"Now more than ever, we need to provide support for the advocacy organizations that are working to establish a formidable counterweight to the gun lobby, which is well financed, well organized, and will stop at nothing to protect the interests of the firearms industry and obstruct sensible legislation that will help save lives."
So argues David Bohnett in an opinion piece he co-authored with Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad in February. For Bohnett, a technology entrepreneur who co-founded the pioneering community site GeoCities back in 1994, gun safety has long been an interest of his and a focus area of the David Bohnett Foundation. Indeed, as Bohnett told PND, reducing gun violence is consistent with the foundation's mission "to improve society through social activism."
Earlier this month, PND spoke to Bohnett via e-mail about his and Broad's efforts to reduce gun violence in America, his view of recent legislative proposals in Congress to address the issue, and what he thinks other foundations and philanthropists should be doing to advance solutions to the problem. (For more on the issue, check out the special collection on gun violence in Issue Lab.)
Philanthropy News Digest: The Bohnett Foundation supports organizations working in a range of areas. When and why was gun violence added to the foundation's grantmaking portfolio?
David Bohnett: Supporting responsible gun legislation and working on gun safety has been one of our primary focus areas since the foundation began in 1999. Reducing gun violence is consistent with our mission to improve society through social activism. The issue is one of the cornerstones of building healthy and vibrant communities where people feel safe to walk the streets and conduct productive and meaningful lives.
PND: In February, you and Eli Broad co-authored an opinion piece that urged Americans to take action on gun violence. How did you and Broad come together on this issue and what did you hope to accomplish with the op-ed?
DB: It's a small universe of funders who all know each other, exchange ideas, and are working together to help solve the problem. We believe it's important to support advocacy organizations on the ground such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Fund for a Safer Future. Supporting efficient nonprofit grantees helps maintain the energy behind reform and keeps up the pressure on our elected officials.
Eli Broad and I support the efforts of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spearheads Mayors Against Illegal Guns. We have worked to promote education in our communities and support MAIG's anti-gun violence campaigns. Since 2007, the David Bohnett Foundation has provided grants to MAIG for outreach and awareness efforts.
In writing our op-ed, we wanted to send the message to the philanthropic community and all concerned citizens to be active, to stay active, and not let this moment pass us by. We believe philanthropists can help ensure that politicians make the right decisions, while private citizens can also help make a difference — by writing a check, donating time, calling and writing their elected officials, using social media channels for outreach and awareness. We hope to continue building a grassroots campaign that can't be ignored. By helping raise awareness, we can get more people to participate in the conversation and bring positive change to our communities.
PND: The horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in December seemed to signal a turning point in the gun control debate. Two and a half months later, not much has changed. Are you disappointed by the lack of action on the part of Congress?
DB: A lot has changed in terms of generating new support for efforts to reduce gun violence and promote a real dialogue around guns. We are encouraged to see that gun violence reform has finally become a priority in Washington and that the president has unveiled a bold package of legislation to deal with this complex issue.
The NRA has been exposed as beholden to gun manufacturers and not gun owners, yet many of our congressional leaders continue to pay more attention to the needs of the firearm industry rather than the safety of average citizens. It's one reason out of many to be disappointed in Congress, but those of us who are committed to change take the long view and will continue to do the work we need to do.
Ultimately, Congress must find common ground with the president and those working to curb gun violence and act, while concerned Americans need to stand united and keep up the pressure. In the end, it's up to us. We need to stay active and hold our leaders accountable.
PND: Are you optimistic that Congress and the White House can reach an agreement?
DB: I'm very optimistic. I believe we can pass new laws and change our culture. At the same time, I think we need better data on the effect of gun violence on society, on communities, on our economy, and on people's individual pocketbooks. The more vivid and personal we make the problem of gun violence, the better.
Second, we need to change the language we use and be more inclusive. The term "gun control" has become a wedge which divides a public that overwhelmingly favors gun safety and violence prevention. The more we talk about "controlling" guns, however, the more we turn off voters who support reasonable legislation and the enforcement of laws already on the books. Ultimately, gun owners and non-gun owners have the same goal — keeping our families and communities safe. It's time to join together, find common ground, and send a message to Washington. In the end, if both sides work together and hold our leaders accountable, we'll see real reform.
PND: The Bohnett Foundation has awarded nearly $3 million to organizations in the United States working to research and prevent gun violence. What advice would you give other foundations that may be thinking about funding efforts in this area?
DB: Let's not re-invent the wheel. It is important to promote existing organizations and not arbitrarily start new ones from scratch that overlap and duplicate the good work already being done. I believe interested givers should seek out groups that are making strides in the campaign to reduce gun violence and help fund their advocacy.
Unfortunately, philanthropic foundations tend to be cautious about funding this kind of advocacy work, so the best advice I can give is this: be bold. People — not just philanthropists, but all people — need to understand how critical it is to support organizations that are fighting to make our streets, schools, and communities safe from gun violence. It is an epidemic, but we have the power to do something about it.
— Emily Robbins