Charlie Mirsky has set a goal for himself before he leaves for college at the end of the summer: Persuade Congress to shell out $50 million for gun-violence prevention research.
Mirsky is the political director of March for Our Lives, the grassroots effort to press for stricter gun laws that students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., organized after the deadly shooting there last year. At 19, he’s one of the youngest registered lobbyists in Washington.
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Mirsky registered as a lobbyist last summer and arranged to finish his last year of high school online. When Democrats took back the House last year and Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared she would make “bipartisan legislation to have common-sense background checks” a priority, he started spending more time in Washington to help pass the bill.
“We knew we had to be here full-time to make sure these bills had our proper support and that we could help push this legislation as much as possible,” he said in an interview.
Staffers for Washington’s established gun-violence prevention groups credit Mirsky and other teenage advocates with giving the movement a shot in the arm. March for Our Lives was instrumental in persuading House lawmakers to pass a background-checks bill in February — the first new gun restrictions to make it through either chamber in 25 years. And two Democratic presidential candidates hailed the movement by name during the first primary debate last month.
The National Rifle Association spends more on Washington lobbying than any gun violence prevention group, and its deep support among Republican voters has made it almost impossible for any new restrictions to find enough votes to make it to the president’s desk.
But the group has been riven by infighting this year. The NRA’s president resigned in April, its top lobbyist stepped down last month, and Congress and New York’s attorney general are investigating the group’s finances.
Gun-control activists, meanwhile, are starting to see some small victories.
“You only needed to look into the audience of the Judiciary Committee the day we marked up H.R. 8 to see the number of March for Our Lives shirts” to understand the group’s influence, said Rep. Ted Deutch, the Florida Democrat whose district includes Parkland.
Deutch credited Mirsky and other teenage activists with helping to shepherd the bill through the House.
“What was remarkable was the way he able to become a leader whose voice was listened to by House leadership,” including Pelosi, Deutch said.
Some older gun-control groups say they have started to take their cues from March for Our Lives.
“Our job has really become to get out of the way,” said T. Christian Heyne, the vice president for policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the country’s oldest gun-violence advocacy group.
March for Our Lives doesn’t have the financial resources of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, which shelled out $30 million during the midterms to help elect candidates who back new gun restrictions. Everytown spent more than twice as much on Washington lobbying as March for Our Lives did in the first three months of this year.
But Heyne said Mirsky has taken advantage of his unusual profile as a teenage lobbyist to secure meetings with Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Crapo of Idaho, who are skeptical of new gun laws. “When they are speaking to legislators, they get into rooms that I think not many of us can get into,” Heyne said.
As March for Our Lives’ man in Washington, Mirsky has worked to keep up the pressure on lawmakers in the wake of the Parkland shooting and the marches it sparked in Washington and around the country.
Mirsky seemed as comfortable navigating Capitol Hill during an interview with POLITICO as the lobbyists two or three times his age who roam the hallways there, suggesting a meeting in Hart Senate Office Building’s cafeteria. He was more casually dressed than most older lobbyists, though, wearing a blue-and-white button-down, jeans and white Nikes.
Mirsky didn’t go to Stoneman Douglas, but he was good friends with several students who did. He was one of the small group of students who started March for Our Lives after the shooting that left 17 dead, including one of Mirsky’s former teachers.
When he arrived in Washington last year – staying in Airbnbs, hotels or with family friends while he was in town – Republicans were in control of Congress and the White House, and Mirsky, who was finishing his junior year of high school, was still a novice lobbyist.
“At first, we were literally high-school kids in D.C. with no guidance, trying to get gun-violence prevention laws passed,” Mirsky said.
Mirsky said he had a few early mishaps, such as when he casually put his feet up on a table in Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey’s office, only to be told it cost $5,000.
But Mirsky gradually learned how to press lawmakers for support. He built personal relationships with lawmakers including Pelosi, who invited him to the State of the Union in February as her guest, and Deutch, who texts with Mirsky and occasionally meets him for pizza or bagels.
In February, House Democrats passed a background checks bill with support from eight Republican lawmakers, including several who’d once boasted “A” ratings from the NRA. And last month the House passed a spending bill that included $50 million in funding for gun-violence prevention research — the provision Mirsky wants to shepherd through the Republican-held Senate before he leaves for Lafayette College in Pennsylvania next month.
March for Our Lives spent $140,000 on Washington lobbying in the first three months of the year — as much as former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ advocacy group spent — but the group remains largely student-run.
Heather McHugh, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who March for Our Lives recently hired as an outside lobbyist, reports to Mirsky. So does a Washington public affairs firm that the group retains, Precision Strategies.
And many of those lobbying alongside Mirsky are also teenagers, including Eve Levenson, a 19-year-old Californian who is March for Our Lives’ other registered lobbyist. (She lobbies part-time while studying at George Washington University.) March for Our Lives also partnered with Team ENOUGH, a youth-run arm of the Brady Campaign started last year, to organize a “joint lobbying collective” of roughly two dozen high school and college students, who joined Levenson and Mirsky on Capitol Hill earlier this year.
“There are a handful of Republican lawmakers who have not traditionally been supportive of gun violence prevention measures” who have expressed interest in working with them, said Adam Friedman, 19, a classmate of Levenson’s who helps run the collective.
But Mirsky and his allies have discovered that helping to push bills through the House does little good if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t bring them up for a vote. And some of the Republicans willing to sit down with them aren’t prepared to back March for Our Lives’ legislation.
March for Our Lives and other groups pressed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to hold a hearing in March on red-flag laws, which let police temporarily confiscate guns from people who are deemed threats by a judge.
“I’m a big fan of the Second Amendment,” Graham said during the hearing. “I own firearms, and I try to be responsible in my ownership. But at the same time, every right has limits.”
The hearing went well, Mirsky said. But gun-violence prevention groups have been unable to convince Graham to help pass a red-flag bill introduced by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), even though Graham introduced a similar bill last year.
“There’s this bill led by Congressman Carbajal that is practically identical to legislation Lindsey Graham introduced in the last Congress,” Mirsky said. “So, we were like, ‘OK, Lindsey Graham, we’ve got this House bill. Everyone wants it. Will you simply support the bill that you had last session?’ Nope.”
Graham’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.