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Guns Strike Emotional Chords For People On Both Sides Of The Political Debate

Queen Thompson Brown, who lost a son to gun violence in 2006, speaks prior to the introduction of Democrat Hillary Clinton at the Trayvon Martin Foundation's "Circle of Mothers" Gala.
Joel Auerbach
Queen Thompson Brown, who lost a son to gun violence in 2006, speaks prior to the introduction of Democrat Hillary Clinton at the Trayvon Martin Foundation's "Circle of Mothers" Gala.

Queen Brown has told the story for years now, and it shows.

But it doesn't sound rehearsed. It sounds lived in, thought over, played on repeat over and over again. The story of her son, Eviton Elijah Brown, killed nine years ago, shot by a man Eviton didn't even know.

Eviton had been a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU, before he was shot. He took some time off from school, to work after his girlfriend got pregnant. He was staying at home with his mother. One day, after a long double shift driving trucks, Eviton came home, exhausted.

His mother made him one of his favorite meals: a fried egg, cooked medium, with garlic powder on top, and some bagels, toasted in the oven. Then Queen Brown stepped out to run an errand. She would never see her son alive again. That would be the last meal she'd ever make for him.

"My son was tired when he died," Brown said. "But I felt good, because he wasn't hungry."

"We do a lot of hugging"

This past Saturday, Hillary Clinton, likely Democratic presidential nominee, mentioned Queen Brown by name.

Brown and Clinton both attended the third annual Circle of Mothers conference last weekend in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The event was founded by Sybrina Fulton, another mother who lost a child to gun violence. Many know the story of her son, Trayvon, killed in a Florida suburb while walking home, wearing a hoodie, holding a bag of Skittles and some tea.

The Circle of Mothers schedule includes not just seminars, but an aerobics class and even two hours of "glam time."

"We do a lot of hugging," Queen Brown said of the event. "We do a lot of crying. We do a lot of back rubbing. We connect with ourselves."

Clinton is trying to draw major distinctions between herself and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, on guns. Trump was recently endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and when receiving that endorsement, he said the Second Amendment is "under attack" and "on the ballot in November."

He also said Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment. That's not true. Clinton favors stricter background checks for gun purchases, as well as holding gun dealers and manufacturers liable for crimes committed with weapons they made.

And while some liberals say her proposals don't go far enough, she is seemingly diametrically opposed to Trump, and she pointed that out May 21st in front of Brown and dozens of other mothers.

"Donald Trump said that in his very first hour as president, heaven forbid, he would overturn President Obama's actions to strengthen background checks," Clinton told the room of mostly black women in their Sunday best, gathered at the Circle of Mothers conference.

"Then Mr. Trump went further," she continued. "He said that also on [his] first day in office, he'd mandate that every school in America allow guns in classrooms... . That idea isn't just way out there; it's dangerous."

Her comments were well-received, but that's to be expected. Clinton does extremely well with black voters and women voters, particularly black women. When making comments shortly before Clinton spoke at the event, Queen Brown said of their relationship, emphatically, "We must support those that support us."

Guns, as an issue, will motivate mothers like Queen Brown or, on the flip side, strict gun-rights advocates like those in the audience last week when Trump received the endorsement of the NRA, even as gun control and gun rights might not be that high on most on most voters' minds this November.

(A Gallup poll from earlier this year found that for both parties, gun policy, as an issue, was ranked "below average in importance.") The story of guns, it seems, in this election at least, might be all about motivating both parties' bases.

"When a mother cries, things have to change"

For Queen Brown, part of Hillary Clinton's base, every election has become a guns election. She said her work on gun control, and that of other mothers like her, is similar to the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"She wasn't trying to take away their drinks, and their right to drink," Brown said of Candy Lightner, who founded the group after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. "Ms. Fulton and the mothers, we want you to be a responsible gun owner, just like Ms. Lightner wanted you to be a responsible drinker."

Brown said the pushback Lightner and MADD experienced from the alcohol and hospitality industries over enhanced alcohol guidelines mirrors what mothers like her are facing from groups like the NRA. But she also believes, with time, they will win.

"When a mother cries," Brown said, "things have to change."

Brown said she's in favor of periodic background checks and even psychological evaluations for gun owners. She wants to close the so-called "gun show loophole" and put laws in place that might have prevented her son's death; Brown said the man that shot her son did so with a gun that was obtained illegally.

Her son, Eviton, died in his cousin's car. After Queen made him that last meal, his cousin called and asked him to ride with him while the cousin went to work, to pick up a paycheck. A co-worker of Eviton's cousin ended up following their car, "shooting it up," as Queen describes it. The cousin and the coworker were fighting over a girl.

Only Eviton was hit. "I know what the fatal bullet was," she said. "It was a bullet to his back, and it pierced his lung."

"The only way to save our Second Amendment..."

Trump has campaigned this cycle as a fierce defender of gun rights, and he's appealing to mothers on a different level than Clinton: protecting themselves and their families.

Trump has said, repeatedly, that Americans with guns can better protect themselves against terrorism. After the Paris terrorist attacks in November, Trump argued that the number of casualties could have been reduced if more guns were in the hands of the right people. He's said similar things about last year's shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and another mass shooting at a community college in Oregon.

"The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for someone you know named Donald Trump," he said when receiving the endorsement of the NRA. He added, "I will never let you down."

Trump has called for putting an end to gun-free zones (even in schools and on military bases), suggested that more gun ownership would help prevent mass shootings and said that Clinton wants to take people's guns away.

Clinton suggested Trump wanted to put guns in classrooms in her weekend speech, prompting Trump to tweet that she was wrong on that point over the weekend. By Sunday, in a phone interview with Fox News, he pushed back, in a seemingly contradictory way.

Trump has called for putting an end to gun-free zones (even in schools and on military bases) and suggested that more gun ownership would help prevent mass shootings.

"I don't want to have guns in classrooms," Trump said, directly followed by, "although in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms." Trump said any teacher with a gun in a classroom should be properly trained.

Though Trump's stance on guns has been relatively consistent this election, he's expressed different views before. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Trump tweeted support of President Obama, after the president gave a speech urging Americans to fight for stronger gun laws. And in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve,Trump wrote that he supported a ban on assault weapons and a "slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.

Clinton has changed her messaging on the issue as well. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she often portrayed herself as a pro-gun churchgoer, recalling how her father taught her to shoot when she was a little girl.

When Clinton criticizedthen-candidate Obama for his comments that conservatives bitterly "cling" to their guns and religion, Obama said, "She's running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment; she's talking like she's Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton's out there, like she's out in the duck blind every Sunday; she's packing a six-shooter. Come on. She knows better. That's some politics being played by Hillary Clinton."

In her speech to Queen Brown and the other mothers this past weekend, Clinton struck a different tone. "I love my daughter and granddaughter more than anything, and I worry about them as every mother does," she said. "And I want them always to be safe."

"One of us has a dead son..."

For several hours after his death, Queen Brown didn't know where Eviton was, or whether he was alive. She drove the streets of Miami with her sister, the mother of Eviton's cousin, who had been driving the car. When they heard a radio report saying that a car in town had been shot several times, and that only one passenger lived, Brown said she knew that story was about Eviton and his cousin.

It put Queen and her sister, both of them looking for their own son, in a strange position. Queen said to her sister, "One of us has a dead son, and one of us has a dead nephew. And I hope it's not your son, but my God, I hope it's not my son, either."

It was Queen's son. He died in the parking lot of a Mercedes-Benz dealership, after a nurse, shopping for a car, was unable to resuscitate him before medical assistance arrived.

Eviton Elijah Brown had turned 24 less than two weeks before. There was still leftover cake from his birthday at home.

Guns — a base motivator or something more?

A Gallup poll from earlier this year identified which issues are most important for voters so far this election. The poll found that Democrats and Republicans agreed on the four top issues in this campaign: the economy, terrorism, jobs and healthcare. Gun policy was ranked as "below average in importance" to the average voter.

But this could change. Trump's attempts to link gun rights to protecting oneself against terrorism could resonate with voters, and another major mass shooting before the election might bring the issue to the forefront as well.

Predicting how guns might influence Americans' vote this fall could be difficult. Though vast majorities of Democrats andRepublicans support individual measures, like preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns, and requiring background checks for gun owners, when voters are asked about what Gallup defines as "fundamental attitudes about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or to protect the right of Americans to own guns," the public is more divided.

The question is whether gun rights, and gun control, will only be a base-motivating issue this November, or something that speaks to a larger cross-section of America. If it does, Queen Brown hopes voters see things her way.

Either way, Brown said her activism on these issues will continue. "I don't have a choice," she said. "I'm going to either be a victim and be sour and be mad, or I'm going to be someone that's looking for the good in all of this bad."

"I'm not the same person I was before I lost my son," she said. "I love harder."

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Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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