**This interview, which I ran last July, is sadly just as pertinent as ever considering the mass shootings over the weekend. We all deserve the freedom to go about our daily lives–buying school supplies for our children, having a drink with friends, practicing at our place of worship, getting an education and more, without the threat of gun violence. And if you just read this and immediately have no interest, I ask you to at least try, because we need to have conversations on both sides if we are going to fix this problem.
Did I pick one of the most divisive topics out there? Yes. Why? Because with all the mass shootings happening at schools and at the hands of domestic abuse partners, I think gun laws are a woman’s issue, no matter what political party you identify with. And like Ria Browne advocates, we need to talk with each other about these issues and find common ground in order to save lives. Thousands of lives. Over the winter, Ria went from being a activist among friends, to creating a public Instagram account that increased the followers for Everytown for Gun Safety by more than half a million to beat the NRA’s following in just one week. She did it by reaching out to the naysayers and talking with them, not to them. In fact, Ria isn’t opposed to people owning guns, she is just pro common sense gun laws. And as our safe spaces, like schools, are no longer safe, I want common sense guns laws too. My girls deserve it. Here, Ria shares how she created a simple, viral social media campaign, her path to becoming an outspoken activist, and why women can make a difference in this arena.
Share your background and then, how did you get involved in Everytown for Gun Safety? I worked in fashion and retail consulting for luxury lifestyle brands for many years, and switched over to real estate five years ago. I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to have employees or deal with inventory. And I always loved real estate. I think every New Yorker has a real estate porn habit, and I really like relationships and building relationships. My original transition plan was that I would get my real estate license and use it towards my retail consulting business, because I opened a lot of stores for people over the years. But in the end, it just wasn’t in my heart. I just wanted to do residential.
I’m Canadian, and so I wasn’t really aware of the gun laws. But over the last five years, there have been more and more shootings. The one that really hit me the most was Sandy Hook, because when that happened, both of my children were exactly the same age as the children who had died in that shooting. It really hit home and we had friends who lived close by [to Sandy Hook].
A little less than a year later Mike Bloomberg announced that he was donating $50 million to fight for common sense gun reform and gun safety, and that is when Everytown for Gun Safety was founded, which is a combination of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action. Moms Demand Action still operates under the umbrella of Everytown, but has a very strong independent presence on their own. They’re really the grassroots arm of Everytown. They go to the state legislature, they create action on a grassroots level.
I wanted to get involved and a friend of mine works at Bloomberg, so we decided to partner together to throw an event to educate people, because once I heard what common sense gun reform was, I thought, “Well, why doesn’t everybody support it?”
Common sense gun reform is basically the idea of instituting gun laws that make sense, that keep people safe, but still respect the Second Amendment. And the gun lobby would have you think differently. I think the problem now is that the gun lobby has become such an extreme force and they have such high-propensity voters that politicians are scared of them, they will do whatever the gun lobby tells them to do.
They’re the single-issue voter. That’s all they care about. Yes. And the crazy thing is it’s such a small percentage of Americans. But because they’re such high-propensity voters, they can turn these elections any which way they want. And so we realized that education was the key. Our first event four years ago was basically just an educational event. That was the first step in activating people, because there was so much fear around it. Even looking back at it now, things have changed in the perception of the gun movement so much I think, because they’ve been unveiled for what they are. Back then, people were scared of the NRA and scared of what their bosses would think if they decided to support gun safety. I remember inviting people to the first event and they would say, “Sorry, I work for a bank. I can’t come to this event. I can’t make a political statement about this.” I was like, “What, are you kidding me? This is insane.”
Now it’s about trying to clarify, that yes, at this moment it’s a political issue, but it really needs to become a bipartisan issue, because it’s gotten to the point where it’s a public health epidemic. That is why also when I did the bracelets with the wish ribbons, I did orange, because orange is the color of gun safety. And then purple, the purple ribbons is “red or blue, we welcome you,” because we need to make this into a bipartisan issue.
Why do you talk about gun safety versus gun control? The reason why we [Everytown supporters] don’t say “gun control’ is because it causes a knee-jerk reaction amongst gun owners, where they feel like you are trying to control them. Which is not what we want. We’re not trying to control their guns. We’re just trying to manage the accessibility of guns and limit the access to dangerous people.
I’m not anti-gun at all. I grew up in Canada and my dad had a gun. He had a gun license. I understand that you can be a responsible gun owner. And that’s really more what we’re fighting for. It’s about the common sense measures you can put in support of gun owners so that these dangerous and deadly events don’t happen.
I think back to MADD and how it has been instrumental in changing drunk driving laws, and I feel like women are being instrumental in the gun safety arena. Women are coming together to raise their voices, also in part because we realize now we aren’t as far along as we thought we were on so many levels. Do you think being a mother and being a woman you approach something like this differently? And why do you think women can make a difference? There’s no denying the strength of maternal love, but I think it’s also not even the love that a mother can feel for her own child, but the love that a mother can feel for any child. I remember seeing an expert on television who said to teach your child, if they ever get separated from you, to approach a woman for help preferably a mother. Don’t have them go to police officers, don’t have them go to the first adult they can find.
I think that that says a lot about this communal mothering feeling that happens in our communities. I think that what’s really activated the majority of people over the last number of years are these school shootings, and you see these violent acts happening to children. And I’m not saying that fathers can’t feel the same thing. Moms Demand Action encompasses anybody who wants to volunteer and get involved.
Right, of course. But I think it’s that maternal or paternal feeling that in the bottom of your gut, that you have to do something when you see children suffering.
And I think that in this day and age as well, because of what you said, that we’re actually not as far along as we thought we were, that women right now are feeling very passionate about pushing themselves further along. And the bottom line too is that so much of gun violence happens in a domestic situation, where women are being shot and killed by their abusive domestic partners. Not just women, but their children too. It’s a huge problem regarding gun violence. A lot of the legislature that is trying to be reformed right now, are laws against domestic abusers being allowed to have guns. So it’s really about protecting other women and protecting children, which are both women’s issues.
How do you think that women can move this in a positive direction? I think that women are doing a good job already. I think you look at the head of Moms Demand Action, this woman named Shannon Watts, who’s an absolute powerhouse, and she just lives and breathes this issue. And then all of the leaders down from the top there, they’re all female leaders in this organization. They really are the strongest grassroots, gun reform organization in the country. They are the most effective and they are the largest. They have chapters in every single state. It’s really incredible, what they do.
Tell me a bit about the viral campaign you created on Instagram where you got more followers for Everytown than the NRA in a week. It was so basic, but so genuine and effective: I was just looking at social media because I’m always on it. It was a few days after the Parkland shootings, and I have always been a big, very vocal supporter for common sense gun reform amongst my peer group on Facebook, which is a private account. But I’d never really shared it on Instagram; I’d always felt Instagram was just eye candy. I decided that I wanted to launch this campaign, because I saw that Everytown had so few followers compared to the NRA, which I felt was a real misrepresentation of where we were culturally. It was such an affront to me. I came up with this graphic, and I did think a lot about it over the course of 24 hours. I mean, as much as you can think about something over the course of 24 hours.
I decided that I needed some sort of a visual tool so that people could track. I also wanted it to feel like there was a human behind it. I didn’t want it to feel like some sort of a random meme. I wanted it to feel very elemental, because we were talking about school shootings and that’s the thing about Common Sense for Gun Reform too, is that they’re very simple, logical measures that we can take. I wrote the numbers down, and I’d been tracking them for a couple of days and broke the numbers down and took a picture of it, and posted it on Instagram. Then, I just hustled my ass off to get people to repost it.
I remember then, I was in LA visiting my daughter and I started seeing your posts, and I’d see the numbers go up and think, “Go Ria, go!” That’s the amazing thing that happened, people saw this and they connected with it immediately. They had their own sense of agency about seeing this happen. It was pretty incredible. I think we got 400 thousand followers for Everytown in the first four days, it was pretty overwhelming. I mean, it’s all I worked on for every waking hour for those four days.
What did the people running Everytown think about this? They were completely caught off guard. I’d been talking about another project that I wanted to do with them just two days before I started this, but I didn’t tell them I was doing this, because, I honestly didn’t think that it was going to make such a huge impact. It took them a couple of days to kind of figure it out. Since then they’ve upped their Instagram game, but it was a big surprise to everybody.
At the same time, there was a lot of negative that came with that too.You got some really angry comments, but you were so good at talking to them and not getting angry yourself. There is a lot of negative, but I think it’s really important that the same mindset that you carry on a day-to-day basis in real life, in face-to-face interactions, that you maintain that sort of composure online and in social media, because I think that’s where the problem lies, where people just say all sorts of crazy shit on Twitter or whatever with absolutely no edit button, because they communicate as if nobody can really see them.
Because everything is so much more transparent, I think that accountability is even more necessary than before. But this weird thing has happened where people are somehow less accountable for what they say, even though it’ll be on internet indefinitely. I think it’s a learning curve too. I think that all of this technology is relatively new in the fields that we’re using it, and I think it’s just a matter of time.
That being said, there isn’t as much control over it. It’s really about self-control. When you’re trying to share a message, your main motivation should be education, and not trying to prove someone wrong. I don’t think that that actually works. People want to be heard. In fact, when I engage with people online sometimes, it’s almost like they’re surprised somebody even noticed that they wrote some flippant comment–it’s almost like they said it under their breath. But I think that is changing. I think it is going to change. I hope it will change. Especially having kids who are in that arena all the time.
One of my biggest influences is Daryl Davis, an African American gentleman, who for the last 20 years his work in life has been converting people out of the KKK. His story is incredible. His process is that he basically becomes friends with these people first and really listens to them. He encapsulates the idea that we won’t make progress unless the two sides are listening to each other.
People are so fired up and emotional post-gun violence nobody is really listening to each other. It’s crucial we open up this dialogue to see that we’re actually not that far apart in terms of our ideas of what we want to happen. Because there are lots of people who support gun safety but they don’t understand that the gun safety movement, as it exists today in America, largely respects the second amendment. Trying to clarify the information on both sides is key.
That’s always been the motivating factor towards the kind of activism that I do. I think that I’m good at making things appeal on a mass, commercial level. Applying that skill to my activism has really become my passion.
What gave you the courage to go become a known activist, not just one among friends? Was it hard? It was hard. Honestly, the two weeks before I launched this Instagram campaign I was going back and forth between being a private account and a public account. I had so much anxiety about it that I kept switching back and forth, back and forth. I wasn’t even posting anything about guns, it was really for my work as a real estate agent because we had a social media consultant who came in and said, “You know, you really should be public, and it would really help with your work, and blah, blah, blah.”
Then, all of the sudden to launch this campaign that necessitated being public, it was scary at first. But, I think that because of the tone of my activism, it’s actually saved me from a lot of negative feedback and attacks. Because, if people come looking to me to pick a fight, they’re not going to get it. It’s not the way I operate. It’s not the way I operate on a human level or a social media level. And I realized that you reap what you sow; I would say that the amount of positive feedback I get from it doesn’t even compare. The negative is hardly even there.
What is the most rewarding thing so far about doing this? I think that it’s feeling that I’ve raised awareness for how simple this issue can be. What I have heard directly from my new Instagram followers is that so many people felt very alone and very frustrated over the last number of years, because they feel like nothing is happening. They now have hope. I think that so much of hope is momentum, and keeping that momentum up, because it’s really easy to lose hope or faith if you just feel like you’re doing it on your own.
I think for me I’m most proud of incorporating people into the movement in an every day sort of a way. That’s what I’m really trying to do, especially with the wish ribbons that I launched for wear orange this year. The whole idea that you wear them until they fall off and you make wishes and all of that. But the main purpose of them is really to remind them on a daily basis that this is still an issue, and that we still need to keep fighting. (You can get the ribbons at Bird.)
Do you have any role models? There’s so many women who I admire. Not necessarily public figures, but I think for me there’s something about people who succeed in small ways in a daily basis, who have a sense of integrity. I admire older women who have children in their teens or early 20s who are close to their children and have children who still respect them.
It’s not easy. It’s not easy. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like 18 to 20 years of investment. And there’s so many sacrifices. In general, it’s also an incredible time to be a woman. We have so many positive role models, that there’s no shortage of them.
If a woman who wants to get involved, what steps she can take? One of the easiest ways is to get involved with Moms Demand Action. They are an incredibly effective organization, particularly if you have time, like actual physical time to go and get involved with their specific focuses. They’re always doing something, they’re always lobbying, they’re always pushing.
If that’s not your speed–it wasn’t mine, then I think spreading the message on your own level–incorporating news about gun laws and gun safety in your social media feed, and really just being aware of what’s going on. I think at the end of the day so much of this is about spreading awareness, and that begins with you. That’s an easy, natural way to be an activist.
I don’t think you necessarily have to be the loudest, the squeakiest wheel. I think that if you live your life and you model your life in a certain way, and people understand your values and you share your values with them, they can respect that. I think that that’s actually the most powerful way to get people to understand the issues behind a topic.
Follow Ria Browne: Instagram.