Abby Spangler started her Protest Easy Guns movement lying down in front of a Virginia city hall shortly after the Virginia Tech mass killings.
Since then, the former Charlotte resident has been standing up for tighter gun controls while building a national movement that has taken her from a hastily organized sidewalk protest to the congressional halls of power.
Spangler, 47, a mother of two and the daughter of former UNC system president C.D. Spangler, has spent much of this month working with others in the nation’s capital to shape the new comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence.
Her organization, borne out of her fear and frustration as a young mother, has been at the table this month with Vice President Joe Biden. The group has attracted such outspoken gun control advocates as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Spangler, a woman who is not naturally drawn to the spotlight or public speaking roles, never intended to start a national movement with her lie-in outside City Hall in Alexandria, Va., in April 2007.
She had every intention of going back to being a part-time cellist and stay-at-home mom.
But the 31 women who joined her for her first lie-in, or “die-in” as she initially called it, spurred her to keep going.
With a website, YouTube videos, lie-ins and an eagerness to share their message, Spangler and others in Protest Easy Guns promote what they describe as a “common-sense approach” to the country’s gun laws.
“We are not against hunters, guns for private protection or collectors of guns,” Spangler said, repeating what is on the homepage of her organization’s website.
Gun show loophole
Spangler has been promoting background checks for gun purchases. “Close the Gun Show Loophole” is the first of a three-item agenda promoted by Protest Easy Guns.
“The gun show loophole currently allows unlicensed private dealers to sell guns to people without conducting a background check,” Spangler said as she rattled off statistics on the number of gun shows every year (5,000) and the percentage of sales by those not required to perform background checks (40 percent).
The movement supports a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and it promotes a ban on high-capacity magazines for such weapons.
Spangler also would like to see Congress remove restrictions that keep data about the guns used in crimes from being fully open to public scrutiny.
After years of pushing for change that often yielded few results and, in many cases, brought a slackening of gun controls, Spangler and others are seeing a new willingness to develop plans to end gun violence after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., last month.
President Barack Obama’s comprehensive plan to end gun violence is expected to include many of those measures.
“The time to do this is now,” Spangler said.
Spangler, an accomplished cellist, studied social movements while getting her doctorate in political science at Columbia University. Her dissertation, “The Politics of Disease: Social Movement Responses to AIDS, Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer in the United States,” delved into three movements that changed policies and saved lives.
It was with that background that Spangler decided to move beyond her comfort zone in 2007.
Virginia Tech massacre
She was on the playground with other moms that April morning when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech and injured 17 others before killing himself.
Spangler could hardly look at her children without thinking about how quickly and easily Cho had gotten his gun. She could not help but imagine what it must have been like as a parent to learn a child had died so violently. The tears flowed, then the anger, then the decision to do something.
“The mothers said, ‘Abby you’re going to do something, we can feel it,’” Spangler recalled.
She sent out a blast of emails, proposing her first lie-in outside Alexandria City Hall. She queried men and women. The women responded.
She contacted the media to let them know what was planned.
“That was one of the hardest things,” Spangler said recently. “I realized I was pushing myself into a public role.”
Despite her public-speaking anxiety, Spangler and 31 other women, all dressed in black, stretched out on the Alexandria sidewalks for three minutes, just six days after the bloodshed at Virginia Tech.
That protest led to others. A year later, there were 90 lie-ins modeled by Protest Easy Guns.
The lie-ins have drawn people of all ages and political parties. They have been lauded by others with similar messages and ridiculed as ineffective by gun-rights advocates who protest new restrictions.
The movement has grown from a living-room operation to one with an office, where a CBS “60 Minutes” segment was taped in April 2009.
Spangler can reel off statistics and facts about the Columbine, Colo., shootings and others that followed. She fights back tears every time she thinks of the photo of the Newtown children leaving the school, fear in their eyes, their arms locked in a “daisy-chain.”
Spangler likens her push for controls on assault weapons and gun-show sales to creating a daisy-chain of like-minded people across the country.
“These congressional briefings that I’ve been in,” she said, “they’re laying the ground work for a safer America.”