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“We Don’t Have To Live Like This”: The Moms Behind The Mission To Ban Assault Weapons

March Fourth was founded in the days following the mass shooting at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park.

During his 2023 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden set forth an ambitious legislative agenda touching on issues of police reform, entitlement programs like Social Security, and an unequivocal assertion regarding gun control. “Ban assault weapons once and for all,” he said emphatically, to uproarious applause from Congressional Democrats. “We did it before. I led the fight to ban them in 1994 ... Let’s finish the job and ban assault weapons again.”

The idea enjoys popular support — numerous polls have shown that a majority of Americans are in favor of such a ban. Among them, pediatrician Dr. Emily Lieberman and Kitty Brandtner, who work with colleagues at the nonprofit advocacy group March Fourth towards the singular goal of federally banning assault weapons.

Their mission began July of last year, when a gunman fired 83 rounds from a Smith and Wesson M&P15 (a gun based on the AR-15), killing seven and injuring 48 at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. Lieberman, a Highland Park native, was there with her husband and two daughters, 8 and 5, as she had been every year since childhood. In the chaos, she and her youngest were separated from her husband and eldest. “We were in the bathroom for over three hours on the floor, literally holding young children beneath us, our bodies on top of them,” she tells Romper. “Coming out of it, I was so grateful to be alive, physically unharmed, but I kept thinking back to, ‘Oh my God, I'm a doctor. I didn't do anything. I didn't help anyone.’ I was trying to protect myself and my family, but I was really, honestly disappointed in myself that I hadn't helped anyone.”

Dr. Emily Lieberman of March Fourth, an organization that aims to have assault rifles banned through federal legislation.Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Brandtner wasn’t at the parade, but the incident was a personal turning point, coming just weeks after the mass shootings at Robb Elementary in Uvalde and at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo. “At the time, I was preparing to send my oldest to kindergarten, which I realized was the target,” she tells Romper. “School shootings apply to me now. It really rocked me. There were so many recent instances of these horrific tragedies piling up, and it was like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we tolerating this?’”

She took her anger and sadness to “the social media abyss” and was encouraged to find so many joining her in her anger and desire to effect positive change, including Lieberman. “Within 24 hours I had hundreds of people responding to my call to go to D.C. and scream at the top of our lungs that we want to ban these assault weapons,” Brandtner says.

In the past, she says, her “naivety around politics, policy, and legislation” had kept her at arm’s length, something she says she regrets now. This time, she let the momentum carry her forward: March Fourth was born, a process she describes as “building a plane as we’re flying it.”

“I went to bed on the fifth of July in complete and utter despair and awoke to crying tears of hope,” she says. “I think we were off to the races by midday on the sixth. There was no premeditation on this.”

Kitty Brandtner, founder of March Fourth.Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

And yet the organization mobilized support, and a plan, quickly. Between July 12 and 13, less than two weeks after the Highland Park shooting, March Fourth volunteers, survivors, and victims’ families attended more than 20 meetings with members of Congress and the White House, sharing stories and urging lawmakers to take action. On that second day in D.C., Brandtner and Lieberman, along with about 500 others including survivors from Uvalde and Highland Park, held a rally.

They were just getting started. Lieberman established a medical outreach branch of the organization, specifically addressing the issue of assault weapons as a public health issue in her capacity as a pediatrician. “Gun-related injury is the number one cause of death of children in this country,” she says. “It is really important that physicians spread this word of public health and safety.”

Her motivation isn’t strictly clinical. She wants to be able to make a difference in a way she feels she wasn’t on the day of the shooting.

“In that horrible moment, my family came first and that's who I helped that day,” she explains. “But it doesn't take away that sense of, ‘Could I have helped others in a way that I didn't?’ Now feel like what I'm doing is going to help the masses: succeeding in creating this ban will save lives.”

In the ensuing months, the pair have continued to travel to D.C. and have been heartened by some of the progress they’ve seen. Within weeks of their rally, the House passed H.R. 1808, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022. While the bill did not make it to the Senate floor in time and has since expired, Brandtner has hope.

President Biden urged Congress to deliver an assault weapons ban to his desk.JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

“I'm in sales, so I'm used to persistence: be loud, be consistent. That's how you get things done,” she says. “I am very confident in our group's ability. If we could do what we did in six months with very little planning and time, I'm very optimistic at what we'll be able to accomplish when we actually have the luxury of strategy.”

Lieberman says she, too, has received a somewhat surprising political education through her continued work with March Fourth.

“Phone calls to legislators matter,” she asserts emphatically. “Before this I was like, ‘Okay, what's one more call to a senator or to a representative?’ And during this I'm like, ‘Oh my God, if we had one more.’ They tally them every day, every time you call. They're making legislative decisions based on that feedback.”

“And this is a winning issue,” Brandtner agrees. “The majority of Americans want a federal ban on assault weapons.” Indeed, over the decades various polls have signaled majority support for such a ban. A Gallup meta analysis of polls from 1994 to 2019 found consistent majority support for an assault weapons ban (support that, incidentally, becomes more pronounced when the word “ban” is explicitly used). A 2022 poll from Statista showed that 66% of all voters supported a ban, including 86% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans, with a plurality of Republican voters (34%) “strongly” in support. “We realize that we don't have to live like this. America's mass shooting epidemic is unique to America, because we have access to weapons of war,” she adds. “We don't have tanks in our driveway, we don't need assault weapons in our homes.”

Senators Blumenthal, Feinstein, and Murphy introduced an assault weapons ban in response to the mass shooting in Monterey Park, CA.Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

While legislative efforts have to be started from scratch after the expiration of H.R. 1808, the group’s second opportunity has already begun: on Jan. 23, in response to the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 11 people in Monterey Park, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein alongside Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, introduce the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023, which would “ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and other high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.”

In Biden’s State of the Union address, the president highlighted the efficacy of the 1994 ban over the course of the decade it was in place. “In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled,” he said. The bold assertion was not refuted by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, noting that while the issue is more complex than one law, “The body of research now increasingly suggests the 1994 law was effective in reducing mass-shooting deaths.”

“Every day that we waste is a day that there are potential mass shootings that will and do occur,” Lieberman says. “My hope is that we just continue to get more citizens to stand by us and to stand up against this horror and tragedy, and say that we demand a safer world for our children.”