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Tough mothers, demanding action 

Interest in the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action has exploded since the massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High in Florida. Leaders here say they're in the battle for 'gun sense' until the job is done.

click to enlarge 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.
  • 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 checkbook of the National Rifle Association, which they unfailingly call "The Gun Lobby." But they will also tell you it is a fight they believe can be won bit-by-bit, even in Arkansas.

A million me's

One of those there for the training at Fletcher Library was Mariam Hopkins. A Little Rock lawyer who recently became an adoptive mother again at 55, Hopkins said that it was Parkland and the courage displayed by the teens who survived the massacre there that made her turn her beliefs into action. "These are high school seniors who should be thinking about college and going on with their lives," she said. "They're high school students who should be enjoying their high school years. And here they are doing what the adults should be doing. It was a motivation for me to get up and get with it."

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 me's out there — and I do think there are a million me's out there — then it can change."

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 since Parkland, most of them committed to help get gun safety legislation passed in Arkansas.

click to enlarge '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.
  • '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 along, because we'd rather see it happen sooner rather than later, but I think there are a couple of things that come to mind. One, a lot of parents watched on the news when a bunch of kids were running out a school with their hands behind their heads, and it was terrifying. So I think that when people see that, there's not really a way to look away from it. It's a really in-your-face tragedy." Bailey said she got involved as a volunteer for Moms Demand Action after it became clear that the nation was becoming numb to gun violence. A walking encyclopedia of gun violence statistics, Bailey can reel them off at will: 93 Americans killed every day by guns. A doubling of the instances of road-rage shootings in the past five years. A suicide rate in gun-owning homes that is catastrophically higher than in homes without guns. "Mass shootings get lots of attention, but the fact of the matter is that if you go any deeper, you see that's not even the tip of the iceberg," she said. "We have 50 women a month killed by husbands, boyfriends, ex's with guns. Seven kids a day are killed by guns. That doesn't happen in other countries, and I am so fed up listening to people who say, 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' Well, guess what? All around the world, people are angry. All around the world, people are poor. All around the world people are mentally ill. There is nothing special about us except that we can go out and get a gun right now."

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 houses, when you put guns in college dorm rooms, you are knowingly putting young people in danger, and you're doing that because the gun lobby is paying you to do it. I'm really angry about that," she said. While the NRA claims to be a membership organization, Bailey said, the group is not there to serve individual gun owners and does not mirror the ideas of their membership when it comes to issues like whether to allow sales to the mentally ill or concealed carry in bars.

"It's a trade industry," Bailey said. "The $35 a year that NRA members pay to get their free totebag, that is not the money that's going into politicians' pockets. They have this really phenomenal system where the better they are at selling the idea of freedom, manhood and masculinity in the form of a gun, every time they sell a gun they have more money to sell more guns. It's brilliant."

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 is a bad idea," she said. "I think the vast majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, think guns in classrooms is not a good idea. We're not driving the bus, though. The gun lobby is driving the bus. The disconnect is awareness about the radical and extreme views and laws the gun lobby is pushing."

Losing forward

If 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 justify sitting idle, stewing in my anger and doing nothing of substance with it," she said. "Not for one more minute. Enough is enough and we cannot continue to give thoughts and prayers, alone. Every single victim of gun violence in this country deserves better."

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."

click to enlarge HEADING UP CABOT EFFORT: Jessica Rogers, shown here with her 3-year-old daughter, Jessie, said she could not "justify sitting idle" after Parkland.
  • 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 common sense gun policies everywhere that can help prevent gun violence, even in our red state of Arkansas," she said. "If we can all put partisan political nonsense aside and focus on making smarter policies, we can create safer communities. Talk is cheap and now is the time for action. When moms demand action, change is possible."

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 common sense gun legislation," she said. "For example: criminal background checks on all gun sales. We do believe that guns don't belong everywhere. We want to see them kept out of sensitive places like schools and bars, and places I go with my kid. I think it's very hard for people to hear that. I think that guns are very deeply baked into our culture. I grew up around guns. My dad was a hunter, and many of my friends are gun owners. It's not the responsible gun owners that are the issue." Often wearing her Moms Demand Action shirt when she goes out, Storm said she's had conversations with many gun owners, the majority of whom are respectful and interested in her point of view. She often finds common ground on issue like background checks and rigorous training for concealed carry permit holders. As a college professor, she said she feels that the "campus carry" bill rammed through the legislature is "a horrible idea" that doesn't make anyone safer.

"In fact, I think it increases danger on campus," she said. "I don't think classrooms where students are confronted with challenging ideas are the place for a gun. I don't think that teachers' offices during office hours, where sometimes there are difficult conversations happening, is the place for a gun. .... I've had students talk with me about this, and they say — it doesn't come from me — but they say things like, 'Hormones and guns are not a good idea. Guns, alcohol and hormones are a terrible idea.' I love college students. But I know that self-control and self-restraint are not always their strengths."

Though change on guns will no doubt come slowly to Arkansas, Storm said what she's learned since joining Moms makes her believe there is room for compromise going forward. "I think there are more people out there that agree with us than don't, when they stop to hear what it is we're advocating for," she said. "But that is the hard part. We are a nonpartisan organization. It's a fairly big tent, and we're not looking to deny anybody their rights. So yes, I do believe there's room."

click to enlarge 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.
  • 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. Its first meeting in late February, just after the Valentine's Day slaughter at Parkland, attracted more than 100 volunteers. "That exceeded all my expectations for an initial meeting," she said. "There's definitely energy here, and I have friends on both sides of the aisle who are interested in Moms Demand Action. So I don't think being in a red area should limit us as an 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 as being anti-gun, even though that's not true. My husband is a concealed carry permit holder. He likes to go hunting. A lot of our members are gun owners. But we know we can make it safer and reduce this burden."

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 Jorgensen

Eve 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."

click to enlarge 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. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • 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 studies show largely agree with her on issues like required background checks for every gun sale.

"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 people, and want to protect our kids. That's what we all want: a safer community. ... We want to work within the Second Amendment to make safer gun laws for our country. Our gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than any other developed nation. We have more guns than any other developed nation. There's no denying that those things go together."

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 hundreds more volunteers willing to bring the fight. She feels that permit-free concealed carry, which has passed in other states, may be next on the agenda for Arkansas. A big part of the problem, she said, is the NRA, and the seemingly limitless supply of money they have to push guns into more places while selling their members on evermore extreme ideas about firearms.

"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.' If, God forbid, something happened where my kid was involved in an unintentional shooting or was shot at school, I would want to know that I did everything I could to prevent it."

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON
  • 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.
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