For the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Shooting, which killed 26 children in Newtown, CT, activists in the town of Grinnell, Iowa, organized 26 Days of Action to protest and call attention to the National Rifle Association’s role in preventing gun control legislation. NRA president Pete Brownell lives in Grinnell
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. December 14 was the five-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Shooting, which took place in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and in which 26 students were killed in cold blood. It was the deadliest school shooting in US history. To commemorate the incident and to protest against the National Rifle Association’s role in preventing gun control legislation, a community in Grinnell, Iowa organized 26 Days of Action Against Gun Violence.
Why Grinnell, Iowa? Because this is where Pete Brownell, the president of the National Rifle Association, lives. Brownell is also the owner of Brownell Incorporated, the world’s largest gun parts seller. Joining me from Grinnell, Iowa to discuss the 26 Days of Action is Reverend Wendy Abraham, Abrahamson. She is Episcopal Priest and one of the planners of the action. Thanks for joining us today, Wendy.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: So, your 26 Days of Action took place between November 19 and December 14, which is, as I mentioned, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Shooting. First, tell us about what motivated your group to organize these Days of Action.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: It was a number of different things that coalesced. I think the galvanizing event was the massacre in Las Vegas. Many of us, Mr. Brownell is well known in the community, well liked. His family is meaningful in the Town of Grinnell, and they support all sorts of activities in the town. And at the same time, he’s the new president of the NRA. Many people were really horrified after Las Vegas, and there were a number of different ways that people tried to reach out to him. I was actually asked by a friend if I knew if anyone had ever spoken with Mr. Brownell directly about these things to see if he might be willing to meet and talk about gun safety. I really was not aware of anyone who had, and it seemed to me really respectful to do that, rather than “Oh, NRA guy,” behind his back, just reach out to him directly.
And so I did that along with a colleague, who’s also a clergy person in town. We reached out by phone and actually Facebook messenger because I saw that we had a mutual friend, actually more than one, and also by letter to see if he would meet with the two of us to talk about gun safety and ways that we might be able to work together. None of it was challenging in any way, really genuinely asking if we could work together to improve prevention of gun violence in America. It’s pretty remarkable that the president of the NRA is in this little town. We’re a town of 9,000 people. We didn’t get an answer to any of those attempts to meet with Mr. Brownell.
Sort of at the same time, a group of folks in our community generated and circulated an open letter to Mr. Brownell, again asking if he might meet with them. Ultimately, 170 citizens signed it. In a similar way, they got no response. It was sort of out of this, not really a reaction, “Oh, you didn’t answer us,” but it was more these were things that motivated us to begin some kind of way to try to positively address gun safety in America. Some groups started meeting and really nothing formally organized or ever a committee or anything like that but very organically came up with this idea to do some kind of action every single day until the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook, which, as it happens, was just coming up in a little bit of time. We chose the number 26 because there were 26 people murdered at Sandy Hook School. And so-
GREGORY WILPERT: So-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: From that …
GREGORY WILPERT: Sorry. I was just-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Go ahead.
GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah. Just tell us a little bit about what were the actions that you organized? And also I wanted to know how was the action, or was the Days of Action received in the community? As you mentioned, Pete Brownell, the NRA president, is apparently a fairly well respected member of the community so I imagine-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Yes.
GREGORY WILPERT: … it might not have been so easy to organize this Days of Action with him as a main focus.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: You know, it actually went very, very well and I think for a number of reasons. Every single day, there were different actions that you could take or be a part of. They went from things very small to a day set aside to learn about gun violence, whether it’s reading a study or watching a documentary. We had documentary screenings in town. One of them, PBS Frontline has a really terrific documentary called Gunned Down: The Rise of the NRA, and it tracks the history of the organization. Or we would have things that you could do at home on your own, calling a legislator or something like that.
There were, amongst the 26 days, there were three pretty large events. The first one being a screening of the documentary Newtown, which was aired on PBS last year. We called to get permission to show it, and the distribution company let the director know what we were doing. Her name is Kim Snyder, and she was very interested and wanted to get in touch with us. So, we spoke with her and her producer, Maria Cuomo Cole, and they were really interested and let the families in Newtown know about our actions. Some of them, many of them were touched, which really meant a lot to us.
And ultimately, Mr. Wheeler, David Wheeler, whose son Ben was murdered at Sandy Hook School, came for our screening along with the producer and director. A teacher who survived the attack, the ER physician from Newtown all came, and 400 members, roughly, of our community came to the screening. We had an interfaith service followed by a silent walk to the Brownells distribution center and retail facility. There were probably 2 to 300 people at the service and 100 on the walk.
The final sort of culminating event was a vigil on the anniversary of the shootings. It was one of over 250 vigils across the country. We did it in collaboration with Newtown Alliance. Even in sub degrees freezing, freezing, terrible weather, we had 100 people attend. We had great response. In fact, I can say I had not a single negative response to these events. In speaking with my colleagues, my fellow planners, I haven’t really heard of anyone else who did either. I think it’s something that people in town have wanted to talk about and no one has really known how because we care about Mr. Brownell. It was difficult, and our group very intentionally did not make this about him. It could be someone named Dan Brown or Dan Smith who owns a shoe store, and if he were the president of the NRA, we’d be reaching out to him. We think that-
GREGORY WILPERT: But I mentioned. I’m sorry. I mentioned that it was about the NRA, of course.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Yes.
GREGORY WILPERT: Did you get a response from the NRA to your actions or Mr. Brownell, by any chance?
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: No. No, we did not. No, we did not. You know, no real surprise there but I think we got attention. We certainly had a lot of media attention. There was an article in Newsweek Magazine, many articles on different publications, the Des Moines Register. We had a lot of television and radio coverage, so I think that we were heard and not even necessarily by them although that would be helpful.
But really the people we really want to reach are the 80% of Americans, including gun owners, who support common sense gun safety measures like universal background checks. We’re not anti-gun at all. We do think the NRA as an organization is out of step with most Americans and out of step with most gun owners. In fact, only 19% of gun owners in America are even members. The NRA is a trade organization, not a membership organization. Even of gun owners who are members, something like 70% of them support sensible gun legislation. We had gun owners who were working with us, so we are not anti-gun. But certain things that seem to make common sense, we’d love to be able to talk about. And reaching out-
GREGORY WILPERT: Actually, I was going to-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: …the the NR-
GREGORY WILPERT: Sorry-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Oh, go ahead.
GREGORY WILPERT: … I was just going to ask if you have specific demands that were associated with your Days of Actions, I mean, beyond sensible gun legislation. I mean, after all, since Sandy Hook there have been over 1,500 mass gun shootings and it still claims something like 30,000 lives per year.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Yeah. We do have certain things that we would like to see. I wouldn’t, again, characterize them as demands because even though this was done in the shadow of the NRA, what this is really going to take is average citizens to be active. The NRA has what a political scientist told me is an intense minority. They vote, they get out there. The majority doesn’t. It isn’t going to be the NRA that changes this. We would love them to stop blocking things. I don’t think I would characterize these as demands but things we would love to see the NRA stop doing, they absolutely resist anything sensible. It’s NRA obfuscation and blocking of things like preventing the CDC from studying the sources of gun violence. That’s the fault of the NRA, specifically.
The NRA has contributed absolutely negatively to the discourse in America. In fact, I believe the NRA is one of the number one problems with our inability to converse sensibly about things because they portray all of these things as being anti-gun, which is just not true, things like there was the bill to have a silencer. If the fellow in Las Vegas had a silencer, he would’ve killed a lot more than 50-some-odd people. Just simple, common sense things that the NRA blocks. One of the things we would love to see any president of the NRA do, Mr. Brownell during his tenure or whomever would get it after him, is to stop their divisive videos. They have a number of really scary, really mean, and really inflammatory videos that portray people like me as anti-American because I favor gun sensible regulations. I don’t know if you’ve seen them or not, but if you Google NRATV, you’ll see a number of them, in particular, by Dana Loesch. They’re nasty. There’s no reason to have any of those kinds of inflammatory things.
Our group has been successful in Grinnell because we’ve been respectful and we care about genuine conversation. We’re planning on meetings with gun owners. We ourselves are going to learn about them, about guns, and we’re respectful. We would love to see the NRA stop with its divisive videos, especially Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch. So, if Mr. Brownell could have a, boy, how powerful it would be for the president of the NRA to publicly say “You know, this is not cool. These are people who are just trying to make kids safe in our country and make Americans safe.”
GREGORY WILPERT: All right. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, unfortunately. But thanks so much, Reverend Wendy Abrahamson. I was speaking to her-
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Yeah, watch for more. We’re gonna be doing more.
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay, great. Well, we’ll definitely keep an eye on it, and perhaps we’ll have you back when we see what else is being organized. Thanks again so much, Wendy, for having joined us today.
WENDY ABRAHAMSON: Thank you. Appreciate it.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.