John Rosenthal, co-founder of Stop Handgun Violence, had an epiphany as he stood on the steps of the US Capitol during the March for Our Lives gun violence protest in Washington, D.C. earlier this year: the 850,000 fellow protesters, packed shoulder to shoulder along Pennsylvania Avenue, amounted to roughly the same number of people who have been killed by firearms in the US since his gun safety organization launched in 1994.
That disheartening realization only reinforced Rosenthal’s support of the student-led movement, which he believes is the watershed moment the nation has needed amidst the historically polarized debate on gun ownership and gun violence prevention in America.
The frustration and determination that March for Our Lives students exhibit today is the same fervor that propelled Rosenthal to dedicate the last 24 years of his life to the Beverly, Massachusetts-based organization that advocates for stricter gun safety laws in Massachusetts through public awareness, education, and legislation. His efforts have paid off: Massachusetts currently has the lowest percentage of gun death rates in the nation and has become a national model for gun violence prevention.
For his literal life-saving achievements, Rosenthal will receive a Beyond Health Award at the School of Public Health’s For the Future of Public Health Gala on Thursday, November 1, at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston. The award is presented to individuals and organizations that have made a lasting contribution to population health.
A native of Newton, Massachusetts, Rosenthal founded Stop Handgun Violence with the late Michael Kennedy of the iconic political family, at a time when the Massachusetts arm of the National Rifle Association dominated public opinion and state legislative policy on an individual’s right to own a gun.
But over the years, Stop Handgun Violence has taken a unique and strategic approach to changing the political and public conversation about gun ownership, legislation, and violence. It advocates for restricting gun access to people who could endanger themselves or others—such as children, criminals, and people with mental illnesses—while equally emphasizing that it does not want to ban all guns, a common accusation by pro-gun supporters.
“We don’t need to ban most guns to prevent gun violence,” says Rosenthal, who is an avid gun owner himself. “This is about common-sense gun laws that prevent unrestricted access to easily concealed handguns and military-style weapons.”
Rosenthal credits this relatable and direct messaging, along with his community organizing experience and Kennedy’s influential political connections, for the organization’s success in convincing state lawmakers to pass more effective gun safety laws. For years, Stop Handgun Violence made its presence known by displaying massive billboards on the Mass Pike near Fenway Park, with messages such as “Assault weapons have stopping power. Fortunately, so does your vote.” The billboards captured the attention of locals, tourists, and even President Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore. The organization’s current billboard, positioned in a prime location on Boylston Street near the Prudential Center, states “We’re not anti-gun. We’re for life.”
Rosenthal and Kennedy’s professional and personal background also fueled their political advocacy strategy. As a grassroots organizer, real estate developer for Meredith Management, and founder and co-founder, respectively, of two additional nonprofits— Friends of Boston’s Homeless and Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative—Rosenthal brought a corporate and civilian perspective to the Legislature. And Kennedy’s prime political connections proved invaluable.
“When we visited the State House, there would be pictures of Michael’s father [the late former Attorney General Robert Kennedy] and uncle [President John F. Kennedy] on the walls,” Rosenthal says. “It got to a point where politicians were put in a really uncomfortable position of having to say ‘no’ to the son and nephew of these people, and they no longer could ignore us.”
Now, he touts significant support by state legislators, in particular Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo. In the past 20 years, Stop Handgun Violence’s advocacy work generated landmark bipartisan legislation, including the comprehensive Massachusetts Gun Control Act of 1998, which mandates safe gun storage, manufacturing standards, strict gun dealer regulations, safety training requirements, and effective licensing procedures, signed by Republican Governor Paul Cellucci. In 2004, when Congress failed to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, Republican Governor Mitt Romney signed into law a permanent ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And in 2014, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that strengthened background checks for private gun sales, mandated mental health record reporting, and extended police discretion for licensing rifles and shotguns. Most recently, in May, House members voted 139-14 in favor of gun legislation that would allow a relative or friend of someone to seek an extreme risk protection order if they deem them to be at risk of shooting someone.
Since 1994, the gun death rate in Massachusetts has fallen by 60 percent, to 3.5 per 100,000 population. In comparison, the national gun death rate is 11.6 per 100,000 population. If every other state had the same gun death rate reduction as Massachusetts, 27,000 lives could be saved each year.
“I’m a huge fan of truth telling and using data and evidence to inform people,” Rosenthal says. “And the truth is, there isn’t a single state with lax gun laws that has a lower gun death rate than states with tougher gun laws.”
But sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction, he admits—especially when it comes to the political influence of the NRA and lawmakers’ resulting inaction to strengthen gun safety laws at the federal level. He holds US Congress members—Republicans and Democrats—largely accountable for the 90 to 100 deaths and 250 injuries that occur nationwide each day, often when guns end up in the hands of unlicensed owners. Current federal law mandates that Federal Firearms Licensees, such as retailers, must conduct a background check on prospective firearm buyers, but private sellers are exempt. And while the vast majority of gun deaths involve handguns, assault weapons and semi-automatic rifles—especially the AR-15–have become the weapons of choice in daily mass shootings of four or more people, as well as in high-profile massacres such as the incidents in Parkland, Las Vegas, Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino.
“Even I thought something would change after the mass shooting in Las Vegas,” Rosenthal says. “Five hundred and fifty shot, 58 killed, and 850 wounded within minutes, and Congress does nothing. They’ve chosen blood money campaign contributions from the uniquely unregulated gun industry over public health and safety from easily preventable gun violence.
“We’ve dramatically lost our democracy to special interest.”
He acknowledges that desensitization is one consequence of an epidemic of mass shootings. Constant media coverage—or now in some cases, little to no coverage at all—has led to a “lack of inquisitiveness” about why these tragedies are common-place occurrences.
“After every mass shooting, you hear three things: First, the Second Amendment doesn’t allow for any gun regulations—that’s not true,” Rosenthal says, citing the District of Colombia v. Heller court case in which the late Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia’s majority opinion states that the “the right secured by the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited.”
“Next, you hear ‘it’s not the gun, it’s mental illness,’” Rosenthal continues. “Well, we’re not the only country with mentally ill people, we just arm them with military-style weapons and easily concealed handguns, without background checks or detection by law enforcement.”
“And third, you hear ‘gun laws don’t work anyway,’”—to which, Rosenthal says, Massachusetts statistics precisely refute.
“Ninety to 100 more people will die and there will be a mass shooting of four or more today and every day,” he says. “Until the majority of Americans become as passionate single-issue voters as the vocal minority of extreme gun rights activists, and finally hold the spineless members of Congress accountable, the epidemic of preventable gun violence will continue to take 35 to 40,000 lives and 150,000+ injuries every year in America.”
Indeed, one of the more somber components of Rosenthal’s work is meeting family members of shooting victims and seeing the permanent effects that gun violence has inflicted upon their lives. He says divorce is common among parents who have lost a child, and the majority of parents “just want to curl up and die.” But a small percentage of them reach out to him to see how they can become gun safety advocates and help prevent other families from experiencing their pain.
These days, Rosenthal is focused on supporting the March for Our Lives movement and advocating for other states and the federal government to adopt similar legislation. Ultimately, Rosenthal believes it is imperative for people to “think globally and act locally, and participate in this democracy.”
He encourages people to vote out members of Congress who will not support gun safety legislation. The current student movement harkens back to a period of his life when he spent more than three months in jail for protesting US nuclear proliferation in the ’70s. Young people are similarly speaking up and “taking a page out of the NRA playbook,” by becoming single-issue voters.
“Bad public health policy leads to bad public health outcomes, and good public health policy leads to good public health outcomes,” Rosenthal says.
“We’ve reached a tipping point. This movement is going to be sustained if I have anything to do with it.”