‘Lives are at stake:’ How Grandmothers Against Gun Violence are making themselves heard

‘Lives are at stake:’ How Grandmothers Against Gun Violence are making themselves heard

As gun-control legislation wound its way through Congress last month, Grandmothers Against Gun Violence was cheering.

The Seattle-based group commended the House of Representatives for passing two bills March 11 that would tighten federal regulations of gun sales. House Resolution 8 expands background checks on people who buy or transfer firearms, and HR 1446 (also known as the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021) would amend the “Charleston loophole,” which lets gun sales proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed. Under 1446, the FBI would have 10 days to finish checking.

Margaret Heldring, co-chairwoman of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV), noted the loophole enabled a person, without a background check, to purchase the weapon that was used in the mass shooting that claimed nine lives at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. “It’s long overdue that this loophole is finally being addressed, and we urge the Senate to take quick action on this. Lives are at stake,” she said.

Welcome to GAGV’s world, one in which Holdring sees progress toward reduced gun violence. There also is foot-dragging, she laments.

Founded in 2013 after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Grandmothers Against Gun Violence has staked out a mission of grassroots advocacy supporting legislation, research, and education to reduce gun violence. Its 1,200-plus members in 30 states are among the older active participants in a gun-violence prevention movement that encompasses activists of all ages and backgrounds in a push for common-sense gun legislation at the local, state, and national levels of government. Among other things, they gather petition signatures for statewide gun-safety initiatives and raise money for anti-gun violence research.

GAGV also takes its message directly to elected officials. Members lobby lawmakers in–person and by mail and e-mail. And they’re political, supporting candidates who measure up to GAGV’s goals. For the 2020 election, GAGV endorsed 96 candidates, including the Biden-Harris ticket for president, Governor Jay Inslee for re-election, and a bevy of Washington legislators.

“In this partisan political era, it’s more vital than ever that we elect leaders who are informed and committed to passing responsible and enforceable gun laws,” Heldring said.

Last year’s state Senate and House election incumbents and challengers were evaluated on their voting records and public statements, respectively, on five pieces of legislation during the 2020 session of the Legislature:

  • Establishing a single point of contact for background checks.
  • Eliminating firearms in childcare centers.
  • Continuing background checks for purchasers of gun parts.
  • Allowing the State Patrol to destroy guns used in crimes.
  • Establishing a state office of firearm violence prevention.

For this year’s Legislature session, GAGV’s priorities included restrictions on ammunition for high-capacity guns and a ban of open-carry weapons at public demonstrations and the state capitol.

People are listening. Three statewide gun measures were passed by voters in 2018, an indication of broad public support for what GAGV and others are saying, according to Jennifer Dolan-Waldman, a leader of GAGV’s legislative committee.

“When people go to vote and they have a choice as to what kinds of regulation they want to allow in, they’re pretty clearly saying that they want to have things tightened up,” Dolan-Waldman said.



Orange-clad members of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence make their presence known at public events.

Margaret Heldring, founder and co-chairwoman of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV), believes she and the other grandmas involved with the group have some moral authority to speak about the issue.

“There’s this sense of wisdom, life experience,” Heldring said. “None of us is building a resume at this point in life. We’re not interested in personal gain. We are truly blessed to be at a point in life where we can think about what’s good for everybody.”

Heldring was a retired clinical psychologist (after serving on the clinical faculty at the University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine for 30 years and on the staffs of Swedish Hospital Medical Center and Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle) when she and a small group of friends launched GAGV. They were moved by the mass shooting of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In 2013.

Nearing a decade later, in a conversation with Senior Scene, Heldring talked about her group’s work, its successes and dreams, and the fear she feels for her grandchildren and all children “in a society of violence.”

 Do you have to be a grandmother to join Grandmothers Against Gun Violence?

No, you don’t. Many women and some men, mostly of a certain age, are active members and board members.

Is there a particular age range or demographic of volunteers that seems easiest to recruit to your movement?

Yes, we appeal mostly to women 60 and older. We have about 40 men who are members and quite a few women in their 80s. Were so proud of them. However, there is room and opportunity for all ages in the gun violence prevention movement.

Regardless of whether they join your group, how would you rate the level of activism and awareness of seniors in the gun violence issue compared to the public as a whole?

I would rate the level of activism as high and effective. On Jan. 28, 2020, GAGV had its annual Lobby Day in Olympia. Seventy-rif3 members traveled in two buses and met with many of the state legislators to push for common-sense gun reforms. Many more e-mail, call, and write their state and federal representatives. They participate in post card-writing parties to sign and send their opinions to elected officials. We’ve marched in the streets, hosted informational gatherings, written letters to editors, and given public testimony to local and state elected bodies.

What’s your advice to anyone who isn’t a “joiner” but wants to help?

Just joining is a huge help. When we can say to elected officials that we have 1,200 members and are continuing to grow— that is powerful. Every voice adds to the movement and strengthens public opinion. Not everyone needs to do something. Simply being a part of the organization is a good contribution.

What keeps you awake at night?

I worry that too many state and federal elected officials are steps behind public opinion, and that while they dawdle, more tragedies will occur. Naturally, I worry about my grandchildren —all children—growing up in a society of violence.

Are there successes or advancements so far that give you hope?

Yes, indeed. I’m encouraged by the growing numbers of people in the movement, legislative successes on state levels, changes made by private companies to help reduce gun violence, new—but still way too little–support for research into gun violence causes, prevention and remedies, increased awareness and accuracy of the media, the diminished influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association), the openness of some people on both sides to look for common ground, the multi-generational nature of the movement, growing understanding that gun violence impacts communities of color in different, profound ways, and the most essential: Growing confidence that, eventually, we can win this struggle against gun violence. Change is necessary in our social norms, as well as our laws. It must become universal habit to lock up firearms and ammunition in homes, to applaud responsible gun ownership and use, and for all people to learn truth, not fiction, about guns.