Playbook: How to Reform Gun Laws


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We’ve seen 18 mass shootings in the last 16 days, putting us through every stage of grief from anger to depression and back again. How are we supposed to continue going about our day-to-day lives knowing that we aren’t safe at the grocery store, at our places of worship, on the street, or in an elementary school of all places? How can we have any faith that this time will be any different when our elected leaders have consistently chosen to stand idly by? 

And yet, it isn’t hopeless. Over the last half decade in Washington State, a citizens’ movement to create safer communities has used a simple phrase: gun violence is preventable. Not only do we know policy solutions that will save lives; we know the kind of organized mass movement that it takes to win, and we’ve got the playbook. 

I moved to Seattle from Orlando in the summer of 2016, just weeks before the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting, which killed 49 people and injured 53 more. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history—but only until the Las Vegas shooting the next year.

My mom, still living in Orlando and a therapist, pulled a 72-hour shift to support the victims and family members at our local hospital. My high school and college classmates organized to provide food and support for the hundreds of people lining up to give blood. But here I was, many miles away, as my community grappled with an unimaginable trauma. 

How could I help? That summer, a friend in Seattle introduced me to an organization called the Alliance for Gun Responsibility (the Alliance). As someone who grew up in Florida with a family that owned and respected, even valued, firearms, I was hesitant to join a “gun control” campaign. That year, the Alliance launched the second of three state-wide ballot measures in Washington, an effort to establish Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs). I signed up to spend the year knocking doors, gathering signatures at street corners, and organizing volunteers to support the campaign. 

The principle of the policy is simple. When family members, law enforcement, and community residents see their loved ones struggling, we ought to give them the tools to intervene. ERPOs are those kinds of tools. A family member or law enforcement can file an ERPO petition in county court. Then a hearing is held where a judge determines whether the subject of the order poses a threat. If they do, they lose access to firearms and concealed pistol licenses for up to a year. 

Extreme Risk Protection Orders passed with 72 percent of the statewide vote. We popped champagne and cheered when the results came in, only to be quickly sobered up by the news that Donald Trump had been elected president. 

Something was different this time, though. Extreme Risk Protection Orders had received majority support in every district in the state except one, including those won by Donald Trump. I knew it was possible, with enough hard work and dedication, we could pass lifesaving policies everywhere, not just in liberal places. 

Two years later, after the Parkland shooting, our elected leaders in Olympia once again failed to act to strengthen rules for semi-automatic assault weapons like the ones used in Parkland and so many mass shootings. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility put forth another initiative (I-1639), regulating assault rifles by making it at least as hard to buy an AR-15 as it already is to buy a revolver.

For the next six months as the campaign manager for Initiative 1639, I learned from folks I canvassed that they were flat out floored to realize that the laws we were pushing for had any controversy at all. That November, we won again. Initiative 1639 raised the age for purchasing semi-automatic assault weapons from 18 to 21, required enhanced background checks and safety training, and created a safe storage incentive. 

Since the Alliance began, there’s been a fundamental shift in the politics of Washington State. In 2014, the National Rifle Association spent more on state legislative races in WA than in any other state in the union. Today, they spend nothing. What scares off the NRA is the Alliance’s endorsement, volunteers, donors, and organizing efforts, which have become some of the strongest, most coveted political mechanisms in our politics. Our state has a gun-safety majority, bordering on super majority, in the Legislature and governor’s mansion. 

Over the last four years, we haven’t needed to go back to the ballot. The last legislative session saw the passage of a ban on high-capacity magazines, funding for community violence intervention programs, implementation support for ERPOs, and so much more. Since the Alliance for Gun Responsibility was founded, no fewer than 35 lifesaving gun-violence prevention measures have been passed in our Legislature. 

What happened? After the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2013, a group of religious leaders, political organizers, donors, experts, and concerned citizens came together to make a modest ask of the Legislature, hoping for universal background checks for all gun purchases. They were laughed out of the room. 

This group next founded the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, putting background checks on the ballot – and haven’t stopped winning since. 

That legislative turn-down for that group of concerned parents, teachers, rabbis, and dedicated supporters was the biggest mistake the NRA ever made. Had they chosen to take the deal and pass background checks, that may very well have been the end of it. Instead, they got to spend the next eight years getting their asses kicked over and over again. It all goes to show that hopelessness is the most powerful weapon in the gun lobby’s arsenal. 

I don’t know what will happen over the coming weeks. I don’t know if Republicans will finally compromise and pass a few common-sense reforms. But there is a proven playbook to win, one that can be exported to every state in the union. It starts with hope. 

Stephen Paolini
Stephen Paolini
Stephen Paolini is the Associate Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League, one of the nation's oldest organizations fighting hate and extremism. He was the campaign manager for Washington State Initiative 1639: the successful statewide ballot measure that raised the age for purchasing semi-automatic assault weapons from 18 to 21, required enhanced background checks and safety training, and created a safe-storage incentive. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect those of his employer. 


  1. Stopping tragedies in schools require making the buildings safe along with agency followup of gun lawbreakers. We could also JAIL criminals with gun offenses. Seattle is a great example of what not to do, trying to reform by compassion………….

  2. Super article, Stephen. Thanks for setting out so clearly the positive impact the Alliance for Gun Responsibility has had in our state. since Sandy Hook. The Alliance and its supporters really have created a blueprint other states can follow (and perhaps even Congress should they develop a backbone).

  3. This story also demonstrates the rare time when the tech wealth of the state focused on an important LOCAL issue. Money raising for the initiatives turned into a bidding war for billionaires, gleefully and visibly topping each other at fundraising meetings. It was enough to hire top talent and to scare off the NRA, which figured that any money the national organization put in would easily be overmatched by Seattle-area wealth.


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