In 2015, shortly after 14 people died in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Igor Volsky started calling out legislators for sending “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families.
Volsky, an activist who had worked as a reporter and editor for ThinkProgress, a news site run by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., sent out tweets pointing out that the lawmakers sending those “thoughts and prayers” also took contributions from the National Rifle Association.
Following the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, six months after the San Bernardino killings, Volsky founded the organization Guns Down America, which seeks a world with fewer guns in it.
Earlier his year, Volsky, who was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated with his family to the United States to escape the persecution of Jews, published “Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns.”
He is currently on a book- promotion tour and took the time to take a telephone call and answer some questions about his book during a stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Rather than just discussing better ways to control guns and gun violence, you want a country with far fewer guns. Can you talk about that?
I think what we know is that where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths of every kind — suicides, homicides, police shootings, accidental shootings, mass shootings. It’s a very long list. And so the reason why I talk about fewer guns is because we know that guns are the problem and we know that the more accessible guns are, the more gun deaths you’re going to have.
I think the question is how you’re going to get there. In the book I propose the Second Amendment Compact. For me, that compact really breaks down into three different categories,.
One is really cracking down on the gun industry, regulating it to ensure it is no longer producing military-style weapons for the civilian market.
Number two for me is making guns harder to get or having gun owners prove they can be responsible through licensing and registration and insurance.
Number three is incredibly important, and that’s about investing real federal dollars into community-based, violence-intervention programs. ... That’s how I would go about it. The long term goal ... is to have a country where there are simply fewer guns. We have more guns than people — 393 million guns. That needs to change.
Your book calls for sweeping changes in the way America deals with guns. Do you think folks are ready for that?
For the last 30 years the movement has spent a long time, a really long time trying to figure out, how do you appeal to gun owners and how do you build bridges with gun owners? And when I say gun owners, I mean the kind of folks who are active on the gun-rights side. And I think what that has meant for those 20 years is that the gun control movement would dilute our ambitions, would dilute our proposals and would pursue an approach of small, incremental change.
I think the argument I make in the book and the argument I make on the road is that that kind of approach has failed to secure any significant response on the federal level. It just hasn’t worked.
What I’m laying out is a vision that says, first and foremost you have to ask for what you want, even if you’re not going to get it today, tomorrow, next week, next month. You have to set out a long-term vision, you have to paint a picture of the kind of country you want to live in.
It will take a while to get there but you don’t get the full loaf by asking for half a loaf. You get it by asking for that full loaf. The other side has done that every step of the way, and it’s time we catch up. ... I’m not interested in weakening what I think is a bold vision for the gun control movement
I imagine that most of the people who come to your book-promotion events are already in favor of some sort of gun control. Is that correct?
I think the core audience are folks who are already there, and who are part of the effort. But you’d be surprised at how many folks come out just to disagree with me. ... I strive to find, not necessarily common ground, but to find a way to make my argument in a way that can resonate with folks who don’t start in a place of agreement.
So sort of what I think I developed in response to those folks is really ... this notion that the Second Amendment is not an entitlement, the 2nd Amendment is a right, and with rights comes responsibility. And you see that in the amendment itself, in the clause “a well-regulated militia.”
You look at the whole of our Constitution and you see that most rights are paired with responsibility. You have a right to a speedy trial; you have a responsibility to serve on a jury. You have a right to freedom of religion; you have a responsibility to respect other people’s religions. You have the right to freedom of speech; you have the responsibility not to cry fire in a crowded theater and not to divulge state secrets and also to respect other’s people’s rights to free speech.
I define responsibility when it comes to gun ownership as, hey, if you choose to own a gun, you have to prove to your community, your neighborhood that you do that responsibly. And for me that means: Get a license, register that weapon, get insurance and take responsibility for the fact that you’re going to own an instrument that’s designed to kill people.
Do you think the gun-control movement has made progress since you launched your “thoughts and prayers” tweet campaign in 2015?
You’ll remember that back then it was completely normal for even Democrats to send thoughts and prayers and then to wait 3 1/2 days and then maybe talk about policy if there was still an opening. They no longer do that. Immediately after a shooting they immediately revert to, ‘What can we do, what should we do, what do we need to do to make this stop?’ I think that’s progress.
I think the fact that after Parkland you not only saw a mass movement of young people and Americans of all ages come out to the streets is progress. I think the fact that you’ve had 40 companies break ties with the NRA is incredible progress. I think the fact that you saw two large banks after Parkland say we’re not going to do business with assault-weapon manufacturers is progress. ... I’m seeing that progress all across the board.