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(Strategically) Absent Advocates: How domestic violence-related firearms policies passed in pro-gun states, 2013–2015

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In the USA, gun deaths occur at a rate that is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries (Grinshteyn and Hemenway in Am J Med 129(3):266–273, 2016. However, legislation targeted toward regulating firearms often fails to pass into law. While surprising to many observers, this policy response follows an established pattern in American politics: despite public support for tighter gun laws, the gun rights lobby often successfully suppresses gun reform due to their greater monetary resources, political savvy, and access to grassroots support than advocates of gun control (Bruce-Briggs in The Public interes 45:37, 1976; Goss in Disarmed: the missing movement for gun control in America, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006). However, laws that restrict domestic abusers from owning firearms have diverged from this pattern. This study identifies an element of advocates’ political strategy that increased the likelihood of policy change: the prominence of domestic violence prevention advocates and “strategic absence” of larger gun control groups in the policy debate. The insights generated by this study shed light on broader questions about advocacy strategy, the policy-making process, and the modern politics of firearms.

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  1. While these laws were also successful in previous years, this study focuses specifically on the increase in the passage of these laws in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

  2. I calculated the number of gun laws using an original dataset of gun regulations proposed between 2010 and 2015. I compiled the data from legislation tracking documents from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the LexisNexis State Capital Database.

  3. I focus here on the relationship between national gun control groups like Everytown and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence instead of local groups like Colorado Ceasefire and WAVE in Wisconsin because these groups did not come up in interviews, media coverage, or committee hearing materials in the majority of cases. When the groups did come up, they often played a supporting role to either national gun control groups or local domestic violence coalitions. One exception is Rhode Island, where the local gun control group, Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence (RICAGV) played a significant role in the process. Further investigation is needed to fully understand the role of the less publicly covered local gun groups in the state legislative process.


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This project greatly benefited from the support and guidance of Kristin Goss, Phil Cook, Deondra Rose, and Beth Moracco. I would also like to thank Ellen Smucker for her keen editing skills as well as the three reviewers with Interest Groups and Advocacy who gave extremely constructive advice.

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Correspondence to Sierra Smucker.

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See Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3 States that passed relevant policies and gun policy rating
Table 4 Description of interviewees

Interview guide

Section I: Introduction and background

  1. 1.

    How long have you been working in your current position/field?

  2. 2.

    What motivated you to get involved? What issues have you pursued most often?

  3. 3.

    Have you worked on policy or advocacy related to domestic violence prior to 2012?

  4. 4.

    Have you work on policy or advocacy related to gun violence prevention prior to 2012?

  5. 5.

    When did you first learn about the relationship between domestic violence and firearms?

    1. a.

      Through what mechanism (academic paper, conference, media special, etc.) were you made aware of this issue?

    2. b.

      Did you find this evidence convincing?

Section II: Origins of DV and firearms policy

  1. 6.

    Is/was addressing the relationship between DV and firearms and issue that was a high priority within your political party/organization/groups you were a part of?

    1. a.

      When did it become a priority?

      1. i.

        Who were the main players on both sides?

      2. ii.

        Why do you think it came up now instead of a previous year? Or did it come up previously?

    2. b.

      What types of policies does your organization advocate for in response to this relationship?

      1. i.

        Do you think this is the best strategy, personally?

      2. ii.

        (could be pro-gun and anti-gun answers; arm women or take guns from abusers)

Section III: Strategy, coalitions, and the battle over policy passage

  1. 7.

    Were you involved in the (successful/or not) attempt to pass bill XXXX (note: ensure that you know the bill number and a brief summary for the respondent).

    1. a.

      What was your role in developing this policy? Did you help write it or was it given to you by someone else?

  2. 8.

    Was the political party makeup of the legislature or governorship a factor in the proposal of this bill at this time?

  3. 9.

    From your perspective, how did the battle play out?

    1. a.

      Which groups were on each side?

      1. i.

        What were the differences in resources (political, economic, social, or otherwise).

    2. b.

      What role (if any) did national advocacy groups like Everytown or the NRA play?

    3. c.

      What role (if any) did political party leader ship play.

      1. i.

        At the state level?

      2. ii.

        At the national level?

  4. 10.

    Why do you think this policy was proposed at this time instead of another time? Is there something unique about 2013–2015 that made this initiative possible?

Section IV: Explanations for bill proposal and passage/failure

  1. 11.

    Did any organizations from other states/state governments inspire your action? Did you take advice from people outside of your state?

  2. 12.

    Was the political strategy taken by your (organization/staff/advocacy group/social movement) successful?

    1. a.

      What is your impression of why this policy succeeded/failed?

    2. b.

      Did the campaign engage/leverage citizen activists?

    3. c.

      Was the campaign funded by outside donors?

    4. d.

      (Probe for aspects of social movements resource literature).

  3. 13.

    Would you say the policy was framed predominantly as gun violence prevention or domestic violence prevention? Or was it neither/both?

    1. a.

      Was this a conscious strategic decision or unplanned/organic or do you not know?

  4. 14.

    Did you form any partnerships with other organizations, individuals, or advocacy groups in pursuit of this legislation?

    1. a.

      Which groups?

    2. b.

      How did the collaboration work?

    3. c.

      Who was responsible for what?

    4. d.

      Who put you in contact?

    5. e.

      Did you work with national level groups or local groups or both?

  5. 15.

    Did media coverage play a role in the campaign and policy making process?

    1. a.

      Was any attention sought by your organization/group?

    2. b.

      Who responded?

      1. i.

        Why do you think they responded?

    3. c.

      Who didn’t respond?

      1. i.

        Why do you think they did not respond?

Section V: Wrap up

  1. 16.

    Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered?

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Smucker, S. (Strategically) Absent Advocates: How domestic violence-related firearms policies passed in pro-gun states, 2013–2015. Int Groups Adv 8, 121–164 (2019).

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