After the Sandy Hook shooting claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school almost three years ago, Margaret Heldring and a small cohort of friends felt compelled to take action on gun violence.
“Many, many people across the country found that to be a turning point and felt called to activism,” Heldring said, “and a group of us did, as well.”
What began as four women — all grandmothers of children ages 6 and 7 at the time — having lunch and discussing the tragedy has since ballooned to an organized effort encompassing more than 500 people.
“We became foot soldiers in that movement,” she said.
Since January 2013, Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV) has become another voice in what Heldring believes is a national shift in how people are combatting gun violence in their communities.
“We pride ourselves on being activists who show up,” said Heldring, the group’s president. “We are a grassroots organization, and we respond to and we initiate activities that raise the profile on how extensive a problem gun violence is and offer solutions and support reasonable proposed solutions.”
The group, which has many members from Madison Park and holds general meetings at Mount Zion Baptist Church (1634 19th Ave.), “works collaboratively with other groups to reduce gun violence and remedy the complex societal factors that contribute to a culture of gun violence,” according to its mission statement.
Much of the work the group has done thus far has been focused on legislative activity. It was an ardent supporter of Initiative 594, for universal background checks on gun sales and transfers, and targeted senior citizens in its education and voter turnout efforts. On the local level, the group hosted a mayoral debate in 2013 between Ed Murray and Mike McGinn on the topic of reducing gun violence.
Public education programs — focused on everything from the meaning of the Second Amendment, to the role of mental illness in gun violence — have also been held, and the group has worked to develop a “Take Action to Help End Gun Violence” resource card for people that lists emergency phone numbers to call in an instance where someone is worried that a family member, friend or acquaintance is in danger of harming themselves or others.
Back in August, the group marched from Sam Smith Park to City Hall with Seattle City Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Bagshaw in support of legislation that would tax gun sales and ammunition, with the revenue going to research for gun violence prevention. The City Council unanimously passed both that measure and a companion bill requiring the mandatory reporting of lost and stolen firearms.
Heldring said what makes GAGV different is the members’ “age and stage of life.”
While not everyone is technically a grandmother, Heldring noted most of those involved have more time to spare than younger adults. Many of her group’s members are retired from strong leadership roles in their communities and are now able to turn their time and energy to this issue.
And though there are plenty of other gun-control advocacy groups around the state and across the country, Heldring said the goal is to work with each of them to craft a solution.
“We’re very much committed to partnership in this and really know that success will come as we’re all working together,” Heldring said.
Moving forward, the group will try to build on the success of its walk in August and is planning to organize more half-day marches around the state to raise the profile of gun-safety efforts.
Liz Brandzel, who serves on the organization’s steering committee, said those walks would be with the idea of “helping people to realize that this is something we all need to speak out about.”
Beyond that, the focus has also turned to the 2016 legislative session. In the coming year, the group will push for legislation regarding child access prevention (safe storage for guns and ammunition) and extreme risk protection orders (which would allow for families to get help for a family member that they believe is in danger of harming themselves or others).
“It’s very encouraging for us to be supporting legislation that helps to restrict who has a gun when someone would not be safe,” Brandzel said.
Ultimately, the group wants to continue education efforts, both for itself and others, to get a better grasp of what the problem is and, in turn, what the solutions may be. That includes engaging with people on the other side of the issue.
“We’re really interested in trying to break down the barrier of we [and] they, us against them, that exists around the issue of guns,” Heldring said.
Growing the group
Brandzel noted that moving forward, the group’s growth will be calculated and steady.
“We don’t want to grow too fast, where we are ambitious or ahead of our abilities,” she said. “So we’re going a step at a time.”
However, Heldring said she hopes the group will hit the 1,000-member mark by the end of next year. Ultimately, she said, the tide is turning both locally and nationally in regard to gun control and gun violence.
“I think, whether we see it commercially or legislatively or in the media, people have awakened to what a huge problem this is,” Heldring said, “and are moving steadily, and it will accelerate steadily toward, ‘We do need to do something about this.’”
To learn more about Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, visit www.grandmothersagainstgunviolence.org or like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/GrandmothersAgainstGunViolence.
The group’s final general meeting of the year is Nov. 17 at 10 a.m. at Mount Zion Baptist Church.
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