On Feb. 16, Ria Browne sent out an SOS to every American from her apartment in New York City. For nearly four years she’d been campaigning for Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun violence, and after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, she felt more motivated than ever to spread the organization’s philosophy. She knew that if she could get people from both sides of the aisle to listen, it could start a worthwhile dialogue—but thus far, getting folks to pay attention had proven difficult.
So, with around just 600 Instagram followers to her name—mostly friends and family— the 44-year-old real estate agent posted an infographic and announced that she was launching a campaign to garner Everytown more followers than the NRA. “Currently it is 545k NRA and 136K Everytown. Let’s show pro-gun politicians our power in numbers!” she wrote.
“It’s been really rewarding that after a number of years of feeling like I was operating on my own and feeling sort of isolated that I now have this incredible online community of people who are fighting for the same thing as me,” Browne says. “I feel like I’ve awoken this whole population of gentle people, which I’m really proud of. You don’t have to scream and shout to be heard.”
Browne knew that after the Parkland, Florida, shooting people would be looking for answers, and she turned to Instagram with the hopes of pointing them in the right direction. “There’s so much misinformation out there, not only by people who are against it, but also people who are for gun reform,” she explains. “Everytown is really the go-to because they’re the most active and the largest gun reform organization in the country.”
Once she captured people’s attention with her easy-to-understand numbers-based goal, she knew it wouldn’t be that much of a leap to educate them about common sense gun reform. With catch phrases and hashtags like “Gunsense vs. Nonsense” and #safetyinnumbers, Browne wanted to emphasize that gun reform is not about revoking, but rather respecting the Second Amendment. It’s not about abolishing the right to bear arms, it’s about using common sense to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people with measures like universal background checks, which is supported by 93 percent of Americans, according to Everytown.
With her emphasis on humanizing the issue, Browne managed to avoid most negativity that can arise from poking a bear like the NRA. She’s worked hard at developing what she calls her “practice” of engaging with gun owners. Instead of responding to trolls with hostility or telling people they’re wrong, she tries to start a conversation by asking them where they got their information.
“I felt like if you could reach out to people and communicate and engage with them in a civilized way, in a kind of way that made them feel heard, you might actually be able to share a message with them that they could understand,” she says.
“I want people to engage with each other from both sides because I think that we can’t really make progress until people fully understand what we’re fighting for here,” she continues.
While on its face her campaign may have been about numbers, because, let’s be real, there is power and currency to be gained from a large Instagram following, her surreptitious agenda was to create community. Browne wanted those who felt isolated to be able to find like-minded compatriots, and she wanted those who normally wouldn’t connect to diffuse their hate and help educate one another. “Boiling it down to people to people” is how she likes to phrase her intention.
It may come as a surprise—and also seem obvious—to learn that Browne is originally from Toronto, Canada. New York City has been her home for the past 23 years, but being raised in a country with stricter gun laws is what laid the foundation for her current belief system. Her father was a licensed gun owner at a time and in a city where it was not the norm. However, watching him properly purchase and learn how to use these weapons taught her that guns are not inherently evil.
“I come from a country where common sense gun regulations are in place, and they work. If you want a gun and you’re a responsible individual, you can have a gun,” she explains. “I don’t believe that having people trained and qualified and vetted to purchase a gun violates the Constitution.”
It was important to Browne that people understand that it was just her, party of one, behind this campaign, not some corporation or well-funded organization. Which is why instead of a flashy graphic, she kept people updated on the numbers using hand-drawn doodles she made with her two daughters’ colored pens. She was amazed when celebrities like Olivia Wilde, Laura Dern, Daveed Diggs, and Rachel Antonoff began reposting her images. Her account wasn’t even public until just prior to launching this campaign, all of which she hopes proves to people that the little person can make a huge impact.
Beyond the celeb endorsements, Browne was astonished at the overall enthusiasm and how much agency people were taking upon themselves to track the numbers and chat via comments about how exciting the campaign was. The viral power of social media did not cease to amaze her, but she also believes that the fruit was ripe for the picking: Americans had reached a tipping point and were no longer willing to believe someone else was going to solve the problem.
“The fact that people cared that much and got so fired up, I think was the most gratifying thing about it,” she says. “People would tell me that it gave them renewed faith in the movement, which was really exciting. We still have so much further to go, but to have engaged over 600,000 people over such a short period of time was just an amazing exercise and really empowering.”
When it comes to taking credit where credit is due, Browne couldn’t be humbler, instead emphasizing this as a community accomplishment and something that could not have happened without her friends and family. She’s also quick to turn the topic to the high schoolers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and how impressed and in awe she is of the dialogue they’re creating.
“I really believe that this generation of youth are going to change the world,” Browne says. “They’re so smart, they’re so savvy, they’re so knowledgeable in terms of the way they can manipulate social media, they really empower each other and they’ve managed to gather this incredible community.”
“I think that people have had enough,” she continues. “And I think the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas were able to encapsulate that energy and transfer it in a way that really gave the movement momentum.”