Neil Hester has been around guns since an early age.
Born and raised in rural northeast Oklahoma, Hester remembers the prevalence of guns in his community. “There were guns, primarily long guns, when I was growing up,” he said. “It was kind of a right of passage at a certain age you got a .22 or a shotgun.”
But at the same time, gun safety was paramount.
“Gun safety was very important,” Hester said. “There was always a focus on being safe. That culture of gun safety and being careful with guns is pretty much how I was raised.”
That philosophy of gun safety was further reinforced by the 28 years that Hester served in the U.S. Air Force, where he was trained and held accountable not only for his weapon, but for every piece of ammunition he was issued.
After spending several years overseas, Hester and his wife, Jane, returned to Oklahoma. While he says he didn’t really think much about it, Hester noticed a rise in gun violence in Oklahoma City since he had last called the state home. But shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, a friend of Hester’s daughter helped start the Oklahoma chapter of Moms Demand Action. In 2015, she reached out to Jane to start a local group in Norman; when it got up of the ground, Hester came along to a meeting.
“I had seen what had happened to some of the local groups in Texas, when people would show up with long guns to intimidate the volunteers,” said Hester, who is also a gun owner. “I tagged along. I thought I would be useful.”
That sentiment has come to define Hester’s time with Moms Demand Action, which began with that local group meeting in Norman where he first learned about the Be SMART program.
“It sounded like the way I was raised and my time in the Air Force,” Hester said. “It sounded like a really reasonable way to talk to gun owners in Oklahoma and a really effective way to talk to people about this issue.”
“I was thinking about my granddaughters and how badly I would feel if one of them found my gun and hurt themselves or hurt someone else with it.”
The Be SMART campaign has since become the keystone of Hester’s work with Moms Demand Action. He can often be found tabling at community events in Oklahoma, sporting his Air Force retiree hat.
“One day, I sat in the hot Oklahoma sun and put on the ball cap to cover up my bald spot, and realized I was having different conversations with different people,” he said, recognizing that veterans “have a certain amount of street cred regarding guns.”
“These are implicit biases that people have,” he said. Veterans “have a certain amount of gravitas, deserved or not.”
Upon discovering his ability to help Moms Demand Action engage with a broader spectrum of people in Oklahoma, Hester soon became involved in other initiatives. The most notable of those is the rapid reactor team, designed to get 10-12 Moms Demand Action volunteers and retired veterans to the statehouse at a moment’s notice.
“When legislators try to sneak a gun bill through, we can get up there in a couple hours,” Hester said. “It lets them know we’re keeping an eye on them.”
In 2018, Hester and the other Oklahoma Moms Demand Action volunteers even succeeded in getting then-governor Mary Fallin to veto a permitless carry bill, although one was signed by newly-elected Governor Kevin Stitt earlier this year as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Even still, that veto is a point of pride for Hester.
“I’m really proud to have been a part of the effort to get that bill vetoed,” he said. “We got a shoutout from Shannon Watts at Gun Sense University [Moms Demand Action’s annual conference for volunteer leaders] last year. She mentioned us from the podium. That brought a tear to my eye.”
When asked what keeps him involved with Moms Demand Action, Hester said it was a combination of compelling survivor stories, having friends doing the work with him, the organization’s evidence-based approach, and “knowing that we’re on the right side of history.”
Hester’s involvement in political activism, however, is a rather new development in his life. He made a concerted effort to be apolitical during his time in the Air Force, although he stressed the importance of voting to his fellow troops and made sure to secure absentee ballots for them.
“I voted, but I was never any kind of an activist,” he said. “I call myself a late-to-the-game activist.”
“I’ve discovered it and I like it. I’m glad that I’ve learned.”
Now a member of the Everytown Veterans Advisory Council, Hester applies his experience and his newfound passion for activism alongside fellow veterans advocating for gun safety.
“They’re incredible,” he said regarding his fellow Advisory Council members. “Some of them are like activists on steroids. They’re incredible human beings. I’m really proud of that, and it’s empowering as well.”
Hester aims to continue advocating for the addition of veterans voices to Moms Demand Action, calling attention to issues such as veteran suicides, and pushing for increasing activism in rural areas.
“I’m a grandfather in an organization called Moms Demand Action, but they make me feel welcome and included,” he said. “As a gun owner, that’s cool.”
“People think they might be vilified as being a part of the problem, but the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts of Moms Demand Action include conservative white guys like me. You can’t do anything without conservatives in Oklahoma. It’s recognizing that and not just vilifying the other guys. That lesson is being learned and told.”
And it’s the evolution of the conversation on gun violence prevention and gun safety that’s given Hester the most hope. Moms Demand Action is no longer entirely on the defensive in Oklahoma, and is now able to to advocate for common-sense gun legislation and gun-sense candidates.
“One of the things that I really like is that the conversation is changing,” he said. “We’re actually making progress in the culture of guns. It’s slow and we’re way behind other states, but the conversation itself has changed.”
“We just keep getting better and better.”