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Survivors of gun violence are running for office, saying they bring a new perspective


The gun violence epidemic in the U.S. unfolded at a nonstop pace this year, taking lives in big cities and in small towns, in grocery stores, schools and homes. It also inspired some whose lives have been touched by gun violence of all kinds to run for office. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: The gun control group Everytown launched a training program earlier this year. More than 100 people signed up.


SHANNON WATTS: Some of you have declared your candidacy. Some of you are seriously considering a run. Some of you just want to learn how to work on campaigns. This program is meant for all of you.

SUMMERS: The goal? To train gun violence activists, many of them survivors of gun violence themselves, to run for office. California Assembly candidate Mia Livas Porter is one of them.

MIA LIVAS PORTER: My brother died by gun suicide after battling schizophrenia for five years.

SUMMERS: She says, for years, she felt powerless, but that changed after joining Moms Demand Action, an arm of Everytown.

LIVAS PORTER: I felt empowered to use my voice as a survivor. And I saw how we could make legislative change.

SUMMERS: That is also the story of Lucy McBath, a Democratic congresswoman who, in 2018, won an election for a suburban Atlanta House seat that had been held by Republicans for years. She became an activist after her son, Jordan, was fatally shot in 2012.

LUCY MCBATH: I am a mom, but I'm a mom on a mission. I don't want anyone else in this country to ever, ever have to suffer from the pain and suffering and the tragic loss that we have suffered.

SUMMERS: When a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., it pushed McBath to run for Congress.

MCBATH: If we won, then I was going to do everything in my power in Washington to elevate this issue in a way that no one in Congress would be able to turn their back on all the countless numbers of people that keep dying in this country every single day. I know why I'm there.

SUMMERS: Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, says that survivors of gun violence bring something unique to their campaigns.

WATTS: Gun violence survivors who channel their grief into action, whether it's activism or running for office, they're some of the most powerful advocates for gun safety. They really force others to confront the human toll of gun violence.

SUMMERS: Though Democrats have slim majorities in both chambers of Congress, even gun control proposals with bipartisan support among voters - like universal background checks and red flag laws - have not gained traction.

MAXWELL FROST: This country has a huge gun culture problem.

SUMMERS: That's Maxwell Frost. He's running for an Orlando area congressional seat. He got involved in the anti-gun violence movement in high school, and he went on to work for March for Our Lives, the group led by student survivors of the Parkland shooting. He says it's time to look at gun violence in a new way.

FROST: You think, what do we need to do to end gun violence? Universal background checks, ban assault weapons. And these are important things. Don't get me wrong. I'm going to fight like hell for these things once I'm a member of Congress. But this is what the NRA is counting on - on us just spouting the same three policy points and hoping they'll pass.

SUMMERS: Kina Collins agrees and says policymakers need to talk about the conditions that lead to gun violence. She's challenging Democratic Congressman Danny Davis in a district that includes parts of Chicago.

KINA COLLINS: The shooters in these communities are not born wanting to be shooters. Society turns them into these shooters, and circumstances turn them into these shooters. And so how are we investing in prevention instead of reaction?

SUMMERS: In North Carolina, Nida Allam had never considered running for office. That changed in 2015, when three of her friends were killed at their apartment complex.

NIDA ALLAM: In January, we competed in a football tournament together, and literally two weeks after that, they were gone.

SUMMERS: While it wasn't charged as such, the victims' families and friends described it as a hate crime. For Allam, it was a catalyst. And it got her thinking.

ALLAM: How do other elected officials talk about Muslims? We're constantly siloed and othered. And that contributes to the violence against us.

SUMMERS: Allam ran for Durham County commissioner in 2017 and won. And now she's running for Congress. She says that the country needs more leaders like her who intimately understand what can be lost when the country doesn't take action on gun violence.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.