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‘Not A Party,’ Gun-Safety Advocates Meet Quietly In Atlanta

Jennifer Lugar attends Friday’s kickoff event for Gun Sense University, a two-day conference in Atlanta put on by the gun-safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action. Lugar said she was inspired, in part by her work for Moms Demand Action during the 2016 election, to apply to fill an empty seat on the borough council in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where she lives. In Atlanta, over 1,200 advocates trained on a range of organizing strategies as well as running for public office.
Jennifer Lugar attends Friday’s kickoff event for Gun Sense University, a two-day conference in Atlanta put on by the gun-safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action. Lugar said she was inspired, in part by her work for Moms Demand Action during the 2016 election, to apply to fill an empty seat on the borough council in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where she lives. In Atlanta, over 1,200 advocates trained on a range of organizing strategies as well as running for public office.
Credit Kate Brumback / Associated Press

More than 1,000 gun-safety advocates met in Atlanta over the weekend.

Organizers for Moms Demand Action had two big priorities for this annual volunteer conference: safety and efficiency. That meant keeping the name of the downtown hotel out of news reports and social media.

“Yeah, so this is not a convention, this is not a party. It is a time for us to come together and learn from one another and train, and that’s hard work. Like we really need to dig in and focus, and we need to be in a space where we can hear each others’ voices,” said Stephanie Grabow, who traveled from Indiana. She’s come to all five of these annual meetings, known as Gun Sense Universities.

More than 300 survivors of gun violence gathered for the event.

“They can come here pretty raw. And we need them in the movement. I think we need to create a space where they feel comfortable to share their experiences with us, and where we can hear their experiences with our full hearts. That can be private sometimes,” Grabow said.

Speaker and volunteer La’Shea Cretian has lived with bullets in her body since 1996.

“That’s when a .38 caliber came into my family’s home and I was shot five times by my ex-boyfriend,” Cretian said.

He shot and killed himself that night as well.

In a moment of down time, she was helping to cut out printed prompts for a public speaking exercise. For Cretian, who began telling her story in church, sharing her own experience is not as difficult as hearing from so many others.

“Sometimes I just can’t stop crying because I want to help. For me to stand up and say that I made it, and I have someone next to me and their family member didn’t make it, that’s when it just gets so personal,” she said.

Overall, 1,200 advocates trained on a range of organizing strategies as well as running for public office. The turnout was double that of 2017. The first event in Denver five years ago saw 60 attendees.

Moms Demand membership increased by about 200,000 in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting earlier this year. Founder Shannon Watts says the tragedy was one motivation among many.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing. I do think that women are feeling very empowered since the election of Donald Trump, and they want to either be activists or they want to run for office, and we fill that niche for them,” Watts said.

Volunteers in red and orange Moms Demand Action gear filled the hotel halls between dozens of training panels including “Running for Office,” “Advanced Lobbying” and “The Importance of Self-Care for a Gun Safety Activist.”

In one session, a panel of speakers from New York, Baltimore and Milwaukee emphasized the importance of playing a supportive role for the work many community-based gun violence prevention groups have been doing for years.

One volunteer from Albany, New York, raised the issue of the role of race in gun violence activism: How to navigate the plain fact that many in her chapter are white residents from the suburbs who may be less than fully focused on gun violence in communities of color? A lot to discuss there, came the replies.

“In the last year, 40 percent of the new employees we’ve hired are nonwhite. We are incredibly focused on diversifying our leadership and our volunteers,” said Watts. “We want to make sure that the organization looks like what America looks like and what this issue of gun violence itself looks like.”