What the Gun Control Movement Can Learn From Marriage Equality

Clear goals, consistent strategy, and a sense of personal connection can change public opinion—and the law.
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Robert Oliver (left) and Mark Heller hold hands, draped in flags, as they celebrate the Supreme Court ruling embracing same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015, in West Hollywood, California. 

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

If there exists a major social movement in America that has established a clear long-term goal and then, over a period of decades, developed a multi-pronged strategy and achieved it, I can think of no better example than the successful push for marriage equality.

I covered LGBTQ issues for ThinkProgress during the Obama years and witnessed firsthand the decades of work come to fruition. Still, in order to understand the movement and the lessons it could hold for building a future with fewer guns, I had to talk to the “godfather of gay marriage.”

Evan Wolfson did not invent the idea of marriage equality. Gay and lesbian couples began asking state and federal courts for the freedom to marry several years after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan in June 1969. Wolfson was the first to argue, in 1983, that those courts that had rejected it were wrong, then resurrect the goal and lay out a clear long-term strategy for how to get there. Over the next 30 years, he advocated for marriage equality within the broader LGBT movement and built the critical mass necessary for it to become reality.

When Wolfson first laid out his vision in a law school thesis, he argued that marriage equality was both a goal and a strategy. It was a goal because it would provide gay and lesbian couples with all of the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage; it was a strategy because it would lead to greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people generally by changing how straight people view them.

“When I put this forward, there was significant dismay, disagreement, disbelief, not only within the world at large, but even within the movement,” Wolfson told me on the phone in the summer of 2018. His fellow “band of warriors” systematically rejected or contested his arguments for the next 10 years. Some argued that marriage was a bad goal because it was a failed patriarchal institution! Others maintained that the movement should not be fighting to assimilate; it should instead be inventing its own relationships and redefining the structure of family. Others still contended that fighting for marriage was too difficult, premature, and could even trigger a conservative response that would set the movement for gay civil rights back decades. 

Still, Wolfson persisted as a self-described “internal gadfly” during much of the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout this period he worked to convince those around him that setting out a bold goal like freedom to marry would prove more effective than simply calling for more public acceptance of same-sex couples and less discrimination against them.

“You should ask for what you want and not bargain against yourself. You may leave the negotiation or the round or the battle taking less than you initially wanted. But you should not go in asking for less than you want,” he told me. In other words, you won’t get half a loaf of bread by asking for half a loaf. You have to ask for the whole loaf.

That principle has long guided my own advocacy in gun violence prevention. When I formed Guns Down America, I realized that no other group was asking for what all of us believed was necessary to truly reduce gun violence: fewer guns. As a result, we were not having much success on the legislative front getting the policies we believed we needed, and we are not building a strong people-powered movement that people can buy into. We are not offering bold solutions that people believe will succeed in reducing gun violence.

Along with lack of a clear goal, the gun control movement has also lacked a clear strategy.

A tight strategy is essential, Wolfson told me. It tells you exactly what you have to do and what you do not have to do. It ensures that you are not distracted by other obligations, educates everyday Americans about how you are achieving your goal, and allows them to plug into it. A clear strategy also helps sustain you through the inevitable turmoil of a movement: the wins, the losses, and everything in between.

The marriage movement reminds us that after you’ve focused on one long-term objective, incremental changes that move you closer to your goal are essential building blocks to achieving your success, just as every yard forward moves a football team a little closer to the goalposts. Each gain provides a motivating victory for advocates in all parts of the movement and shows that progress is indeed possible. As the wins accumulate, they accustom the general public to accepting gains on the issue and, just as important, permit advocates to demonstrate the insufficiency of half measures, redoubling efforts toward the ultimate goal.

Wolfson faced an important movement-defining decision after achieving incremental success in 2000, when Vermont recognized gay and lesbian civil unions but not marriage.

Should he accept the half-measure or reject it? Would accepting it signal to others that the fight was over and suck energy out of the struggle to full marriage equality? Maybe people would think that civil unions were good enough. After much debate and deliberation, Wolfson decided to accept the win—but then push for more later.

He went on to argue that because the sky didn’t fall when gay and lesbian couples entered into civil unions, why deny them access to the institution of marriage? And the same thing? Wolfson began to disparage civil unions and argue that they were not an adequate substitute for marriage because they were fundamentally unequal.

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The fight toward the long-term goal was very much still on.

“What we needed in the late 1990s was the affirmation of gay couples at the marital level,” Wolfson told me in describing his dual strategy. “And then what we needed later was the insufficiency of civil union as a substitute for marriage itself.”

The most substantial wave of change that helped pave the way for marriage equality took place during President Obama’s presidency. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were permitted to serve openly in the armed forces through the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The administration stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal programs. Obama himself came out in support of marriage equality, and ultimately the Supreme Court found that preventing gays and lesbians from entering into equal marriage was unconstitutional.

All of that happened as a result of the foundation Wolfson and other advocates had laid down over the preceding decades of hard, often thankless, focused advocacy toward the goal of marriage equality. By the time Obama was sworn in as president, Wolfson was no longer a gadfly; his goal had become a goal of most grassroots LGBT advocates, and throughout the Obama era they pushed a reluctant White House to act on its equality agenda.

While reporting for ThinkProgress, I covered gay and lesbian service members who tied themselves to the White House fence demanding equal service and rejecting the politics of incremental change. I covered grassroots advocates who criticized the president for initially defending DOMA and for not coming out for marriage early enough. They wanted change now and could not care less about the political process in Washington.

As I wrote these articles, established political operatives and Democrats would tell me these grassroots actions were disruptive, naive, or, worse yet, counterproductive. The president, they argued, had to be sensitive to political realities. He was on the right side, they told me, but he needed time to make these decisions so as to avoid political backlash. Acting too swiftly could set back the movement and undo the progress already made.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to laugh at these voices or view their stance as a miscalculation of the winds of political change. A sober reading of the history, however, suggests that they were as necessary for progress as Wolfson and the grassroots groups that were pushing the administration to boldly embrace true equality.

Journalist Kerry Eleveld, who covered the progress LGBT Americans made during the Obama presidency with inspiring persistency and intelligence, told me that, in the end, “everybody ended up being right to some extent.”

Take Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. On the campaign trail, President Obama had pledged to repeal the discriminatory law, but almost two years into his administration, it remained on the books, and Democrats in Congress were not rushing to get rid of it after losing their congressional majority in the 2010 midterm elections.

Knowing that the window of opportunity was closing fast, grassroots advocates clamored for action, engaging in protests and direct actions and shaming lawmakers for doing nothing, while the insiders were preaching caution and patience. With just days left until a new Republican-controlled House would come into power, Congress added the repeal measure to a must-pass bill, and Obama signed it into law in December 2010.

Here, too, diverse voices were necessary for achieving progress.

Eleveld, author of Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency , told me, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal would not have gotten across the finish line if there weren’t people who knew Capitol Hill really well and could get the ear of very prominent lawmakers in positions of power within the last month of that Congress. But it also would not have gotten to that point if the grassroots activists hadn’t been pushing for it all along.”

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Students demanding an end to gun violence placed an art installation on the U.S. Capitol grounds during the March For Our Lives on March 26, 2019. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

In other words, everybody had a role to play, and a sort of righteous cycle emerged. The grassroots activists pushed the professional political insiders to expect more, not to settle for middling progress, but the movement would not have progressed to that point had the professional advocates and insiders not laid the groundwork that ripened the issue for action. A successful movement is a cacophony of voices, not a fine-tuned choir.

Another similarity between the gun control movement and the fight for LGBT equality is familiarity of experience.

For decades science had been disproving and professional psychology had been gradually abandoning the idea that nonstandard sexuality was some sort of disease rather than an array of natural and normal variations along the whole sexual spectrum in humans (and most other animals). But it took a long time for this view to spread more widely. One of the factors that helped drive the general population toward accepting and supporting marriage equality was the coming out of gay people themselves, a wave that really began during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when the community realized that silence would lead to death. It was a process that even a visionary like Wolfson could not have predicted, but in the ensuing decades, a growing number of Americans’ family members, friends, and neighbors told their loved ones that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. The general population began to see gays and lesbians of every religion, every race, and both genders as human beings, rather than caricatures who could be demonized as deviants who didn’t deserve civil rights.

A growing number of families now saw themselves as part of the push for marriage equality. Heterosexuals began to see themselves as part of the movement for the sake of people they loved—their families, friends, neighbors, and community members.

A similar phenomenon has led to gradual de-prohibition of cannabis, and the same thing could now be happening with guns. As gun manufacturers pump more and more guns into our communities, more and more people of all races, genders, religions, and socioeconomic levels are dying from or living with horrific gun injuries.

The coverage of mass shootings and our ritualized grief after them continue to educate people about the dangers of too many guns. We all see ourselves in the faces of the bereaved, and we imagine photos of our own loved ones posted at the candlelit memorial.

That dynamic of familiarity allowed the LGBT equality movement to achieve its goal faster than anyone could have predicted. If we build our movement and pair it with successful strategies, we can start moving toward a future with fewer guns sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2019 by Igor Volsky. This excerpt originally appeared in Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns , published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.