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Their lives were changed by gun violence, and now they're running for office

Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam was inspired to run for office in North Carolina after three of her friends were killed by a neighbor in 2015.
Melissa Sue Gerrits
Getty Images
Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam was inspired to run for office in North Carolina after three of her friends were killed by a neighbor in 2015.

Earlier this year, the gun control group Everytown launched a new program to train its volunteers to run for office. More than 100 people are participating in Demand A Seat this year.

Among them is Mia Livas Porter, who is running for a California Assembly seat, and whose brother, Junior, took his own life with a gun after battling mental illness. She said that for years she felt powerless — but that changed when she joined Moms Demand Action, an arm of Everytown.

"I felt empowered to use my voice as a survivor. And I saw how it could make legislative change," Livas Porter said.

2021 has been an incredibly deadly year for gun violence, with more than 42,000 people killed in the United States so far, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. In big cities and small towns, in grocery stores, schools and homes, lives have been cut short by gunfire. And like Livas Porter, some people whose lives have been changed by gun violence are taking the step of running for public office.

"Running for office can be very isolating. So for me it was like coming home to be sharing this experience with fellow moms and Everytown volunteers and some survivors as well and so it was truly bringing me back to my base," said Livas Porter.

Training and mentorship

Participants in the Demand a Seat program get training in the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, crafting and delivering a message and fundraising. They also receive instruction and mentorship from current elected officials, including Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath, who herself is a former Moms Demand Action volunteer.

"I am a mom, but I'm a mom on a mission. I don't want anyone else in this country to ever, ever have to suffer from the pain and suffering and the tragic loss that we have suffered," said McBath, who became an activist after her son, Jordan, was fatally shot in 2012.

Six years later, when a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland Fla., it pushed McBath to run for Congress. She was first elected to her suburban Atlanta seat in 2018.

"If we won, then I was going to do everything in my power in Washington to elevate this issue in a way that no one in Congress would be able to turn their back on all the countless numbers of people dying in this country every single day," said McBath. "I know why I'm there."

Everytown, which Moms Demand Action is an arm of, spent about $55 million during the 2020 election.

"So many lawmakers have failed to address this crisis for so long," said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action. "We really want to replace those people with candidates who have a proven track record of standing up to the gun lobby, standing up for gun safety and winning."

Though Democrats have slim majorities in both chambers of Congress, even gun control proposals with bipartisan support among voters, like universal background checks and red-flag laws, have not gained traction.

"This country has a huge gun culture problem," said Maxwell Frost, who is running for an Orlando-area seat in Congress.

'Victim-centered, survivor-led and offender-sensitive'

Frost became active in the anti-gun violence movement when he was in high school, after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 28 people, including 20 children, dead.

He worked as the national organizing director for March For Our Lives, the group led by student survivors of the Parkland shooting, and said lawmakers need to look at the country's gun violence problem in a new way.

"You think, what do we need to do to end gun violence? Universal background checks, ban assault weapons and these are important things. Don't get me wrong, I'm going to fight like hell for these things once I'm a member of Congress. But this is what the NRA is counting on and us just spouting the same three policy points and hoping they'll pass."

Kina Collins, a longtime gun violence prevention activist, said policymakers don't talk enough about the conditions that lead to gun violence. She's challenging Democratic Congressman Danny Davis in a district that includes parts of Chicago.

"The shooters in these communities are not born wanting to be shooters. Society turns them into the shooters and circumstances turn them into shooters," she said. "And so how are we investing in prevention, instead of reaction?"

Collins said that she's running for Congress, because she believes the movement to end gun violence must be "victim-centered, survivor-led and offender-sensitive."

"And some people say, 'What does offender-sensitive mean?' That means that in places like Chicago where we experience everyday gun violence, the shooters live right next door to the victims," she said. "And so my whole job is to make sure that I'm bringing an intersectional approach to the conversation and to strike at the root causes of these issues, which are poverty, and a lot of other issues that lead to everyday gun violence and lack of access to health care."

A different type of violence inspired Nida Allam to run for office.

In 2015, three of her friends were killed by a neighbor at their apartment complex in Chapel Hill, N.C. The victims were all young Muslim students.

While it wasn't charged as such, the victims' families and friends described it as a hate crime. For Allam, it was a catalyst — and got her thinking.

"And that was really what made me so angry and frustrated because it felt like, you know, Muslim lives like weren't valued or important," she said. "I started looking at, what does our state actually have protections against these types of attacks?"

She began pressing her state's legislature to pass hate crime prevention legislation "so we can actually report and document these types of threats properly, so no one else has to lose their child." She ran for Durham County commissioner and won, and is now running for Congress.

"That was kind of where my organizing work really started to fruition, and looking at, how do other elected officials talk about Muslims?" said Allam. "We're constantly siloed and othered, and that contributes to the violence against us."

Watts, the Moms Demand Action founder, said that survivors of gun violence bring something unique to their campaigns.

"Gun violence survivors who channel their grief into action, whether it's activism or running for office. ... They're some of the most powerful activists for gun safety," she said. "They really force others to confront the human toll of gun violence."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.