A Bloody Slog: The Funders Backing the Long Fight Against Gun Violence

Funders working to reduce gun violence are a patient bunch. Take Monday's vote in the U.S. Senate on four gun-control measures. While the senators did not approve any of the measures to expand background checks or keep dangerous individuals from buying guns legally, they heard again in detail about the rise in gun violence that claimed another 49 lives in Orlando this month. 

That counts for something in the opinion of advocacy groups who asked congress this week for action—"common-sense gun laws"—after another mass shooting. The Joyce Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are two of the biggest contributors to this cause, having given millions of dollars toward research and gun violence prevention. They haven't seen much return on that investment lately.  

That's because the pro-gun lobby hasn't let a piece of legislation pass in 100 tries, not since 2011, when one of its own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was wounded along with 18 people in Tucson, Arizona. Neither Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, Umpqua Community College, Sandy Hook Elementary or Virginia Tech has done much to move the legislative needle.

Foundations like to talk about sticking with tough challenges for the long haul. And as we often note at IP, many do show enormous staying power on certain issues—contrary to the perception of fickle funders who jump on and off bandwagons. Think of Hewlett's ongoing slog on climate change. Or how MacArthur has been working the nuclear security beat for thirty years. Well, guns are definitely a place where philanthropy also needs to operate with a long time horizon.

The good news is that the U.S. Congress is not the only legislative body in America with power over the gun issue. "It's important to understand there are multiple fights being waged—one at the national level, and also at the state level," MomsRising Executive Director Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner told me. "At the state level, the guns safety forces have had quite a few victories and are growing more powerful by the day."

MomsRising and its supporters have rallied citizens in Washington State and Oregon to enact universal background checks, forbid domestic abusers from owning guns in Wisconsin, Washington State and Minnesota, and kept guns out of the North Carolina State Fair, Rowe-Finkbeiner said this week.

Meanwhile, gun safety initiatives have been placed on the November ballot in California, Nevada and Maine. This strategy has a higher upside than waiting for the politicians in Washington to do the right thing, says the president of the group Everytown for Gun Safety. “If you can’t push it through the legislature and make it law, let’s take it to the people," John Feinblatt figures.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—the leading voice for increased gun safety in American society—also think that gun-control ballot initiatives stand a better chance because 90 percent of Americans stand for gun-purchase reform in the country.

Foundations don't lobby for changes in gun laws or back ballot initiatives. But they're very much in this fight, often framing gun safety as a public health issue. The Joyce Foundation is the most active funder in the game, giving $1.9 million to projects this year. In past years, Joyce has given over $5 million for gun work, and has been making grants in this area since 1993. We've previously reported on the kinds of groups and activities that Joyce supports, including substantial support of the Violence Policy Center, which seeks to regulate firearms with the same vigilance as other deadly consumer products.

Related: The Joyce Foundation's Long Fight to Curb to Gun Violence

"While we don't know all the facts and circumstances, it is clear that we must do more to keep our families and communities safe," the Joyce Foundation said after the Pulse nightclub shootings. The foundation partners with law enforcement, policymakers, and advocates.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is another long-distance runner on guns. Among other things, it is a backer of a model project for gun violence prevention called Cure Violence. It gave sizable gifts of $2.4 million to Research Foundation of the City University of New York to evaluate the model, and $7.2 million to the University of Illinois at Chicago to expand the program model nationwide. Cure Violence Health Model is a new disease-control method that trains specially selected members in the community—called "trusted insiders"—to anticipate where violence may occur and intervene before it erupts.

RWJF "has long considered preventing violence in America an essential component of building healthy communities," program manager Kristin Shubert told me. "Violence both at the interpersonal and communities levels is an urgent public health problem." With its support of groups working to contain the violent epidemic in America, the foundation hopes to create more public interest in halting all types of assaults in society.

Other funders of gun violence prevention projects are the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, which has backed advocates to the tune of $400,000 over a recent three-year period. The foundation donated $60,000 this year to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence based in Washington D.C. The foundation made smaller gifts last year to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Violence Policy Center, Everytown for Gun Safety, and MomsRising.

Another foundation backing state and national efforts at gun control is the California Wellness Foundation, which gave $1.75 million over a recent three-year period. Its primary giving is to researchers at University of California Medical Centers in Sacramento and San Francisco, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and Oakland and Los Angeles-based projects.

Then there's the David Bohnett Foundation, founded by a tech entrepreneur, which has been making grants to prevent gun violence for well over a decade, giving over $4 million in this area. Various other foundations have chipped at different times, such as the Annenberg Foundation, which gave $270,000 to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence between 2004 and 2010. 

Last but not least, we should mention that a range of individual donors have long been giving toward gun violence prevention. The Brady Campaign, for example, taps a wide array of major donors to fund its operations. The Orlando massacre is sure to motivate even more such donors to join this fight.

Related: Drop Your Weapons for David Bohnett Foundation's Support