Interview with Miranda Viscoli, Co-Recipient of the 2021 Peaceseeker Award
Along with Harry Eberts, Miranda Viscoli is Co-President of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence. They work with youth, with art, with their legislature and with thousands of ordinary people to reduce gun violence in their state. Miranda is an art historian who suspended work on her PhD after the Sandy Hook school shooting to research, write about and take action on gun violence in New Mexico and the USA.
PPF: Miranda, congratulations on receiving the Peaceseeker Award. Why did you get involved in gun violence prevention?
Miranda: It was Sandy Hook. I had children close to that age. It was a life-changing moment for me. For weeks after Sandy Hook, I was heartbroken. Finally, I said to myself, well I can be heartbroken or I can do something about it. I gathered with a small group of others in New Mexico. We knew nothing about guns. I knew nothing about gun violence. I didn’t even know what the letters NRA stood for. I’m a researcher, so I started researching the gun industry and the NRA, and also the issue of gun violence in the United States and in New Mexico. I am a bit ashamed that it was Sandy Hook that got me involved, because what I learned is that the victims of gun violence are primarily people of color. NMPGV looks at gun violence as both a civil rights issue and as a public health issue.
So we started. We knew so little: it was like throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. At first, no one in New Mexico wanted anything to do with us. We had so many doors closed in our face for the first two years. New Mexico is a gun-loving state that is too often beholden to the NRA. The idea of a gun violence prevention group in our state was not something there was much appetite for. I will say that our small group has changed the culture in New Mexico for the better when it comes to gun violence prevention. Doors are no longer closed in our face —well, sometimes they are. For the most part, they’re open, to the point where we are now getting too many doors opening. We probably need to start hiring and contracting out because for the most part we’re volunteers. We have now created a multi-pronged approach to this multi-faceted problem. Part of our approach, is that we meet each community where they are at and build trust. This can take years. What our urban areas need is often much different as to what our rural communities want or need.
Our first step was working in schools. In New Mexico our youth are disproportionally impacted by gun violence. It is the third leading cause of death for youth in New Mexico. On average, we lose close to three children every month in our state to gun violence. It is the leading cause of death for every child in the country. We started with a national program called The Student Pledge Against Gun Violence. The Pledge was created by Mary Lewis Grow. The pledge starts: “I will never bring a gun to school; I will never use a gun to settle a personal problem or dispute; I will use my influence with friends to keep them from using guns.…” It’s an amazing program where you go into schools and work with youth leaders to create a gun violence prevention event. Part of it was educational where we talked with them about the issue. But the other part was that we saw the importance of giving our youth the space to design and create the pledge event. Whatever program was created, it was the youth who created it. It was their vision. It was never us coming into the school and saying, “Here’s what we’re doing.” It was us saying, what do you see as the problem? And how do you think you could best communicate that to your school and to your community? After Covid, we are getting back to implementing the Student Pledge. What we saw was that, where the pledge is used, there has been a 54% reduction in youth bringing weapons to school. That statistic came from the Youth Resilience survey. We can’t say it was because of us, but we took it as a win because no one else was talking to these youth about this issue in these schools.
Every school is different. We had teachers who were upset that we were in the school talking to students about gun violence prevention. To get into the schools we would go to youth leadership programs, counselors and often to the principal. At the same time, there were principals who were adamantly opposed to any kind of discussion on gun violence prevention because they looked at it as being an anti-gun initiative. Those were the schools that we really wanted to get into as we felt they the students needed this opportunity. Then we would go to maybe a Social Studies teacher or Drama teacher and work through them. Unfortunately, still do have some resistance to our work in schools especially in Albuquerque where there is more gun violence than any other city. To get around the resistance we just go school by school. We were extremely tenacious. The schools that said “No” we felt were the ones that needed it the most—and we were correct.
From that work with youth, we saw how much it filled a need for them to be able to have a voice. And they did amazing projects. One year we did Day of the Dead altars where they honored youth lost to gun violence. Every school had someone they had lost to gun violence, usually more than one. Then we did a gun violence prevention art quilt. One school planted a community garden with bulbs. In the spring when the bulbs came up, they had an event to read the names of youth in New Mexico killed by gun violence. These were all events that the youth created.
We discovered when implementing the Student Pledge Against Gun Violence in schools throughout New Mexico that there was a profound need for our youth to have a creative space in which they could communicate their thoughts and emotions on the issue of gun violence. As mentioned, the events the youth planned for the Pledge were often usually art based and students communicated to us that they wished they could participate in more art-based programs as many art programs have been cut from curriculums. I’m an art historian. I’ve always been driven toward art so it was a natural fit.
We also observed that students wanted to do more in their schools on the issue of gun violence after we implanted the Pledge. From these observations, Murals to End Gun Violence was born. The purpose was to create lasting messages of non-violence, peace and gun violence prevention in our schools and communities. We wanted these murals to be youth driven and created by the students. Our only rule was that there could be no guns or bloody images in the mural and that the murals had positive messaging.
When we first attempted this program, it was a closed door. People said to us: there is no way that any school in New Mexico will let you do a gun violence prevention mural in their school. Harry and I don’t like to take No for an answer. We said: We bet we can find one. Now we are on our 11th mural. and we’ve done them all around New Mexico. We are scheduled to do three more starting in the fall. We noticed that the majority of youth who were getting involved with these murals were youth who either have been victims of gun violence, know somebody they lost to gun violence, they themselves committed gun violence, or all of the above. For youth and gun violence, a person has often both committed it and been a victim. What I love about this program is that it provides a space where youth have the opportunity to deeply analyze this issue and then create specific and powerful messaging to educate their peers and the public on how gun violence affects our youth and communities as well as what steps we can take to prevent it. Along with the enduring message to reduce gun violence, comes the added benefit of leaving behind a community beautified, unified and strengthened. The mural serves as an educational tool for prevention and fosters individual and personal growth for participants.
Most importantly, the program and finished mural send a clear message to our youth that their voices matter, their safety matters and their lives matter and deserve to be protected.
This program also offers youth an opportunity to learn from beginning to end, how to design their own mural on gun violence prevention and complete it. For this project we hire a facilitator, Warren Montoya from Rezonate Art. He’s not only an amazing muralist, and now a very dear friend, but he is also great at working with youth.
PPF: Your legislative achievements are outstanding. How do you activate New Mexicans for these results on background checks and red flag laws and more?
Miranda: The legislative process is very difficult here and a bit stressful. It is the most difficult work that we do. We started out working in the legislature when we had a Republican governor. No one had ever attempted to pass gun violence prevention legislation in New Mexico before. We said to ourselves, “Let’s start with something simple…. like closing the gun show loophole.” That means that at a gun show, you would have to get a background check. We presented at interim committee hearings. We stressed that in the Columbine shooting a teen bought the guns used in the shooting at a gun show. We thought this wouldn’t be that heavy of a lift which shows how naïve we were at the beginning. It was kind of a miracle. We did get it through the state’s House and Senate with bi-partisan support. It was a Democrat who was beholden to the NRA who filibustered on the senate floor and killed it.
From there we learned a lot. Next, we said, “Well, let’s look at our gun laws.” We looked at the data and it showed that we were the second state in the USA with the highest rate of intimate partner homicide. The majority of those people being shot and killed by their partners were women and children, with children often witnessing their mother being shot and killed. Because we still had this Republican governor, we thought this has a chance. The law would require domestic violence abusers under court protection orders to not possess a gun while under that protective order. When the order is lifted, they get their gun back [if there was no other reason, such as a felony conviction, to prevent them from having a gun]. That seemed to us something that could be friendly to a Republican governor who was also a prosecutor.
We put a stakeholders’ table together for two years to draft this piece of legislation. We had law enforcement at the table, the Attorney General’s office, domestic violence groups, legislators, suicide prevention groups all at the table. We took a long time to draft this piece of legislation. We had Senator Joseph Cervantes sponsor the bill. He is a very influential senator and also a gun owner. I begged him for months. He finally said laughing, “Okay, you are tenacious, I’ll sponsor it.”
PPF: Why did you persist with him?
Miranda: He is father with two children. He is also a gun owner in an area that is both conservative and liberal. And, he is a very influential Senator, probably one of our most influential. He was great sponsor. We got it through the House and through the Senate. It went to the Governor’s desk. She vetoed it with a message that sided with the abuser—after three years of very hard work.
We wiped our tears from our eyes and kept going. When democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected we pushed for the New Mexico background check law, which we got, and the domestic violence law, which we got in the same session. It was a huge win for us. It wasn’t easy. It was still a very heavy lift.
At times, to get the attention of our elected officials, we would do student “die-ins.” At one time we had 450 kids. We did this in the capitol rotunda where every elected official had to see it. The students were all in t-shirts with the name of a student killed in school shooting in our country. I saw tears in the eyes of many Republicans because it’s a heartbreaking moment to see. Our youth are so scared, frightened and beyond confused as to why our elected officials are doing so little when it comes to their safety from gun violence. We did three youth die-ins before Covid hit.
The die-ins are on school days and the schools allowed the youth to go. The youth also spoke. We coached them on public speaking and helped them with research. Those youth were amazing. I think they are greatly responsible for changing the culture with our elected officials in New Mexico on the need for gun violence prevention.
We passed helped pass an Extreme Risk Protection Order that following year. We noticed after the passage of the Domestic violence firearms relinquishment and the ERPO law that a law is only as good as the training that enforcers receive. We have now hired an expert to train law enforcement, mental health staff, domestic violence groups and schools on how they can use an Extreme Risk Protection Order and the Domestic Violence law to remove guns from unsafe hands.
Another thing about legislation is that we are very careful to work on laws based on prevention. We don’t want to put young people of color disproportionately in prison. Last session we helped solidify $9 million for violence intervention programs. We also got $300,000.00 for an Office of Gun Violence Prevention. We want to see more prevention funding rather than passing laws that enhance penalties and put people in prison longer. We cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem. If we could we would have done so long ago. I have worked with young men who have shot and killed someone. They all wish that their hand had never pulled the trigger. We must prevent gun violence before it happens.
PPF: How to you activate the adults?
Miranda: We send out email blasts when we need to get folks to write in and call. We are lucky in that we have about 15-20 volunteers who have been with us from day one, who work so hard. We have retired teachers who are working with our youth, data specialists and a trained group specifically for our gun buybacks. We are careful to choose our volunteers. What we have is a really, really strong base of folks who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work. Our motto is: “Everyone mucks the stalls.” We all do the grunge work. There is not a hierarchy. It’s important to operate that way with a group of volunteers doing this kind of advocacy work.
PPF: You seem to work with a strong small group rather than a more diffuse larger group.
Miranda: Yes. It took a while to come to that. What Harry and I found was, when the group was getting too big, we weren’t getting any work done. It was all about navigating volunteers. If you have a group of volunteers going into the state capitol saying, “I hate guns. All guns are bad,” we’re not going to get anywhere in this state. We were doing so much training and making sure people had the right talking points and organizing volunteers.
So, we went to this model of a small group of really dedicated volunteers and that’s what has worked best for us. Also, a lot of the youth we work with do live in high-risk situations and to some might seem a little on the tough side. We had to find volunteers who come from a place of empathy and compassion, and not a place of judgment with our youth. And that is really hard to find sometimes.
PPF: But you still have this network of thousands of supporters. How is all this work funded?
Miranda: We do have a large network of supporters and donors. We send them emails for legislation action and for donations. Many of them are wonderful donors. Sometimes our supporters will ask if they can implement one of the programs in their city, such as Las Cruces. We don’t send a lot of emails – about one every six weeks. We have 32% open rate, which is good for a gun violence prevention group.
PPF: New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence is an extraordinarily creative group –not just a brain thing, but full of color and art and young people. What would you say to folks out there who want to do something about gun violence, but they are afraid?
Miranda: We will have something for them very soon. The Frankel foundation gave us a grant to create a national program so that a new group would have every single thing they need to get started to create a group like ours in their state. Once it is finished, we will be working with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence to get the website to new and growing groups. I’m half way through writing it. It will be a website that is “members only.” This program will also allow us do trainings with other groups, free of cost. Someone might say, “We need to start small. Can we start just with the Mural Project?” They will have a toolkit, a curriculum, everything they need, as well as being able to communicate with us in terms of problem solving as they go along the process. That’s something we will launch in 2023. Our whole goal is to have people learn from our mistakes. We were making things up: this worked, that didn’t. We are giving this away so that people can take it and build what they want. It is our gift to the movement so that people will have an easier time of it. It’s hard work. Not only because gun violence is a difficult issue, but because most of the work for any nonprofit is minutiae and administrative hard work.
We are so excited that Guns to Gardens is becoming a national movement.
We created this program back in 2016. Since then, we saw that other states and faith based organizations conducting something buybacks. We all banded together under Guns to Gardens. NMPGV has dismantled 1,037 guns, of which 33% were semi-automatic and assault weapons. The majority of those turning in guns, according to the anonymous survey that we do, do so for safety reasons. About a month ago I dismantled, on my own, an AR-15 assault weapon. That was a good day.
PPF: Miranda, are you a religious person?
I’m a spiritual person. Sometimes I go to Harry’s church, but probably not as much as I should!
Learn more about the Guns to Gardens movement.
Join an action circle to find out how to bring your congregation into the movement and learn how to dismantle a gun with a chopsaw.