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A galvanizing moment for CeaseFirePA's executive director

Shivering in a black wool coat, Shira Goodman scanned the small crowd assembled at an Ambler park, listened to the gun-control speeches by local activists and lawmakers, and awaited her turn at the microphone.

Shira Goodman has been busy since the Conn. Shootings. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Shira Goodman has been busy since the Conn. Shootings. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

Shivering in a black wool coat, Shira Goodman scanned the small crowd assembled at an Ambler park, listened to the gun-control speeches by local activists and lawmakers, and awaited her turn at the microphone.

Aside from the cold - particularly biting for mid-March - this is the type of scene Goodman had envisioned when she accepted the job as executive director of the gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePA.

What she never expected was that she would become something of a household name, a regular on the TV news circuit, and end up sitting on an advisory panel to Vice President Biden.

Goodman, 42, had been on the job only a few weeks when 26 people - 20 of them children - were gunned down at a Newtown, Conn., school, galvanizing the gun-control movement and forcing the debate to the forefront of the national conscience.

"You know the trite expression 'It's like drinking water from a fire hose'? That's how it was for her," said CeaseFirePA board president Dan Muroff.

Since Newtown, Goodman has been working day and night, crisscrossing the state and the nation - Saturday rallies, Sunday strategy sessions, 11 p.m. calls from staff.

"It's a different calculus than I thought when I took the job," she said. "But I made the change at a really exciting time."

CeaseFirePA has been around since 2002, building grassroots support and pushing what it calls "commonsense reforms."

But the organization was always on defense, acting "as a counterweight to the NRA," Muroff said.

Then came Newtown. Suddenly, politicians were talking about assault weapons and magazines, background checks and loopholes. Polls showed a sharp spike in public support for changes.

And Pennsylvania, with its dichotomy of red and blue, urban and rural, was viewed as a bellwether state. It is second only to Texas in the number of NRA members; but it also has the largest state contingent in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Muroff said.

"If Pennsylvania moves the dial here and we start getting commonsense laws," Goodman said, "that really shows the tide has changed."

From her cramped, bare office in Philadelphia, Goodman launched a barrage of news releases, e-mail blasts, and op-eds. She shared resources with grassroots activists and partnered with other antiviolence groups.

In early January, Goodman and her staff were planning their main event - a rally on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg - when she got an invitation to meet with "senior administration officials" at the White House.

Goodman said there were about 15 advocates there, including representatives of the Brady Campaign, Arizona for Gun Safety, a man whose daughter died in last year's shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, and two survivors of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech.

When she walked into the room, Goodman saw her nameplate - two seats away from Attorney General Eric Holder and one seat away from the vice president.

"He was very engaged," Goodman said. "He was taking notes and asking follow-up questions. And then a week later, we see some of the things we talked about in the package that the president is proposing. It was very gratifying."

At 5-foot-3, with a short bob, thin glasses, and a mellow temperament, Goodman appears an unlikely match for the NRA's impassioned advocates.

Muroff, the CeaseFirePA president, said Goodman's calm confidence was perfect for the organization.

"We want to make sure that people understand it's not our organization's goal or interest to take away guns from law-abiding people," he said. "You don't achieve much by just raising the volume."

With her background as a lawyer and advocate for judicial reform, Goodman also knew how to navigate the intersection of law and politics.

"I try to know my audience and what I'm talking about," she said. "Don't get into a war of statistics."

Gordon Davis Jr. of Pittsburgh, who owns several semiautomatic weapons, said he appreciated that Goodman allowed opposing viewpoints to be heard.

"They definitely don't block out people who disagree with their methods," said Davis, 32, a frequent commenter on CeaseFirePA's Facebook page. Goodman, he said, "is very fair-handed with keeping the rules. She doesn't seem to favor one group over another."

Julia Fahl, CeaseFirePA's new director of development, said she took the job because of the organization's agility and Goodman's management style.

"There are very few people who can do Shira's job," said Fahl, a gun owner. "She has taken a moment and turned it into a shift in Pennsylvania politics."

In the four months since Newtown, Pennsylvania has added its mental-health records to a federal database; closed the so-called Florida loophole, which let Pennsylvanians apply for a Florida permit to carry a concealed weapon here even if they had been denied one; and converted a key vote in the U.S. Senate - Bob Casey, formerly a staunch NRA supporter.

But CeaseFirePA's more ambitious goals - universal background checks, mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns, etc. - are still up for debate, and the clock is ticking. Goodman said it was important for gun-control supporters to build on the post-Newtown momentum.

"The legislators need to hear from you," she said at the Ambler rally, "because we know they are hearing from our opponents."

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