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What The Gun Control Movement Can Learn From The AIDS Activism From The 1980s

These activists were instrumental in changing the narrative on the epidemic.

A sign hangs on a fence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.


People who are new to activism can learn a lot from the social movements of the past.

On March 9, the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, did something that only weeks ago seemed impossible: He signed a bipartisan bill limiting access to guns. It was the first gun control legislation to pass in the Sunshine State in over two decades. To be sure, the bill didn’t go nearly as far as many of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would have liked: There were no bans on assault weapons or high capacity magazines, nor were background checks strengthened. But in a state that has been moving in one direction on the issue of guns — toward fewer restrictions and more access — this was a sign that the tides may finally be turning.

What we have witnessed in the numerous protests and eloquent, heart-wrenching speeches given by the students and parents of the survivors of the Parkland shooting is a refusal to buy into the narrative that has gripped our country since the Sandy Hook massacre: No matter what we say, do, or write, nothing will ever change. Indeed, scanning through the media landscape over the past few weeks, it’s shocking to see how quickly the collective national outrage has morphed into resignation. Journalists and commentators have been explaining why the NRA will always keep winning or why Americans will never give up their guns. Just days after Parkland, CNN took time to explain the “ 10 things that the Parkland Shooting won’t change.” All of these pieces only reinforce the idea that we are helpless in the face of gun violence.

But are we really? It’s not like we haven’t seen this narrative before.

Standing Up Against AIDS

During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, there was not just widespread media indifference, but more often outright hostility, paranoia, and fear in the media coverage of AIDS. Thousands of people, mostly gay men, were dying, and almost nothing was being done about it. Many people, including religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, wondered whether gay people deserved the “punishment” they were getting. President Reagan refused to even mention the AIDS crisis until well into his second term, and many media outlets were hesitant to document the epidemic at hand.

It took the efforts of activist organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and ACT-UP for our country to wake up to the horrors of AIDS and to force real action to be taken to prevent these deaths from multiplying. These activists were instrumental in changing the narrative on the epidemic and finally getting doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and legislators to take the necessary steps to address the crisis. Looking back to the tactics these organizations employed, we see a relentless refusal to concede to the idea that nothing could ever get done and a doubling down on the need to get loud, angry, and disruptive. They succeeded precisely because they were incessant, often resorting to bold actions that made them impossible to ignore. A simple, powerful slogan took root: “Silence = Death.” ACT-UP organized a takeover of the FDA in 1988. They stopped trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and often chained themselves to the gates of pharmaceutical companies.

Radical Action

None of this activism came easy. People on the front lines were called radicals. They were often beaten and arrested. Many powerful organizations, including the Catholic church, were all too eager to stand in their way. Nevertheless, they persisted. They organized. They applied pressure to politicians, journalists, and celebrities, and they were not afraid to call out those people on their own side who weren’t doing enough or who were being hypocritical or equivocal. They also educated themselves about the processes and laws they wanted to see change, so they could know how to do battle with those in power. In the end, they were extremely effective. Their efforts led to a speedier and streamlined approval process of the experimental drugs that soon became the primary tools in battling HIV and AIDS-related illness.

As gun violence continues to reach epidemic levels, it seems like the gun control movement could stand to learn the lessons of AIDS activists and organize accordingly. Had activists like Martin Delaney, Larry Kramer, or Elizabeth Glaser listened to the news stories of the time, they too would have believed that change was impossible or that they needed to be practical and settle for incremental change. But this is not what they did. They demanded real action and results. We can thank them and the dozens of other trailblazers for the fact that even while AIDS remains a global problem, the number of people dying from this disease continues to plummet worldwide.

In the face of great cynicism and resistance, the heroes of the AIDS activist movement, often maligned at the time, rose up and decided that enough was enough. They had seen too many of their friends and family members die and would no longer allow those deaths to be in vain. Much as the nascent activism in the 1980s did for battling AIDS, the protests that have risen up since the Parkland shooting may one day be seen as the beginning of a great movement — one where a new narrative that no longer accepts the inevitability of NRA dominance and legislative failures has been forged.

How these newfound activists move forward with this movement could truly be a matter of life or death.

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