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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Guns, Climate and Political Inaction
distributed 2/23/18 - ©2018

The news of 17 deaths from gun violence at a Florida high school brings to mind a situation that is painfully familiar. There's the intractable and tragic situation of guns in the US, of course. But part of the familiarity of the last 10 days comes from seeing public outcry about an important cause where a political response seems impossible.

I see it with guns, and I see it with climate.

Students from the high school show up at the Florida capitol to demand action, and they watch legislators vote against gun control measures. Those personally impacted by many of the nation's most horrific school shootings met with President Trump, only to have him align himself with the NRA. If these victims and survivors can't stir a response, what can?

Commentators are noting that the social media savvy youth who survived the Florida shootings are doing a great job of keeping their issue in the news, but hardly anyone seems to hold out hope for real legislative change.

Those reports about gun activism feel familiar to me from my work trying to stir legislative action on issues related to climate change and fossil fuels. Over and over again, I've seen well-organized and broad-based initiatives to reduce state and national carbon emissions go to politicians, and they die.

The frustration of pushing a cause against entrenched interests -- whether with gun violence or climate change -- is something that I've come to know all too well.

There are enormous differences in the two causes. There are no simple parallels to be drawn between climate and gun activism. But perhaps the shared political frustration can lead to some insights.

Today, I look at some factors in activism against gun violence from the perspective of a climate activist. What can we learn from our friends and allies engaged in another big, important struggle for political and social change?

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It occurs to me that there are no "deniers" about gun violence -- at least no serious ones. (There is the absurd assertion that the high school students speaking about their trauma are paid "crisis actors" seizing an opportunity to push a liberal agenda.) I don't hear anyone say that mass shootings are not happening, or that they are a good thing.

That's a very significant difference from the climate fight, where far too many powerful voices question the science about climate change, or belittle the dangers we face. I often wonder how many of those public "deniers" really know full well what is going on, and only use uncertainty as a convenient cover for other motivations.

The inability to deny gun violence, and yet the lack of political action to reduce that violence, perhaps shows what goes on in those who will offer only "thoughts and prayers" in the face of gun tragedies. I hear shadings of two broad reasons why such violence is inevitable, and why serious action is not reasonable.

  1. There are evil and sick people, who will do terrible things. If they can't get guns, they'll cause damage some other way. It isn't about guns, it is about human nature, and we can't change that.

    A letter printed in the Denver Post last Sunday asserted -- claiming biblical justification! -- that "there will be people who commit terrible acts of evil, and there will be people who break the rules. There is no law that can ever be written that can control these aspects of human nature. It is a fool's folly."

  2. Shootings are tragic, but denying responsible, law-abiding people their constitutional right to own and use guns is worse. We must preserve the 2nd amendment, because that is the greater good or the greater necessity.

    It seems to me that when this position is presented responsibly, it will lead to genuine efforts to act on mental health and public safety. Gun rights don't preclude other actions that protect the common good. I have a harder time respecting those who insist on gun ownership without other safeguards.

From a climate perspective the first rationale sounds a bit like those who place their ultimate trust in the free market to guide the direction of society. The economics of fossil fuel use are inevitable, they tell us, and we can't change that. It is "a fool's folly" to try to shift market forces. The shift away from fossil fuels in energy production shows that this belief system just doesn't hold up. With both guns and climate, though, we need to recognize that there is a strong current which simply holds that the way things are is normal and inevitable, even if it is tragic.

In the second rationale, I hear resonances of the claim that it is more important to preserve "the American way of life" than to prevent climate chaos. The disruption to our economy, jobs, and lifestyle from strong climate action is a greater danger than the threats of climate change itself. As with gun violence, it should be possible for those who seek to preserve the current "good" to also work hard to reduce the negative impacts. There's a stronger moral claim against those who want to preserve how things are, but refuse to do anything to cut the damages.

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The second powerful similarity between the two issues that I'm hearing has to do with money in politics. Year after year, with both issues, it is said that political action becomes impossible because of the influence of powerful interests who do not represent the views of the majority.

In the last 10 days, I've seen a lot about money from the NRA that has been given to politicians. As I've looked into campaign donations, it seems far easier to research and document money from the NRA and a few other gun rights groups than it is to trace the vast and diffuse money that flows to politicians from fossil fuel industries.

There is certainly a lot of money at play. Fortune Magazine lists the top 5 Senators and Representatives for money received from the NRA in their political careers. The junior Senator from my home state of Colorado, Cory Gardner -- who is just in his first term -- is number five on that list at $3.88 million. Quite a haul in only four years in office.

Tracing the pro-gun money, instead of the fossil fuel bucks, helps me get some perspective on scope of this influence. An article from Vox looks at Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a reliable NRA ally, and the Senator who received the most from the NRA in 2014 -- $9,900. But in 2014, Sen. Cornyn pulled in total campaign donations of $14 million, including $57,000 from Exxon alone. The NRA was nowhere near his top 15 biggest donors.

(The disparity between reports of NRA money -- $3.88 million to Gardner and $9,900 to Cornyn -- makes it clear that the tracking and categorizing of campaign money is exceedingly difficult and prone to bias.)

A report from Politifact takes a broader look than just direct contributions. They show that "outside spending" that does not go straight to the candidates involves vastly more money. They write, "if you add it all up -- candidate and party contributions, independent expenditures, and lobbying -- the NRA has spent $203.2 million on political activities since 1998."

The influence in gun money may not be an exact parallel to the influence of fossil fuel industries. There's a lot more of the oil and gas money at play, and it is at the top of many politician's donor lists. (In 2016-17, Koch Industries alone made direct contributions of $4.7 million -- about as much as all gun rights groups in that time period.) But looking at the campaign contributions makes me aware that it is overly simplistic to say that politicians "in the pocket" of oil and gas industries because of the contributions they receive.

Vox reporter Jeff Stein wrote, "there's a meaningful argument that Republicans and their voters have come to be pro-gun in part because of the influence of the NRA's money. But the donations themselves are clearly not the reason Republican lawmakers fear opposing the NRA -- the much bigger threat the gun rights group poses is its ability to mobilize and excite huge numbers of voters."

The amount of money in politics is disturbing. The many channels through which that money flows -- direct contributions, outside advertising, funding of advocacy groups, and opposition to candidates or ballot initiatives -- makes it very hard to trace both the amount of money and its influence. It is hard to say what the various donors and industries get for their money -- but they certainly believe that they get some return on their investments.

I don't think that it is creditable to claim that big campaign contributions lead directly to manipulated votes on major issues. With both guns and climate, though, the presence of such enormous amounts of money is an indicator of the power being exerted by a small number of individuals and businesses. That money does more than buy votes. It frames the political conversation, and it can overwhelm the voices of those who can't so readily buy access to media and politicians.

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From my perspective, the fights to reduce gun violence and to slow climate change are both morally strong. Both of them are working to protect the common good. Both of those struggles are up against powerful interests and deeply rooted worldviews. We have long and hard battles ahead.

To be effective, we need to be honest and insightful about the powers and perspectives that we're opposing. We don't stand a chance if we can't be accurate in naming what our opponents actually believe, or how they wield their power.

I pray that we will be both persistent and strategic as we work to protect our neighbors from the dangers of gun violence and climate change.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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