun ownership’s role in domestic violence, fatalities among children who accidentally fire a weapon, and the everyday gun violence experienced by inner city communities.
But even with this soft messaging, frontier states like Texas won’t make it an easy sell. Gun ownership in Texas crosses political lines. While local Republican politicians run on a Second Amendment rights platform as a matter of course, even Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis proclaimed her support for the open carry of handguns. During the last legislative session, conservative legislators successfully passed a number of pro-gun bills, including one that reduced the number of training hours required for concealed handgun owners to get a license.
Michael Cargill, Central Texas Gun Works’ owner, is emblematic of the slippery Texas gun story.
A courteous and powerfully built man in cowboy boots, he fits into a typically Lone Star stereotype of Western masculinity. But he’s also black and openly gay, which are far less associated with people in his position. Cargill became an instructor after his grandmother was mugged and raped. The incident motivated him to offer firearm lessons — which he said have an enrollment of 5,000 and are female-dominated — to empower women.
Keeping one stern eye on the store’s security camera feed while talking to Al Jazeera, Cargill said he isn’t cavalier about gun safety. As a licensed gun dealer, he said, he studiously runs federal background checks on his buyers. He ships online orders only to other licensed dealers. His clients are responsible folk, he emphasized, who wish to learn firearm safety and compliance with Texas regulations — of which, he added archly, there are many.
But to Cargill, rampant gun violence is a manufactured problem of the left. He dismissed claims that preventable crimes occur when firearms fall into the wrong hands.
“Why focus our attention on firearms when the number of handguns used in a crime is so small compared to automobile fatalities?” he asked.
Moreover, he believes the volume of private gun sales is small compared with those that happen in gun shops like his. And regarding those transactions that occur between private individuals or at a gun show? A seller of a secondhand car isn’t required to vet the buyer, he argued, so why impose such regulation on the firearm trade?
Yet for gun-safety advocates, that private sale loophole, which requires no background check and which they argue applies to 40 percent (PDF) of gun exchanges in the U.S., is precisely what they hope to regulate.
At the launch of Everytown for Gun Safety in Austin, state Rep. Elliott Naishtat announced that some House members plan to introduce “reasonable gun control measures” in the next legislative session. This might include the expansion of background checks for private sales and gun shows, though he later told Al Jazeera that the details are still evolving.
Bloomberg’s Everytown coalition may provide the extra firepower that legislators like Naishtat need. Incorporating Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which claims nearly 1,000 mayors as members, as well as prominent Texas board members like Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Everytown hopes to increase its Lone Star traction. The group’s advocacy arm will provide voters with candidate scorecards for the congressional midterms, while a voter campaign aims to mobilize voters toward politicians that support gun safety.
The mom factor
But the real game changer may be the deployment of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the group that launched after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and that claims 150,000 members (PDF) across the U.S. By deploying mothers as field workers to galvanize the much-desired women’s vote, Everytown intends to add emotional force to local legislative efforts. Indeed, if Everytown’s first video spot about what happens when a little girl discovers an unsecured gun is anything to go by, a visceral response from the would-be voter is exactly what the group is going for.
Moms Demand Action is gathering momentum in Texas. Claiming upwards of 2,000 supporters in the state, the group has chapters in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, spokeswoman Stephanie Lundy said. Last year in Austin, its lobbying efforts contributed to the cancellation of a major gun show permit when the organizers refused to implement mandatory background checks. More recently, Moms Demand Action inveigled its way into a legislative committee hearing to which only gun rights groups had been invited. The group’s grassroots events, which are something of a blend between a neighborhood block party and an urgent moral crusade, will appeal to parents’ roles as community guardians.
“Our moms in Texas are looking for leaders who vote for common-sense gun laws, for gun laws that protect their children,” Lundy said. “If there are leaders that are not voting to protect children, then they will be voted out of office and replaced. It’s as simple as that.”
Moms Demand Action’s mainstream appeal is advanced perhaps by its polar opposites in the political arena. Open Carry Texas, a Second Amendment rights advocacy group whose members appear outside most Moms events bearing assault rifles, exists to educate Texans about their legal right to carry long arms in public. According to its Facebook pages, it has chapters in 40 Texas counties and tallies more than 4,000 members.
To bemused onlookers browsing stalls at the Texas Book Festival or stuck in traffic jams, its members proselytize about liberty while carrying rifles slung across their backs. But there’s a misogynist edge to their work, too. Open Carry Texas members frequently level sexually violent threats against Moms activists on Facebook and Twitter. Last month, when a Plano woman, intimidated by the sight of armed gunmen on the street, called the police, Open Carry Texas obtained a recording of the call and published the woman’s name and number on YouTube. The woman received so many threatening calls from gun rights advocates that she changed her number, Lundy said.
Outside the venue of Everytown’s launch in Austin, a small clutch of armed people stood waving flags bearing a logo from the Texas War of Independence. Their spokesman, James Everard, an eight-year Army combat veteran from Killeen, made the familiar argument about the freedoms enjoyed by sellers of secondhand cars.
“This is all about personal liberties,” he said, noting that “most responsible firearms dealers won’t sell to people they don’t know.”
A press statement issued by the group later that day likened Everytown to Nazi Germany and warned of Bloomberg’s intention to “bind the hands of law-abiding citizens [in an] ever-expanding ocean of tyranny.”
But rhetoric like this only galvanizes the work of Moms Demand Action.
And public opinion may be on the group’s side. A nonpartisan poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin last year found that Texans overwhelmingly support background checks for all gun sales in the U.S. It’s this kind of “common sense” law that Everytown and its mass of politicized moms hope to enable.
“Texas is a significant state, culturally and legislatively,” said Kellye Burke, chapter leader for Moms Demand Action–Texas. “When we have women making waves in Texas, it’s motivating to women in small towns everywhere.”