Profile: Bryan Miller Turned Personal Tragedy Into a Cause

Hank Kalet | June 25, 2014 | Profiles, Social
After his brother’s death, activist works to end gun violence

Bryan Miller,executive director of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based group working to prevent gun violence.
Who he is: Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based group working to prevent gun violence.

Why he matters: Miller has led two of the state’s most effective gun-control groups. He was executive director of Ceasefire NJ before founding Heeding God’s Call.

With Ceasefire, he helped lead a grassroots effort to prevent passage of a law allowing concealed carry of handguns in New Jersey and worked with lawmakers to pass the childproof handgun (also known as smartgun) law, a one-gun-a-month law, and several others. Largely due to the success of gun-control advocates, the state is considered to have some of the strongest gun laws in the nation.

Background and education: Miller was born in Baltimore and raised in Maryland. He graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and holds a Master’s of Science in foreign service from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce and in the import-export sector. He had moved to New Jersey and was working in Vineland when his brother, an FBI agent, was killed.

The making of an activist: Miller’s brother Michael John Miller had been assigned to the Washington, D.C., Police Department’s Cold Case Homicide squad when a gunman entered the building and opened fire. Miller, a second agent, and a D.C. police officer were killed. According to the FBI’s Hall of Honor, the killer, Bennie Lee Lawson, used a TEC-9 during the assault. Other reports have said the gun was a MAC-10 or MAC-11. Miller described it as one that “allows for rapid fire.”

“I would say that, if you were intent on mayhem, one of the last places you’d go is a police department,” he said. “ But this one man had enough firepower to overwhelm a room of trained police officers. This only happens in the United States.”

After the shooting, Miller began working with Ceasefire and eventually stepped in to run the organization, which was sustained solely by volunteers. He took over as executive director in 1996.

“To lose someone as close as a brother to something as shocking as gun violence — I’m still shocked by it,” he said. “It’s been 20 years, and it’s frankly, as good as I believe the cause is, (the memory of his brother’s death) helps me. It is a survival mechanism. It keeps me going.”

The Newtown effect: There have been efforts to address gun violence over the years, but “Newtown served to energize many people around the issue of gun violence prevention,” he said.

A total of 26 people were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in December 2012, including 20 children after Adam Lanza walked into the school armed with several handguns and rifles and opened fire.

Following the incident, which came on the heels of a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO, earlier in the year, New York, Colorado, and Connecticut passed new gun laws. The New Jersey Legislature also introduced nearly two dozen bills and Gov. Chris Christie appointed a commission to study the issue. About a dozen new gun rules made it through the Legislature and were signed into law. Several other bills, including changes to the state’s background checks and licensing provisions and a ban on .50-caliber weapons, were vetoed.

“Contemplating 20 elementary school students being gunned down — it is impossible to contemplate,” he said. “But I believe and my organization believes that mass shootings are a relatively small part of the problem. A much greater problem is the daily carnage caused by people with illegal guns acquired by straw purchasers and by gun trafficking.”

Two state laws have helped limit the impact of trafficking — the 48-year-old background-check law, which he says is “unique to the state,” and legislation that limited purchases of handguns to one per month.

“That cuts out the economic incentive and the profit incentive,” he said.

Unfortunately, he added, only a “low percentage of guns used in New Jersey” are originally purchased in New Jersey. “The bulk are brought in from other states where the laws are not as strict.”

He is hopeful that the Child-Proof Handgun Law will limit the ability of traffickers to market stolen guns. The legislation requires all guns in the state be equipped technologically so that only their registered owners can fire them. It passed in 2002, but does not go into effect until a so-called childproof or smart gun is sold in the United States.

“The child-proof handgun only works for authorized users,” he said. “They have identification technology built in, so there is no point to trafficking these guns. They only work for original purchaser.”

However, an NPR report on June 24 said that [link:|gun manufacturers and retailers are leery of being the first to market the gun, because they did not want to initiate the ban in New Jersey.

Why he left Ceasefire and started Heeding God’s Call: Preventing gun violence is more than a state issue, he said. It is a regional and national issue. Neighboring states like Pennsylvania have much weaker gun laws than New Jersey, and the guns purchased there — and to the south — often end up on the streets here.

“We have, in many ways, among the best gun regulations in the country,” he said. “Our largest problem is guns coming from other states. One of reasons I left Ceasefire and took up with Heeding is because Heeding is a regional organization. I feel like I can help New Jersey more by being a part of a regional organization.”

His next goals: He is working with other groups to convince the governor to sign legislation that would reduce the maximum size of ammunition magazines in the state from 15 rounds to 10. The bill (A-2006) passed both houses of the Legislature and is on the governor’s desk for review. He also would like to see the ban on .50-caliber weapons — vetoed last year by Christie — become law.

Miller also would like to see legislation that would mandate microstamping, a technology that imprint a serial number specific to the firearm on its bullets. The firing pin of the gun would be engraved and stamp each bullet as it is fired. The spent shell casing would then be identifiable and law enforcement could trace it back to the gun.

“Currently, police recover the projectile that is shot and then, if they can get the gun and the bullet is not damaged, they make a ballistics match,” he said. “This is unusual, though, because they don’t usually have the gun.”

“With this, if they have the intact shell casing, they will be able to match it to the gun.”

Why he doesn’t say “gun control”: “I always say gun violence prevention,” he said. “Gun control is a divisive term.”

Personal life: Miller is divorced and lives in Haddonfield. His 27-year-old son Zak is an “elite distance runner,” of whom he is “very proud.” And Miller is a devoted Baltimore Orioles fan.