On Aug. 4, Joaquin Oliver would have turned 18, officially becoming an adult old enough to vote. Hundreds of people sang him “Happy Birthday” as they gathered outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Fairfax, Va. Joaquin was among the 17 people killed in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. As activists took their fight to the NRA last weekend, they remembered the popular 17-year-old, his fellow students and school staff members who had been lost to yet another senseless mass shooting.
The Parkland massacre felt like a turning point in the long and bloody battle to curb gun violence in the U.S., especially after young survivors of the shooting made it their mission to #NeverAgain allow a tragic incident like it to occur. Leading into the midterm elections, many of these activists are now working to make a political allegiance to the NRA a liability and gun control more broadly an election issue.
Among those who protested outside the NRA headquarters on Saturday was Joaquin’s father, Manuel Oliver, an artist and founder of the new organization Change the Ref. Oliver has been reminding politicians across the country of his son’s murder through powerful wall murals in cities including Los Angeles, Springfield, Mass., and Fairfax, Va. He calls them Walls of Demand. Most feature his son’s face and the word “Demand.”
In an interview he told me, “I didn’t just lose a son that day, I lost a partner. He was an awesome kid, a guy that you want to hang out with.” He added, “I miss him a lot.” The remarkable father marked his son’s birthday on Saturday with a mural of Joaquin’s face over 18 candles and the message, “We demand to blow out our candles.” “I happen to be an artist,” he said. “I decided to take the path of using art as an instrument to talk to people, and also it’s a way to give Joaquin a voice. Joaquin can use my art to send messages to people.”
In the months since the Parkland shooting, Congress has failed to pass a single meaningful federal bill controlling the easy availability of guns. There have been more school shootings, like the one in May at Santa Fe High School in Texas, where 10 students were killed in what is now a sickeningly familiar script of an introverted white boy picking people off one by one.
In Florida, where Oliver still lives, echoes of Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder were felt in the recent shooting of Markeis McGlockton. McGlockton was an African-American father of three who was killed in a parking lot by a white vigilante claiming self-defense under the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law. Chicago was the site of dozens of shootings over the past weekend, ironically occurring just days after a major anti-violence march. The death toll continues to ratchet up with no end in sight as politicians kowtow to the NRA and offer meaningless “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of each tragedy.
Oliver suggested one idea to reverse the relationship between the gun lobbyist and elected officials: Use the NRA’s infamous grading system for politicians against them. The NRA has for years used the system to strike fear into politicians’ hearts. Anything less than an “A” grade would mean the lobbyist might target you with negative ads. But what if gun control activists started to campaign for candidates with failing grades from the NRA? An “F” from the nation’s most vicious gun promotion organization could be viewed as a badge of honor for candidates seeking to woo voters on the increasingly popular issue of gun control. “It helps us vote for whoever has the worst grade,” said Oliver. “So they’re doing our homework for us.”
A new poll found that public support for gun control has increased and that Democratic politicians would do well to make support for gun control a prominent campaign platform. Indeed, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to be doing just that. Rolling Stone recently reported on a lawsuit the NRA is filing against the state of New York for “irrecoverable loss and irreparable harm” to its finances stemming from state regulators who cracked down on the organization’s illegal gun-related insurance policies.
Earlier this year Cuomo tweeted, “The NRA is an extremist organization. I urge companies in New York State to revisit any ties they have to the NRA and consider their reputations, and responsibility to the public.” Incidentally, Cuomo is facing a primary challenge from the left by actor-turned-political-candidate Cynthia Nixon, who also supports strict gun control.
Joaquin’s parents are throwing their weight behind a gun control advocate named Philip Levine running in the Aug. 28 governor’s primary race in Florida. They went as far as being featured in political ads for his campaign. Another candidate in the same race, Andrew Gillum, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, has pushed for the repeal of the state’s stand your ground law and for stricter gun laws.
If the federal government continues to fail Americans over gun proliferation, hope may lie at the state level where candidates with “F” grades from the NRA might be able to win office and take on the gun lobby. Already there have been a flurry of gun safety and control measures passed at the state level since the Parkland massacre. The Christian Science Monitor reported that “[t]his was a year of unparalleled success for the gun-control movement in the United States,” with “50 new laws restricting access to guns.” More than a dozen of the states where this has happened even have Republican governors.
It is not out of the realm of possibility that the NRA could go from one of the most influential groups in Washington to a fringe organization. When I asked Oliver if he thought the NRA could lose so much money that it would cease to exist, he responded, “I do know that they will disappear. For me, the NRA is not unlike a cartel. They are just like the tobacco industry that is also vanishing from our nation.”
Like the inspiring student survivors of the Parkland shooting, Oliver is determined to keep fighting until the end of his life. “I am a father until the last day of my life,” he said. “We won’t stop. ‘Never Again’ means we will never again stop.” He encourages others to join the fight, whether or not they have lost loved ones to gun violence. “I cannot protect my kid,” he said, “But many other parents can still protect their kids. You don’t have to pay the price that I paid.”
As for taking on the aggressive gun lobby group, Oliver asserted, “We’re not afraid of the NRA. We lost all fear on Feb. 14.”