Dan Gross was the youngest partner at advertising giant J. Walter Thompson in 1997, when his brother took a bullet to the head in a shooting on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. Gross left his job and started PAX, later called the Center to Prevent Youth Violence, to research and publicize the health and safety risks posed by guns. Last year, he became president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Gross talked with National Journal about post-Newtown efforts to pass new restrictions on guns. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
NJ What is your strategic role in the debate on gun policy?
GROSS To engage the American public in a sustained outcry that we, in turn, bring to bear on Congress. The overwhelming majority of Americans support the solutions that we’re advocating—when you look at something like universal background checks, even the overwhelming majority of gun owners and NRA members do. This is not a partisan political debate; there are huge areas where we all agree, based on our common goal to make this a safer nation. That’s how this issue needs to be framed. We’re all mothers and fathers and human beings who want for ourselves and for our children to be able to live in a safe nation.
NJ Have you reached out to families from earlier gun tragedies?
GROSS Before Newtown, we were in the process of filming a public-service campaign called “We Are Better Than This” that included victims, law enforcement, clergy, and celebrities. We had big plans to launch it in January on the two-year anniversary of the Tucson tragedy. We had also created a letter from 32 families that had been impacted by the most infamous mass shootings our nation had ever seen—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora. We had such a strategic year planned out for 2013, when the world changed on December 14, 2012. Within four days, we brought close to 40 families to Washington and had a big press conference in front of the Capitol launching that letter. Then, a number of the families met with several leaders of Congress. I went with a group of families to a meeting with [senior White House adviser] Valerie Jarrett in the Roosevelt Room. She told us about the White House task force and reaffirmed the president’s commitment to doing something meaningful.
NJ There were several mass shootings during President Obama’s first term, yet he didn’t act. Why?
GROSS He always said the right things. What needs to be done on this issue is to back it up with the kind of meaningful action he’s taking now. Given the urgency behind that action—given how genuinely he is committed to it—it’s more constructive to talk about how we can make that come to fruition than what people might wish he would have done in the past. We really are on the precipice here of real change, and he is the reason why. We certainly took a lot of inspiration seeing the change that he’s capable of making when he does commit to something, from health care to, even most recently, marriage. We said, “Gosh, that’s where we’d like to be.” And we’ve surpassed that. There’s been a whole White House task force. There’s a comprehensive recommendation. They’re focusing the efforts of Organizing for America around that.
NJ If you emerge from this with improved background checks and nothing else, will you consider it a lost opportunity?
GROSS It’s not time to start parsing elements of the solution. The task force did its job of coming up with a comprehensive set of solutions that can help to prevent not only tragedies like Newtown but the tragedies that happen every day in our nation. The American public is clamoring to have it all, and none of it is a threat to the Second Amendment right of law-abiding gun owners to own guns.
NJ Whom are you and your troops talking to on Capitol Hill, and what are you saying?
GROSS We are seeking, and in some cases having, meetings with elected officials on both sides of the aisle. This is not about embarrassing people or chastising people, saying, “How can you possibly think that way?” It’s about demonstrating that it is safe to do the right thing. Because in most cases, when you get behind those closed doors, even the most ardent NRA supporters know that something like universal background checks isn’t an assault on the Second Amendment and would save a lot of lives. But the tone can’t be confrontational. It is about the civil discourse that everybody is complaining exists too little. Maybe this is the great opportunity to demonstrate the kind of impact that civil discourse can have.
This article appears in the Feb. 9, 2013, edition of National Journal as At Last.