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Jason Lindsay vividly remembers the day he jumped off the sidelines in America’s decades-long and seemingly endless debate over gun reform.
“On the morning of the attack on Pulse, like everyone else watching the news that day, I was incredibly moved by the tragedy and the sheer magnitude of it. And with it being in a gay club, it felt like such a personal attack. Throughout the day, I saw Christine Leinonen, the mother of one of the victims, pleading, ‘Can somebody please do something about the assault weapons?'”
Motivated by Leinonen’s plea, and frustrated by the recalcitrance displayed by politicians in the days following the Orlando nightclub massacre, Lindsay formed a political action committee, the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence. Lindsay had one simple goal: help elect candidates willing to pass measures that could prevent future gun-related tragedies, and keen to support legislation promoting LGBTQ equality.
“I’ve worked in campaigns and politics and government for a long time, so I had a general sense of how the NRA was so successful in its work,” he says. “The number one way to create change, in my mind, was through the elections process.”
A moderate Democrat raised in a rural community in North Carolina, Lindsay is not ashamed of the Pride Fund’s partisan leanings.
“It is our viewpoint that Republicans do not stand with us on our core issues of LGBTQ equality and common sense gun reform,” he says. “Our view that the only way we are going to advance those two sets of issues is by having stronger Democratic majorities at the state and the federal level.”
The biggest challenge for the fledgling organization is that it’s attempting to serve as a counterweight to the much more prominent, well-financed, and politically established National Rifle Association, which is quick to dismiss any sort of restrictions on guns — from waiting periods to background checks to limits on the number of magazines — as a conspiracy to take away the right to bear arms. The NRA uses its wealth and influence to oppose candidates who support gun reform, even cowing some lawmakers into silence just by the mere threat of a well-financed campaign against them.
But Lindsay says much of the NRA’s rhetoric is fantasy, derived from a caricature of what its most fervent members believe liberals or gun reform advocates wish to do. Based on his own experiences with guns, from growing up on a hog farm to serving as an Army Reservist, Lindsay says much of the policies supported by Pride Fund are perfectly rational — and have widespread support, even among former military members.
“In my 14 years of being in the Army, and since then, I have not met a member of the military that says, ‘Let’s take people’s guns away,’ because by being in the military, we were protecting our Constitution, and we protect the Second Amendment,” he says. “But the Second Amendment has limitations. The NRA wants you to think that it doesn’t.”
Despite being maligned, slandered, and financially outgunned by the political right, Pride Fund has managed a modicum of success, its most significant victories being the ouster of two longtime Republican congressmen, each with more than two decades of experience, staunchly anti-LGBTQ records, and NRA allies.
This year, the organization is focused on repeating that success in gubernatorial and legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia. Lindsay hopes that sustaining their success will boost Pride Fund’s reputation, and, through contributions, its resources ahead of 2018, when they will focus on key congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial contests.
“At the end of the day, we’re the only organization that’s really standing up,” says Lindsay. “There’s a lot of organizations out there that say they’re taking on the issue. They’ll fundraise off the issue. They’re incredibly corporate and large organizations, but when you look at their day-to-day work, who is actually fighting on behalf of the Pulse victims and really creating change? That is us.”
Some posit that Americans have become numb to the frequency of mass shootings, or the high number of gun-related fatalities each year, but Lindsay believes there’s still enough outrage and disgust to motivate people to take action. And that motivation strengthens as the number of shootings and subsequent death toll increases.
“Because mass shootings have continued to uptick and happen more and more frequently, they’ve become more and more lethal,” Lindsay says. “They’re getting much, much worse.”
This is particularly true after the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, when a gunman fired into a crowd at a country music festival, killing 58 and injuring nearly 500. To make matters worse, the shooter, Stephen Paddock, used bump stocks — attachments to make his semi-automatic weapons fire at a faster pace — in order to kill more people as rapidly as possible.
Despite the media attention often lavished on conservative or pro-gun groups like the Log Cabin Republicans or the Pink Pistols, Lindsay believes his group is gaining more recognition, as members of the LGBTQ community search for solutions to gun-related tragedies.
“I think there is some media fascination with gays carrying guns. There’s still this perception that gay people can’t shoot,” he says. “But there has been an incredible amount of media attention on our work…and how the LGBTQ community is standing up and saying, ‘Enough.'”
METRO WEEKLY: You were exposed to guns from a young age. What was your childhood like?
JASON LINDSAY: I grew up in rural North Carolina, literally in the middle of nowhere, on a hog farm. Incredibly rural, with a small high school, with like 350 people in the entire school. Clinton is the closest city, and even it didn’t have a Walmart until I was in high school. It had a lot of Piggly Wigglys.
I was an only child. My dad worked a lot on the farm. Being an only child and being in a really rural area, I had to entertain myself a lot, so I liked to read, write, and play video games. I would love playing outside, being in the woods. I had a lot of animals. We had horses and goats and rabbits and dogs and cats.
MW: What happened after you went to high school?
LINDSAY: In high school, I knew I wanted to serve others, and I was wanting to do one of two things. I either wanted to be a teacher, or I wanted to go into medicine. Where I grew up was so rural, there were volunteer rescue squads, so as soon as I turned 16, I started volunteering on the rescue squad at nights and on weekends to serve the community and help give back.
I wanted to become a teacher. I was really active in different programs at school to try and advance myself and really put myself in a position where I could go to college and get out of the rural area, and be with my people. I knew I was gay early on, so it was a difficult experience, being in such a rural area and not knowing any other gay people.
MW: When did you come out to your parents?
LINDSAY: To my mother, 16, 17. I didn’t tell my dad until I was 21. My mom was okay with it, after a while. I think she knew, but it was also a shock. She just didn’t know how to deal with it, but she very quickly got to the point where she was wanting to know my dating life and meet people and cook for them. A typical Southern woman.
MW: Did you ever encounter homophobia?
LINDSAY: Absolutely, being in a redneck high school, even though I wasn’t out. Because there was the perception that I was gay, I was picked on a lot. I was one of the few guys that did not play sports in this little small school. I stood out just because of that, and then also because I was focused on my studies and doing the rescue squad. That set me apart from a lot of my schoolmates.
MW: Where did you go to college?
LINDSAY: I started at UNC Greensboro. I wanted to go into education. I was a middle-grades education major. When I was a freshman in college, during the 2000 election, I saw one of the debates between Bush and Gore, and it really got me interested in politics. Prior to that, I had no interest. But after seeing the debate, I got more interested, changed my major, and later joined the Army Reserves. Then, 9/11 happened just a few months after that.
After my deployment to Iraq, when I came home, I wanted to be closer to my family, so I transferred to NC State in Raleigh, and that’s where I finished undergrad.
MW: For how long were you in Iraq?
LINDSAY: I was on active duty for a year. I was in-country for three and a half months.
MW: What was it like having to abide by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?
LINDSAY: It was challenging because I felt like I couldn’t open up or be myself, that I had to be regimented. I think the short of it is, because of the system and the rules in place, it made us feel like our service was not good enough, and that we were not as honorable as our straight counterparts.
It’s a shame. Even today, with the reversal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” you have the transgender ban and transgender soldiers and veterans being told that exact same thing, that, even though it’s 2017, our political leaders are basically saying a certain category of people’s service is not good enough.
MW: What brought you from North Carolina to D.C.?
LINDSAY: I moved up here and started working for Senator Kay Hagan, who was representing North Carolina, doing health policy. Then, I went to the Department of Veterans Affairs. I was a Senior Congressional Relations Officer, working as a liaison with the Hill. I’ve been in DC a little over seven years.
MW: As a former Army Reservist, what is military culture like, and how does your relationship with guns differ from the general public?
LINDSAY: I think you kind of have a couple different viewpoints. There’s the viewpoint like myself and [Virginia gubernatorial candidate] Dr. Ralph Northam, who is also an army vet, and Seth Moulton, who’s a marine vet and Congressman from Massachusetts, where we understand the devastation that assault weapons can cause. We know the level of training and continual retraining that members of the military and police have with weapons, and that there needs to be a respect for the lethality of them, especially with stuff like bump stocks, which have come to the forefront of the news this week.
Then, you have other folks that are very much in line with the NRA and Republican line of thinking, that any effort whatsoever to change our laws or have smart regulations is a violation of the Second Amendment, which is absolutely false, but that’s the other viewpoint.
MW: Pride Fund considers attitudes towards gun reform and LGBTQ equality when choosing candidates to endorse, but what other criteria must they meet?
LINDSAY: There’s not a rubber stamp that you have to check every single box on a twenty-step process. We’re not absolutists, but we do carefully evaluate the entire picture of the critical issues.
We have an endorsement questionnaire where we ask questions about key gun reform positions as well as LGBTQ equality. We review voting records and statements and vet the candidates if they’ve been in office at a previous level, or if they’re running for re-election. If they’re not a current office holder, then we are a little more strict with the interview process, because there’s not as much of a record to go on. But it’s a lengthy, in-depth process.
We do focus our attention, primarily, on competitive races, because our scope is to protect vulnerable Democrats that are strong on our issues. But most importantly, to flip seats from red to blue, even simple gun reform is not going to move. LGBT protections are not advancing, they’re being rolled back. So, what’s the solution to that? We’ve got to have more Democratic members of Congress and in legislatures, as governors, at all levels.
MW: Your opponents have attacked you as gun-grabbers infringing on their Second Amendment rights. How do you fight that?
LINDSAY: I think it really boils down to the fact that there’s not been one policy proposal, there’s not been any legislation introduced, there’s never been any discussion of, “We need to take people’s guns away.”
MW: Then why do people believe that?
LINDSAY: Because the NRA has been very good at pushing that narrative, that any effort, whatsoever, to amend our gun safety regulations and laws is an effort to take away your guns. Chris Cox and Wayne LaPierre were on Fox News on Thursday, basically pushing that narrative, that they’re defending freedom and protecting the Second Amendment. Well, when the Second Amendment was written, you had muskets. You didn’t have semi-automatic and automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines, and the lethality of these things has changed drastically.
When there were incredibly high rates of vehicle deaths, the government wanted to save lives, so they started implementing things like seat belt rules, crash test standards, and airbag regulations. Just because the government was doing those things to save lives didn’t mean the government was “coming to take away your car.” It meant that it was implementing common sense things that have saved lives. Now, has implementing those various proposals in car safety saved every single life from car accidents? No, but it saved a hell of a lot of lives. And that’s the false narrative that so much of the gun lobby and Republicans want to push.
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson was saying that expanding background checks wouldn’t have stopped Las Vegas, or prohibiting assault weapons wouldn’t have stopped Las Vegas. But every one of these common sense measures makes a difference and saves lives. It’s not going to save every life, but it’s the same way with treating cancer. To treat cancer or HIV, there’s a lot of multivariable treatment approaches to it. Not one approach is the cure-all or fix, but does that mean we don’t try?
There are 33,000 people who die every single year, 93 people every single day, over 100,000 who are injured due to firearms. Why would we not at least try to fix the problem?
MW: Conservative hero Antonin Scalia argued that there could be restrictions placed on firearms without violating the Second Amendment. Why aren’t Democrats using that as an argument to Republicans?
LINDSAY: I think messaging is always a challenge. I will tell you one thing, the NRA has been amazing at their messaging, and they know how to use fear tactics to rally the base and completely get off topic of the facts. These “alternative facts” and alternative realities, “We say this is true so it is.” If they keep saying something over and over again, their members start to believe it.
Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, has said for decades that the only thing that’s going to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Well, science and the statistics show that’s not true. There were country music artists and people at Las Vegas that had concealed-carry weapons. It did them no good, and they have said publicly, “I had a concealed carry. There was nothing I could have done to prevent this.”
With the Dallas police shooting last year, people said the same thing. Concealed-carry holders were scared to even try and act because the police were rushing in, and they didn’t want to be shot, thinking they were the bad guy.
At Pulse, the first person the gunman encountered was an off-duty police officer with a gun. This narrative that having everybody strapping a gun is going to save lives is not true.
MW: Why aren’t any of these anecdotes, which cast doubt on the NRA’s message, breaking into the mainstream?
LINDSAY: I think they are public, but I think that there’s not enough cohesion. I think it’s hard to get through the noise, because you’re going against people that are so often just flat out telling untruths as part of their narrative.
The NRA also put over $30 million into getting Trump elected and spreading false lies about Hillary Clinton wanting to take your guns when she clearly said, over and over and over again, throughout the campaign, “I do not want to take your guns.” Expanding background checks to cover online gun sales and gun shows, that’s not taking away your guns. But the NRA pumped out millions of dollars worth of ads, basically saying how she wanted to take your guns away. So, when you have a behemoth organization that spent $52 million just on federal elections last year, it’s kind of hard to fight back against that machine in the same way that everyone would like to.
MW: As you’re endorsing candidates for office, what type of support are you providing?
LINDSAY: There’s a couple of aspects to that. At the very, very lowest tier, you have just an endorsement. If it’s a local race, having that stamp of approval that they can show that they’ve been vetted at a national level and that people support them.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, and there’s all kinds of levels in between, there could be direct campaign contributions to the candidate, then independent expenditures outside of the campaign, spending money on behalf of them. There’s holding events and rallies, press conferences to bring attention to the candidate and their issues. There’s field work, with door-to-door canvassing, or remote-phone banking, or going to their office and helping with activities.
With us, we’re very digital-focused, where we utilize social media and our national grassroots network to help bring attention to certain races. We are a small grassroots organization. For the first year, we were volunteer, and solely relied on our grassroots power to grow and to create change.
We have laser-like focus. We’ll endorse and we’ll help a decent amount of candidates, but in the 2016 and 2017 elections, because of our size, we picked a handful of races that we focused really, really intently on.
MW: What elections are you focused on this year?
LINDSAY: Ralph Northam. We endorsed him in the primary, the only group that did that at that point. We endorsed Virginia delegate candidate Chris Hurst, also early on in May. We were the first gun reform organization that had endorsed him, and one of his first endorsements, period. Then, Attorney General Mark Herring, running for reelection, is a critical race. For delegate, Carrie Delaney, right in Northern Virginia, David Reed, Danica Roem.
MW: There’s this interesting phenomenon among delegates from Northern Virginia, where they vote against stand-alone bills on LGBTQ equality, but then when it comes to the annual budget, they vote for an amendment providing nondiscrimination protections that they know is going to be defeated. Then they go back to their constituents and say, “Well, I voted for the budget amendment.” How do you focus people’s attention on their role in killing pro-LGBTQ legislation?
LINDSAY: That’s a really, really good point. Especially in Northern Virginia, and with Joseph Yost, who’s running against Christ Hurst. They’re two-faced. They talk out one side of their mouth and tell their constituents, “I’m a moderate, blah, blah, blah,” but then you look at their voting record. They’re not moderate, but they’ve convinced their constituents they are. The number one mission of the campaign and outside groups like us is to let constituents know the true voting record and stances of that member.
MW: But how do you make sure that message reaches the swing voter?
LINDSAY: There’s a few ways. One that we really focus on, depending on the race, especially because of the extremely high return on investment, and the advances in campaign technology, is micro-targeting, and making sure your message is getting to persuadable audiences. You can use voter file targeting and Facebook and you can really partner with campaigns where you’re doing a multifaceted approach. People could get direct mail in their regular mailbox, then you can do voter file targeting and send them the same kind of messaging through Facebook ads or banner ads. You can do robocalls. There’s so many tools in the toolbox that you can use to reach voters.
MW: Are Democrats still reticent to embrace gun reform measures, or are supporters of such measures now in the majority?
LINDSAY: The majority, and not only in Congress. The American people overwhelmingly support common sense gun reform. Depending on the measure, a lot of public opinion polling has shown that even gun owners say the NRA has lost its way and is no longer protecting and serving the needs of sportsmen and its original base, that it is serving the profits and the interests of gun manufacturers.
One of the NRA’s top two legislative agenda items for this year is advancing legislation in Congress to deregulate the sale of silencers. For most gun owners, that’s not their top legislative priority, but for the gun manufacturers, it is, because it’s a whole new revenue stream that is currently heavily regulated, and purchasing and registering a silencer is expensive.
As a military veteran, I’m telling you, silencers serve two purposes: to muzzle the sound so you can’t hear the shot, and to reduce the muzzle flash of when the bullets are being fired. Those are the two warning signs that give bystanders and people in the area a warning that “Hey, guns are going off. Take cover.”
Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor who is on our board, has said, “When I was at Pulse. I didn’t see the gun, I didn’t smell the gun. I heard the shots, and that’s what saved my life.” So, why on earth is one of the NRA’s top legislative priorities to deregulate silencers? Can you imagine how much more lethal Las Vegas would have been if all of his guns were equipped with silencers, where people were already confused thinking it was fireworks or part of the show? The same thing happened at Pulse: people originally thought it was part of the music. But if these weapons had silencers on them where there was very little noise, how many more people would have died in the confusion?
MW: In the wake of Vegas, what’s your biggest fear about the next mass shooting?
LINDSAY: My biggest fear is that as these attacks continue to happen with increasing frequency, and the lethality gets worse. You continue to see that more and more people are angry, they’re upset, they want to fight back, but I think we’re in period right now where we can create change. But if we don’t move the needle, at some point, there’s going to be a saturation point where the American public just says, “This is how it is.” Once you get to that point, you lose the passion and the level of anger and work and dedication to fixing the issue.
MW: Have we reached that point already?
LINDSAY: I don’t think so. I definitely don’t think so, because I think there’s more and more people that have never been [politically] involved before. Even within the gay community, Pulse was a watershed moment, but after a period of time, they started to be focused on the latest Trump disaster and protesting and fighting that. But now that Las Vegas has happened, it has rekindled that passion and enthusiasm of people, like, “Enough is enough.” We can’t let the gun lobby continue to dictate the rules and let people continue to die and be injured in these types of attacks.
Mass shootings are always talked about because they’re news, but there’s so many more components to gun violence. One of our policy items that is important for us as an LGBTQ organization is suicide. The number one way people kill themselves is with a gun. Within the gay community, that’s a huge challenge for us, more so than in the straight community. The level of gun violence against victims who are transgender is incredibly high. We’ve got to tackle that. There’s the level of hate crimes against members of the gay community. The FBI has clearly said that the LGBTQ community is the number one target of hate crimes, based on current reporting.
There’s important work to be done. We’re making a difference, and I think one of the most important things is that we are an organization where gun violence is our sole focus. We don’t have a list of 30 policy things in a bunch of different arenas, trying to be all things to all people. We are the only national political organization, LGBT, that is solely focused on gun policy reforms.
MW: Where do you hope to see the Pride Fund in 10 years?
LINDSAY: I want it to really be a powerhouse as a political action committee, and expand into the nonprofit advocacy world. There’s a lot of work that we do as a PAC that is very different from what any other PAC does. We don’t just raise money and give money to candidates or spend it. This is a movement. People want to volunteer. They want to help. They want to create change, and there are so many ways to do that that don’t directly fit into the political box. I think that’s an obvious place we want to go, but I really want to continue our momentum of helping change the balance of power at the state and federal level, where we can advance common sense gun reform and advance LGBTQ equality and protections.
What we need in order to do that is resources. Because we are a small, grassroots organization, we’re not corporate, our overhead is incredibly small. We are the only organization solely focused on this mission, and we’re incredibly smart about how we spend our money. We don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall. We’re really targeted about how we spend our money, and the more that people can see not only the critical work that we’re doing, but how successful we’re being at it, and how the return on investment is so high, we can get to that point.
Every time I talk to the owner of Pulse, who’s on our board, or Brandon, or one of the other survivors or family members who lost someone — every time I see the fire in their eyes and the passion in their hearts of how much they want to honor the victims of Pulse, or victims of gun violence all over the country — I am reminded that it is a significant movement. We are giving them a voice, and they are giving a voice to the people who lost theirs.
For more information on the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, visit pridefund.org or call 202-930-0981.
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