With a stack of pamphlets under her arm, Dawnee Giammittorio -- who has been a gun control activist since her sister-in-law was shot dead -- goes door-to-door in northern Virginia, hoping to help flip control of Congress back to the Democrats. Giammittorio is canvassing in a state that is traditionally conservative but gradually turning to purple, and even blue, as urbanisation brings a more diverse population, especially in the areas outside Washington. "If we want the Congress to do something, we are going to have to change the people," Giammittorio said in the runup to the November 6 midterm elections. "We have ineffective gun laws." In this part of Virginia, gun issues are particularly sensitive, as America's powerful gun rights lobby, the National Rifle Association, is based here. Giammittorio belongs to Moms Demand Action, which gathers each weekend to campaign in pairs, meeting voters to discuss their work for candidates that support tougher gun controls. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, but the issue of gun violence is a constant political football in America.
Mass shootings -- sadly commonplace in the US -- are often followed by calls for political action, which then fade into the background. And the cycle then repeats. Every day in America, firearms kill more than 90 people. Two-thirds of those are suicides. Like thousands of other moms, who wear red shirts for their cause, the 56-year-old Giammittorio is hoping for change at the ballot box. She is campaigning for Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat running for a seat in the House of Representatives against Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock, who has an "A" rating from the NRA for her voting record. "Jennifer Wexton would definitely help change the balance in the House," said Giammittorio, who is unabashed about her work for Moms Demand Action, which is backing 3,000 "gun sense candidates" on the federal, state and local levels. Giammittorio, who lives closer to Washington in Alexandria, got up on a day off to canvass in Sterling, located in Loudoun County, the scene of the Wexton-Comstock race. Wexton wants to ban assault-style weapons and bolster background checks for gun buyers, specifically to look at their criminal record and mental health history.
The contest is a high-profile one, and money is being poured into both campaigns. Comstock has been dubbed "Trumpstock" in some ads, and is also the target of a spot featuring Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who was nearly killed in a shooting attack in 2011. "Shooting after shooting, Barbara Comstock has failed. She's taken thousands from the NRA. We must do better," Giffords said in the ad, which is running on local television networks. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA has spent USD 140,000 on Comstock's campaigns since she was elected to Congress in 2014. Wexton is meanwhile backed by Everytown for Gun Safety, an organisation with ties to Moms Demand Action and which is largely financed by billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everytown plans to spend USD 20 million nationwide before Election Day on candidates in key districts who favor gun curbs. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. Giammittorio is doing what she can -- she knocked on about 40 doors in Sterling on this particular day of canvassing, but received less than a warm welcome in some cases. There is "no such thing" as loopholes in legislation on gun purchases, said one man who called himself an "unbiased Republican" and said he owned a gun for hunting.
Undaunted, Giammittorio urges him to change his mind, revealing her personal story. Her sister-in-law went to answer the door, she explains, and a mentally unstable man targeted her for no apparent reason. "I came to realize how lax our gun laws are in the United States," Giammittorio says of her own experience. "We have gun laws that are not really designed to keep people from getting guns." Alongside Giammittorio is Elizabeth Coppage, who is the local leader for Moms Demand Action in Loudoun County. She says she believes their work is important. "I do think we have a chance of flipping this district," says the 45-year-old Coppage, who is pounding the pavement with her daughter. Coppage says she started working on gun violence issues in 2012, as a way to channel her anger over the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead in Connecticut, 20 of them young children. Despite the national outrage over that deadly shooting spree by a lone gunman, little changed at the federal level in terms of gun legislation. The gun control debate reared its ugly head once again earlier this year after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead, most of them teenage students.
Survivors of the attack have become vocal activists, spearheading the "March. For Our Lives" in March, which brought together more than a million people nationwide, including a massive crowd in Washington. "There is now greater pressure on candidates in many places to address the issue, in part because of the response to the Parkland shootings," said Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science and expert on gun politics at the State University of New York at Cortland. Gun policy is the third most important issue to voters in November's midterms, after health care and the economy, according to a recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.