One month after the Sandy Hook shooting and the tech community's demand for change is only building

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 14, 2013

From The News Desk

Something changed on December 14 when twenty kids were lined up against a wall in Newtown, Connecticut and shot. And it's not done rippling through this country's business and political fabric. Not even close.

Longtime advocates of changes in gun control have a somewhat macabre math for measuring the window of time after a mass shooting-- the window of time by which the political consciousness is shaken enough that those who lean for gun control are emboldened to demand it and those who don't might change their minds. Mark Glaze, the Director of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's consortium Mayors Against Illegal Guns, calls it "a grim calculus of outrage."

Typically that window stays open a month. After the shootings in Aurora it slammed shut "without an ounce of achievement" Glaze says, mostly because the presidential campaign was going on and no one wanted to get near it.

But as of today, it's been exactly one month to the day since the shooting in Newton, and the outrage and demands for change show no sign of slowing. The debate on guns has continued to be front page news in one way or another. Today, it's ramping back up, and we understand it's about to get a lot more intense in coming weeks.

In about fifteen minutes, President Barack Obama will be holding a news conference, of which gun control is expected to be a main topic. If change isn't proposed there, advocates expect it will be very soon. (Update: According to NPR, when asked about whether he would push for a ban on assault weapons, Obama said, "my starting point is not to worry about the politics...but what makes sense." He said there was a need for stronger background checks, a "meaningful" assault weapons ban and restrictions on the sale of certain gun clips. He said he wasn't sure if such proposals could make it through Congress.)

Just before his press conference, in Edmond Town Hall in Newton, a citizen organization called Sandy Hook Promise is holding its own press conference. Lead by victims families, Ron Conway and the Valley tech community is pooling its influence with them. Conway has joined the group's advisory board and has urged all of his portfolio companies-- a sizable number-- to put a new Sandy Hook Promise badge on their sites, starting last night.

The goal: Getting as many Americans as possible to sign the Sandy Hook Promise on the group's site starting this morning. This is just a second step in Conway's efforts to force change-- something he's vowed he'll concentrate all of his efforts on until it happens.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg's consortium-- which has been a hub of municipal and business efforts to demand change in gun laws-- is mobilizing this week as well to keep the pressure on. More than two hundred mayors are coming to Washington DC to "grab senators by the lapels and say, 'We're waiting,'" Glaze says. More than fifty survivors and their families are also flying to Washington to sit in congress members offices and demand change. In addition, the group is working to identify the 25 members of congress who are on the fence on these issues. It plans to galvanize the people in those congress members' own districts to put pressure on them, through town halls, their local newspapers, and the Internet.

As an industry, we ended 2012 talking about Silicon Valley's awakened political consciousness and victories with the fight against SOPA and the passing of the JOBS Act. There were a lot of suggestions of what fights the Valley would pick in 2013. Immigration? The fight against changes in taxing carried interest?

None could imagine gun control would be the top of the list before December 14. But the Valley and New York's start up ecosystems have embraced the cause, and Glaze says the two are invaluable allies. "Silicon Valley was first in line to help," he says. "Any professional in politics knows that money matters, but intensity matters more. To show that, you need to build an incredible network of grassroots supporters. Silicon Valley gave us the keys to that kingdom. They've made it possible to reach a whole new audience."

With the help of Ken Lerer and Conway, dozens tech entrepreneurs and investors (including me) signed their name to a full page New York Times ad demanding a plan, signed petitions, and put badges on their sites to push more signatures. Mayor Bloomberg's Demand a Plan site passed 1 million grass roots supporters-- the single biggest list on this issue, added 100 mayors to the consortium, sent 150,000 emails to members of congress and jammed the White House's phone lines. "This would not have been possible without the business community," Glaze says. "In the past they have not seen this as their fight."

Something changed on December 14.

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  • A lot of the tech community's involvement stemmed from Huffington Post and Lerer Ventures co-founder Ken Lerer-- no stranger to this issue. Before he launched the Huffington Post, Lerer's first foray into the viral and digital world was an effort called, launched in 2003. It was the first time he met viral whiz kid Jonah Peretti, who would go on to found Huffington Post with Lerer and later co-found BuzzFeed.

It was Lerer's introduction into the digital world, but at that time the Web wasn't enough. The efforts ultimately failed, and there hasn't been a political window since. Incensed by the shootings, he was reinvigorated to finish what he started with the NRA this time. He reached out to Glaze, Conway, and fellow New York investor kingpin Fred Wilson to help pull together their communities, initially for the New York Times ad. "I've never liked bullies in my life and I thought the NRA a was a bully," he said. "I've had an emotional reaction against them forever."

The Lerer Ventures family of companies have provided core tools in his arsenal. RebelMouse designed a page to keep people updated on the efforts and Lerer himself paid to take out social ads on BuzzFeed. (See examples, here, here, and here.) By pooling efforts with the West Coast, Mayor Bloomberg and now the Sandy Hook Promise organization, leaders like Lerer and Conway aren't assuming they can do it all themselves. They are lending their influence, know-how and connections to the the places that have the momentum and know-how to push change.

Specifically, Lerer and others would like to see a new ban on assault weapons, bans on certain clips, mandatory background checks and closed loopholes like the ones around gun shows.

Once actual legislation is proposed, those networks will go into a full press to flood congress with emails and phone calls. "The NRA has four million members and if you add up all the petitions signed in various gun safety groups, I bet you we are kissing up to four mission people now," Lerer says.

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  • A lot of the shouting for change is coming from Hollywood, New York's media community, and Silicon Valley's Web elite-- the three industries with the loudest megaphones in American culture. They're hoping the can galvanize their respective grassroots bases to push this issue from one of those third rails people in Washington don't want to touch, to something they can't help but address.  "Politicians are always a lagging indicator," Glaze says. "They take their cues from the public and an enormous swath of the public that never cared about this does now. There is no question we're at a turning point on gun policy in this country."

Now, I know what you're going to say: New York media, Silicon Valley and Hollywood are all communities chock-full of crazy liberals. Some coup. Big shocker they're not crazy about the NRA.

While that's true, they've also been communities that have to sell tickets, software, and magazines to large, broad swaths of the American public that include NRA supporters. Just check out one of many Twitter and Instagram feeds of Americans proudly displaying assault rifles they got for Christmas. As such, these groups-- while generally liberal-- are usually loathe to take big public stances. Twitter refused to even take its site dark for SOPA, and Facebook has been careful never to take political sides on anything.

Likewise, in the world of Hollywood you might find an Alec Baldwin to do a PSA, but many others have balked at being, well, political. After all, religion and politics are the two topics you're urged to avoid at the dinner table and your family still has to love you. Millions of Americans do not if you offend their beliefs. "I could count the people on one hand who would have made a PSA on a topic like this before," Glaze says. "Now we have Beyonce, Jon Hamm and other people who rely on people to buy tickets to see their movies. That's how you measure change. It starts with popular culture on every issue."

And it's rippling out from there:

  • EA took a stand by removing links to gun sellers on its "Medal of Honor" page.
  • MakerBot pulled blueprints for 3D-printed gun parts. (Read more about the potential impact 3D printers could have on this issue from our own Adam Penenberg.)
  • And last week, CalSTRS, the California State Teachers' Retirement Fund voted unanimously to divest investments of certain firearm makers.
  • Even more surprising, Cerberus Capital, the private equity firm that owns assault rifle maker Bushmaster has vowed to divest its shares of the company. The firm's founder lives in Newton. (Read NSFW Corp. Mark Ames' more visceral take on that story here.)
You'd expect a Ken Lerer -- who has made his name and fortune as a liberal using whatever tools necessary to force change-- to stand up and shout about this issues. But the above examples are ones that have never before wanted to take such a stance.

Something changed on December 14. And it's a change that was felt in the business world first, the political world second. As we hit the one month anniversary of the shootings and the "grim calculus of outrage" shows no signs of abating, expect the intensity to gain and the National Rifle Association to galvanize its base as well.

There may be the kinds of boycotts Hollywood, the tech world, and the business community have feared before when choosing not to take a stand on such issues. But the bet has already been made that the nation's political consciousness has been shaken enough that this is not the same risk it was on December 13.

It's certainly not the political fight Silicon Valley went looking for, but it may be its biggest fight yet.