Ending the Standoff: Who's Trying To Change the Conversation on Guns?

For a long time now, advocates hoping to reduce gun violence have often been stymied by a deadlocked debate. It’s a familiar story these days: Two sides with conflicting ideologies look at the same news and come to entirely different conclusions. Last year, amid an onslaught of gun violence incidents plastered across the daily news, we overviewed some of the funders brave enough to wade into an issue that can seem hopelessly polarized. 

Some 35,000 fatalities a year in the United States are linked to guns. Yet compared to funding for other leading causes of death, gun violence philanthropy is modest, with only a small number of funders going all-in on an issue where the odds can seem stacked against progress. Total philanthropic funding on gun violence is still quite modest, far outweighed by the NRA's fundraising engine.

Lately, though, the gun debate has been shifting. Funders and advocates alike are more optimistic about breaking a longstanding deadlock by advancing a new conversation about gun violence. The biggest new initiative in this space in recent years has been Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety, which has spent tens of millions of dollars to build a movement "to end gun violence and build safer communities." Most of Everytown's muscle comes from its 501(c)4 electoral activities—most recently with the group saying it may spend $25 million in the 2018 Congressional races. But Everytown also has a 501(c)3 arm, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, that conducts research and policy development, which had revenues of just over $5 million in 2015. 

Meanwhile, a dedicated group of foundations has also been working to advance new approaches to reducing gun violence, including some longstanding veterans in this space. They include the Joyce Foundation, the David Bohnett Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others.

Nowadays, most funders in this space recognize that pursuing "gun control" is counterproductive. That's certainly true in rural states, where gun control can and will alienate a wide swath of stakeholders like hunters, shooting sports enthusiasts, and many others besides. And in cities, where guns are restricted to a greater degree, it's more productive to focus on the root causes of violence. In the place of gun control, violence prevention strategies look for solutions in a more nuanced and pragmatic way, forging collaborations that can advance this goal.  

How are funders supporting gun violence prevention? For one thing, making up for lost time on the research front is a priority. Since the late 1990s, there’s been an effective ban on federally funded research on gun violence. Places like the CDC are restricted by appropriations riders that prohibit federal funds from promoting "gun control." Funders are looking to new research to inform policy solutions, and, perhaps as importantly, effective messaging and partnership strategies. According to Michael Fleming, executive director of the David Bohnett Foundation, "From the fight for marriage equality, [we learned] that you had to invest in research and messaging before you took this to the public. We lost early on because our messaging wasn't terrific and we didn't have adequate research." The Bohnett Foundation, founded by a tech entrepreneur, has been funding gun violence prevention for over 15 years. Last year, in an interview with Inside Philanthropy, David Bohnett said he was drawn to the gun violence issue when he first started his foundation in 1999 "particularly because of its effects on underserved communities." He said that over time, the grantmaking has focused on "areas where we can make a difference," such as gun safety awareness in homes. 

The Joyce Foundation has been working this issue for an even longer period, with grantmaking on guns reaching back to 1993. Nina Vinik, who heads the foundation's gun violence prevention program, also sees research as key to moving the policy needle: "Identify the risk factors, the preventative factors. Joyce's focus is on policy change grounded in the research that finds that access to guns is a risk factor for all types of gun violence. Joyce funds research to help grantees understand how different audiences think about the issue. It's up to grantees to come up with tactics."

Despite persistent deadlock around guns in Washington, D.C., funders see lots of hope for progress elsewhere. According to David Brotherton, who heads the Kendeda Fund’s grantmaking against gun violence, momentum depends, in part, on local and state efforts to overcome the deep polarization on guns. During the period following the Sandy Hook shootings, Vinik says, "a number of states decided to act within their own authority, instituting background checks, restricting private gun transfers, protecting victims of domestic violence, and moving ahead on policies like gun violence restraining orders." Also known as an extreme risk protective order, that's a mechanism under state law to temporarily remove firearms from someone undergoing a crisis.

Such common-sense approaches look at gun violence as a matter of public health, or find ways to reduce risk within the context of legal gun ownership. 

As a case in point, the leading cause of gun fatalities is actually suicide, accounting for roughly 60 percent of deaths. Harvard's Means Matter project, supported by Joyce and the David Bohnett Foundation, looks at how suicidal people can be prevented from accessing firearms, a "highly lethal means" to end one's life. Through efforts like its Gun Shop Project, Means Matter seeks partnerships within gun owners' groups and veterans' groups, where gun suicide is a major risk. 

The Kendeda Fund is backing work on the gun suicide problem in Montana. The funder is known for its environmental grantmaking, and stakeholders include rural conservationists, a community that intersects with hunters and other gun owners. Rural states like Montana and Wisconsin also have some of the nation's highest suicide rates. By funding projects to reduce suicide, grantmakers can come at the gun problem from another angle, sidestepping the political landmines.

At the same time, movements like Black Lives Matter and ongoing criticism of the war on drugs point to intersectional ways to reduce urban gun violence. Says Brotherton, “Gun violence in some communities can be tied to race, including through negative police-community relations.” Tackling that violence doesn't need to focus on guns at all. In Los Angeles, says Fleming, the Bohnett Foundation sought reductions in gang violence through Summer Night Lights, a partnership initiative led by the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles. In troubled neighborhoods, Summer Night Lights keeps city parks open at night and fills them with family-oriented programming and community resources.

While the community of funders for gun violence prevention is still small, they recognize the need for coordination, and have come together in the Fund for a Safer Future (FSF), a collaborative of 14 grantmakers. Founded in 2011 after the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords, FSF has seen steady growth as the gun issue gained prominence. Directly, FSF has made over $6 million in anti-violence grants, and leveraged another $43 million in member grants. 

In its own grantmaking, FSF works in five areas: community organizing, state-based strategies, communication and messaging, research, and Second Amendment legal strategies. FSF’s members include the MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, the David Bohnett Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Langeloth Foundation, the Johnson Family Foundation, and the Alphawood Foundation. 

Brotherton, Vinik, and Fleming all point to FSF as an important vehicle for funders to learn from a community of their peers. This includes newcomers to the gun violence issue as well as old hands who recognize the need to fund grassroots organizing and innovative messaging. Like other philanthropic affinity groups, FSF offers funders a chance to pool resources and make sure critical needs get funded, a concern that many funders share in today's political climate.