Marlon Marshall, the founder of the campaign consulting firm 270 Strategies, leads a “Running for Office 101” training session Friday during the Moms Demand Action “Gun Safety University” conference in Atlanta. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

In Georgia, ‘Moms’ gun control group preps members for public office

More than 1,000 gun-control activists gathered Friday in downtown Atlanta with their focus on a single political message: The time is now to run.

Organizers with the fifth annual Moms Demand Action “Gun Sense University” conference spent the day encouraging attendees to transition from activism to political office — or to find and back candidates who support changes to the country’s gun laws.

“This is an American problem more than anything,” said former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of Friday’s keynote speakers. “We can’t just walk away. We have to get something done, and you are the ones that are going to do it.”

About 50 advocates with Moms Demand Action, a lobbying organization started in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, are running for offices ranging from school board to Congress. Marietta resident Lucy McBath, a Moms Demand Action national spokeswoman, is challenging U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in the 6th Congressional District.

About a dozen activists ran for office last year, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts said.

“That’s how you build a movement,” she said. “By doing more than posting online and only offering thoughts and prayers.”

Brynne Craig, the political director with Moms Demand Action, said the interest in running for office was growing so quickly, the organization began offering online training in February to help would-be candidates.

“Sometimes as people are thinking of running for office, they think, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ ” said Craig, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “We say, ‘Yes you can, and here are fundamentals that put a campaign together.’ ”

That guidance is something Savannah resident Anne Allen Westbrook, the legislative liaison for Georgia’s chapter of Moms Demand Action, said helps as she decides whether she wants to seek political office. She said being involved with the organization for five years lobbying state lawmakers helped her learn how to navigate the legislative process.

“There’s a sense, when you’re not very involved in activism, you trust it’s all being (handled well) by your elected officials,” Westbrook said. “Then you realize what’s going on and realize, ‘Surely I could do this.’ ”

Attendees at the conference spent Friday and Saturday taking courses, including breakout sessions that train volunteers in areas such as encouraging supporters to vote and navigating social media.

The mass shooting at a South Florida high school earlier this year refocused those seeking changes to gun laws. Many of the people in attendance joined after the shooting in Parkland. That surge led to the largest turnout ever for the event, organizers said, which drew keynote speeches Friday from Bloomberg and actress and gun-safety advocate Julianne Moore.

“I’ve never seen more energy than we have right now,” Bloomberg said. “There’s a movement taking over the country, and we are going to win this battle.”

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and McBath are scheduled to speak Saturday.

Moms Demand Action has had varying success in stopping legislation to expand access to guns. After Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill that allowed those with weapons permits to carry guns on college campuses in 2016, lawmakers successfully passed a campus gun bill the next year that the governor signed.

The group has failed to advance restrictive legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks, a mechanism that allows semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns.

Jerry Henry, the executive director of the gun rights organization Georgia Carry, said he’s not concerned that the energy of groups such as Moms Demand Action will lead to restrictions on access to firearms.

Georgia Carry has endorsed Republican nominee Brian Kemp for governor.

“We want to see our endorsed candidates win,” he said. “We don’t want an anti-gun person in the governor’s office or lieutenant governor’s office or anywhere else to be honest. Other than that, we’re not too much worried about it.”

His organization will host it’s annual conference in Stone Mountain later this month. Kemp is expected to speak at the event.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.

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