- MARCHING FOR SENSIBLE GUN LAWS: A crowd of between 3,000 and 4,000 people marched on the state Capitol with Moms Demand Action and Arkansas students on March 24.
On March 13, a month after a student armed with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and didn't stop shooting until 17 people, most of them his former classmates, were dead, about a dozen people met at Fletcher Library in Little Rock so presenters with the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America could teach them how to become warriors in the ongoing battle for common sense.
Most of those there that evening, willing to spend an hour and a half inside even as spring threatened to riot just beyond the windows, were mothers, many of them still dressed in their business casual from work. They got the basics: how to make presentations about guns that people across the political spectrum can agree with; how to be firm but polite, even when talking about a subject many of them are passionate about; how to talk one-on-one to people who might not agree with them on what has become, in many cases, the simultaneous third rail and immovable object of Arkansas politics — our state's love affair with guns, and the steadfast, near-conspiratorial belief that any attempt at gun control, even in cases involving those who are mentally ill or demonstrably dangerous, is a slippery slope that will eventually lead to bans and wholesale confiscation.
Since the Valentine's Day massacre in Parkland, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — a group founded by Shannon Watts, a mother of five, in December 2012 after the slaughter of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — has seen interest skyrocket from people ready to join the fight. Whether Parkland was the straw that finally broke the camel's back on the subject or the voices of young survivors encouraged others to do the same, by the week after the Parkland shooting the national headquarters of the group told media outlets they'd already been contacted online or through social media by over 75,000 Americans expressing interest in joining. It is a wave of outrage and interest that broke hard enough to reach inland to Arkansas as well. The leaders of the state's growing local chapters say there has been an influx of at least 700 new volunteers since Parkland, with the number of chapters in the state doubling from five to 10 and groups flourishing in unlikely, gun-loving places like Cabot and Batesville.
The Arkansas leaders of Moms Demand Action describe a constant, uphill battle against entrenched ideas and the seemingly bottomless
Also attending the training at Little Rock was Mahala Gallegos, who was there with her two daughters, Christi Gallegos and Chalina Mora. All residents of the small community of Ward, they had attended the first meeting of the Cabot chapter of Moms the previous week. Like Hopkins, the three women agreed that the courage they've seen from the survivors of Parkland helped them decide to get more involved. "My brother is in high school," Christi Gallegos. "He's about to graduate. We shouldn't have to worry about him going to school. We shouldn't have to worry about anyone going to school."
Like them, Hopkins said that she believes something is different this time — that maybe the dam of public outrage that has stubbornly held through other massacres may have cracked. "One me, I know, is not going to make a difference," Hopkins said. "I know that I alone cannot make a difference. But if I feel like there's a million
Austin Bailey is the Little Rock group lead for Moms Demand Action, and spent over two years heading the statewide chapter. She said the group has seen a huge influx of volunteers
- 'COMMON SENSE HAS GONE OUT THE WINDOW': Austin Bailey, Little Rock group leader for Moms Demand Action, is angry about Arkansas legislators decision to allow guns on college campuses.
"The young people really have embraced the movement," Bailey said. "They're the ones that are going to get it over the finish line. I don't think anybody has any doubt about that now. We're here to land some good blows and help them along so it's easier when they get to that. Maybe we can move it
A veteran of several recent legislative fights over guns in Arkansas, Bailey was one of those who spoke out during public comments on HB 1249, the "campus carry" bill pushed through the legislature last January that created a special "advanced" concealed carry permit that allows the holder to carry a handgun onto a college campus, including into dorms and frat houses. She said the "guns everywhere" approach of the NRA is dangerous.
"Common sense has gone out the window," Bailey said. "When you put guns in college frat
"It's a trade industry," Bailey said. "The $35 a year that NRA members pay to get their free
After talking to people all over the state about guns, including gun owners who have seen her out in her red Moms shirt and struck up conversations about her beliefs, Bailey said she believes there is room for compromise on the issue of gun safety in Arkansas. "I think the vast majority of Americans know that guns in bars
Losing forwardIf you never stray far from the interstates in Arkansas, it's easy to forget just how conservative it can be out there beyond the urban islands of blue and their purplish suburbs. Ironically, or perhaps defiantly, it's in the communities adrift in the sea of red where Moms Demand Action has seen its biggest explosion of growth in the weeks and months since Parkland.
Jessica Rogers is the local group leader of the new Moms group that just started in Cabot. The group plans to have its second meeting in mid-April. The mother of kids between the ages 16 and 3, Rogers said she discovered the Arkansas chapters of Moms Demand Action after watching the horrifying events at Parkland unfold on social media. "I was at home preparing for my children to arrive [from school] when the news of Parkland broke out," she said. "I remember breaking down in tears as my own children came home safely through the door that day."
After spending the afternoon in heartbreak, Rogers said, she went on to watch as the children of Parkland rose to speak for their dead friends. "I watched them summon the fortitude to demand action and demand it loudly. I could not
The Cabot group has about 25 people, Rogers said. They plan to hold monthly meetings at the Cabot Library and to set up tables at events. Far from the stereotype of a gun-grabber often conjured up on the right, Rogers said she and her husband are both hunters who strongly support the Second Amendment. "To me, this issue of gun violence should matter to every American," she said. "I am a gun owner and have been for over 10 years. My husband and I are also hunters. Although we hunt primarily with bows, we have also hunted with guns. Responsible gun ownership isn't the issue. One of the problems I see is how easy it is for people to get guns who should not have them in the first place. That creates a dangerous situation for everyone. One I feel there is more we can do to prevent."
- HEADING UP CABOT EFFORT: Jessica Rogers, shown here with her 3-year-old daughter, Jessie, said she could not "justify sitting idle" after Parkland.
The issue is bigger than politics, Rogers believes. She thinks the gun safety measures proposed by Moms can and should be a nonpartisan movement.
"I believe we can put forth
Laura Storm, who leads the Arkadelphia group, helped found the chapter in May of last year. A music professor at Henderson State University since 2001, Storm said there are about two dozen people in the group she leads, which doesn't include 30 more who have expressed interest but haven't been about to make it out to a meeting yet. "Right after Parkland," Storm said, "I had eight people the very next week sign up to go to [Arkansas U.S. Rep.] Bruce Westerman's town hall here in Arkadelphia. That room was on fire about gun issues. There were several people who joined us after that."
Storm said she first got interested in gun laws in America after the Sandy Hook massacre. Her infant daughter had been in daycare for about six months by then. "I had just gone back to work, and I just remember thinking then how much I wanted to do something," she said. "That was not the time in my life to do that, but last January, after the Women's March, there was a tabling event.* I walked in there and saw the Moms Demand Action table, and learned that there was a bill in the legislature about putting guns on college campuses. Since I am a college professor and I feel very protective of my students and my colleagues, I thought that I really wanted to be involved in that. So I wanted to be involved in fighting that piece of legislation."
Never politically active before — "I'm an artist, not a politician," she said — Storm said the election of Donald Trump had some bearing on her getting involved in the fray. The more she looks into the issue, Storm said, the more clear it becomes that politicians of both parties are reluctant to move forward on what she called "common sense" gun laws.
"I think that in the very polarized political environment we find ourselves, it's very hard for people to hear our message, which is that we believe it's possible to respect the Second Amendment while still enacting
"In fact, I think it increases danger on campus," she said. "I don't think classrooms
- INSPIRED BY BRAVE STUDENTS: Lawyer Mariam Fletcher attended the Moms Demand Action training session at Fletcher Library so she could turn her beliefs into action.
Stephannie Baker, the Bentonville group's leader, has seen even more dramatic interest in the organization.
Baker became interested in Moms as the "campus carry" bill was working its way through the legislature in February 2017. While Moms gets smeared as left-wing gun-grabbers by the NRA and much of the far right, Baker stresses that the group is nonpartisan and believes that common sense gun laws should have support across the aisle.
"As an organization, we support the Second Amendment," she said. "We just believe that there are obvious things we can change about our laws to prevent further gun violence deaths. That being said, I'm fully aware that we have a reputation
Across the state, Baker said, one thing the group stresses is gun safety, including keeping guns locked and unloaded. "That is a message that we can really bring to Benton County that people would be receptive to," she said. "I think if we could get people to come to the table and speak with us, they'll realize we're not a radical, 'take your guns away' kind of group."
All that said, Baker acknowledges that to change gun laws, there will likely have to be a change in Congress. Public opinion on the issue is evolving, she said, and Democratic and Republican legislators can either change with it or be replaced by the voters. "I don't know how long it will take, but we are very used to this battle," Baker said. "We tell ourselves every day, 'It's a marathon, not a sprint, and we're going to lose some.' We lost HB 1249. That's the law now. But we say, 'We lose forward.' People were so aggravated that we gained memberships in three cities where we didn't have local groups. After Parkland, we now have 10 local groups. A year ago, we had one in Little Rock. That was it. If we lose, we're going to lose forward. We're going to keep fighting. We're not going to stop. We're going to keep going."
The three hats of Eve JorgensenEve Jorgensen has three full-time jobs. By day, she's a technician with Central Arkansas Water, helping keep current the complicated digital map of Little Rock's hydrants, valves and water meters and their specs. At night, though, her other full-time jobs begin: Being a mother of two kids, 7 and 3, and leading the booming, statewide chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
"It has been pretty wild," she said. "I took over last fall right before the Las Vegas shooting. We saw a lot of growth right after that. We had our Moms five-year celebrations and planned celebrations for five cities, and then Parkland happened. It's been going a hundred miles an hour since then. I work all day at CAW and I work all night on Moms."
- Brian Chilson
- EVE JORGENSEN: The leader of the statewide chapter of Moms Demand Action, a speaker at the March 24 event, believes gun owners want more safeguards.
It was taking her son to his first day of kindergarten, she said, that got her interested in working with the group. "He's kind of a little guy for his age," she said. "Watching him walk into that big school, it dawned on me the reality of schools in our country. I decided I wanted to do something. ... I didn't want to just sit home and worry. I wanted to do something proactive. So I got involved. I really jumped in with both feet."
Originally the social media lead for the group, a position that required her to keep abreast of local news, Jorgensen said it was eye-opening to see the reality of gun violence in Central Arkansas. Like others we interviewed, Jorgensen said the Arkansas chapter has experienced exponential growth since the Parkland shooting, culminating in the massive "March for Our Lives" event that drew thousands — including hundreds of Moms Demand Action Members — to Little Rock on March 24 for a protest at the Arkansas State Capitol.
Like other leaders interviewed for this story, Jorgensen said that she doesn't believe the NRA truly represents gun owners, who
"That shouldn't be political," Jorgensen said. "But the gun lobby likes to make everything us against them. When you really talk to gun owners, most of them are reasonable
In Arkansas, Jorgensen said, her group would like to seek common ground in the legislature to try and enact more "gun sense" measures, including "red flag" laws that allow a judge to order the seizure of firearms from anyone who has been deemed a threat, stiffened laws to remove guns from those convicted of domestic violence or stalking and raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21. Still, as a veteran of the fight against "campus carry," Jorgensen knows what it's like trying to speak out against guns at the legislature.
"It was the most frustrating experience to be at the Capitol last January testifying against guns on campus, watching university presidents, police chiefs, campus security, everyone testifying against it," she said. "They looked us all in the face and said, 'We're going to vote for it anyway.' We had an NRA lobbyist standing next to the governor when he signed the bill."
While she called that session "terrible for gun legislation in Arkansas," she said she feels that Moms has momentum on its side and
"The NRA started out as a hunting and sportsman's group. Now, people are hunting less, they're buying fewer guns, and the NRA is pushing to sell accessories and different versions of the same thing that people already have," she said. "They say they have 5 million members, but there's no proof of that. They have a lot of money, maybe from Russia, we don't know. But they've changed significantly in the past few years. These videos with [NRA spokeswoman] Dana Loesch talking about the war on free speech and the war on this and that — it has nothing to do with guns."
Though she doesn't frame her experience that way, so much of Jorgensen's time with Moms Demand Action in Arkansas sounds like a study in frustration. One person she talked to suggested that if she was so worried about school shootings, she should pull her kids out of school and home-school them, because "you're just sitting at home doing nothing anyway." Another idea she hears constantly is remaking schools into fortresses, with cameras, metal detectors and teachers armed to the teeth.
In all things, though, Jorgensen is a data-driven person, and she believes the data show that working against "guns everywhere" is the best way to keep Arkansas safe. While Jorgensen admits she is not likely to see a sea-change on attitudes about gun safety in Arkansas in her lifetime, it's a race she and others are willing to start so others can grab the baton someday and finish.
"You have to try," Jorgensen said. "I'm not going to let them pass more and more gun laws without anyone coming and saying, 'That's a bad idea.'
- Brian Chilson
*A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that there was a Moms Demand Action information table at Henderson State University last year after the Women's March.