What climate activists can learn from the NRA and the gun-control wars

I’ve been thinking about writing a post along these lines, when someone far more knowledgeable on the subject beat me to the punch.

Here is a Grist post by Robert J. Walker, the former president of Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), who “helped to lead the fight for passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban”:

[Italics are mine.  Bold in original.]

Supporters of climate-change legislation have much to learn from an organization that is often rated as the most powerful lobby in Washington: the National Rifle Association.

The gun lobby is not invincible, but it has won a disproportionate share of its battles. The NRA and its allies have not relied on data collection and scrupulously reasoned arguments to carry the day.  To the contrary, the gun lobby has focused on building and energizing its small membership base, working to influence the outcome of critical elections, and employing bare-knuckled tactics.

The NRA’s membership is not that large — probably a little over 3 million.  Its views, even in today’s more pro-gun environment, are largely outside the mainstream of American thought.  Indeed, many of its own members likely disagree with the organization’s policies. But when the NRA speaks, the politicians in Washington listen, salute, and fall in line.

Ask any veteran of a gun-control battle, and they will tell you it’s not politics as taught in the classroom; it’s the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.

As climate activists regroup for another assault on the carbon camp, here are some key points to keep in mind:

Remember: all politics is politics. It is not a debate competition. Elected officials must be persuaded by all means legal and ethical to vote for your position.  Some members of Congress may be won over by the urgency of your cause, but most will only be persuaded by the urgency with which their constituents speak out on this issue.  Sadly, loud voices at town halls count for more than all the scientists in the world.

Fight on all fronts. Congress is just one battlefield in a much larger theater of political conflict involving 536 elections, including the election of the president.  If you are not fighting for the election of your friends and the defeat of your enemies at the ballot box, the battle for Congress is already lost. Your involvement in a campaign may or may not make a critical difference in the outcome of an election, but if your presence is not felt there, it will not be felt much in Congress either.

Fight behind enemy lines. Support on controversial issues tends to divide along party lines, but don’t let that stop you from recruiting and supporting a candidate on your issue who happens to be a member of the other party.  In fact, getting involved in primary fights on the other side of the political aisle may be the single most effective thing you can do to change the political dynamic.  Members of Congress will do almost anything — including voting for climate-change legislation — to avoid a serious primary challenge.  There’s a reason why the NRA’s political action committee, which generally backs Republican candidates, also devotes a lot of resources to unseating Democrats in primaries. Win or lose, it gets the attention of their opponents.

Win new allies. Wars are seldom won without strong allies.  The same goes for politics.  If your allied base is not strong enough, convert some of your erstwhile opponents into allies.  The gun lobby suffered two of its worst defeats in the 1990s when gun-control groups successfully recruited the support of major national law-enforcement groups. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to work harder at making allies out of businesses interests that previously may have been skeptical of climate change, like the insurance industry.

Redraw the battle lines. At the present time, the issue of climate change is largely seen as an intergenerational issue affecting future generations, but as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, as they have this year, the issue may — and should — become more pressing to those focused on the “the here and now.”  Supporters of climate-change legislation need to do a better job of defining what’s at stake in the near term, including extreme temperatures, drought, flooding, and rising food prices.

Work on your rallying cry. It’s a shame that most issues in politics, even complex issues like climate change, are often reduced to 25 words or less, but that’s the way it is.  Messages serve to frame the debate and can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Both sides of the gun debate have used messaging to their benefit, but over the years the gun lobby has done a better job of it than gun-control proponents. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to go back to the message drawing board.

Change the rules of engagement. When the rules don’t suit it, the gun lobby is not shy about changing them. Because it has a bigger political war chest than its gun-control opponents, it has taken every opportunity to loosen campaign finance restrictions.  Supporters of climate-change legislation need to reevaluate the laws and procedures, including the super-majority requirement in the Senate, that have made it more difficult to pass legislation and override entrenched business interests.  There’s a reason why the House has passed climate-change legislation and the Senate has not; the House is more (small “d”) democratic than the Senate. Unless the rules are changed, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to get climate-change legislation approved in the Senate.

Don’t fear to be feared. Progressive groups, including many supporters of climate-change legislation, love to be loved.  The gun lobby doesn’t care if you don’t like it, so long as you fear it.  The NRA, the most powerful lobby in Washington, is one of the most reviled.  Many members of Congress, even pro-gun members, privately bristle at the tactics of the NRA, but that doesn’t stop them from voting in lockstep with the gun lobby.

Don’t get mad, get even. Bruised, scarred, and brushed aside, no one could blame supporters of climate-change legislation for being angry at a political process that has stymied action on an issue of such great import.  When I worked on gun issues, I ran into a lot of activists, particularly the victims and survivors of gun violence, who were incensed at Congress for its failure to adopt sensible gun laws.  The key was to channel that anger and frustration into constructive action, and we did that with the passage of the Brady Law and the federal assault-weapons ban.

The 111th Congress has failed to act on climate change. This is no time to quit.  The stakes are too high.  And success is the best revenge.

— Walker is currently executive VP of the Population Institute.

If people are not willing to be single issue voters, if you can’t convince politicians that voting against climate action and clean energy will cost them money and votes — and  ultimately elections — it  is difficult to see how we change the status quo.

And it bears repeating, Job One is to help kill Proposition 23, the battle over California’s climate law that pits extremist anti-science polluters against bipartisan support for the clean energy economy.  If that were to win, it’d be mighty hard to convince any politician in other blue states, let alone purple ones, that this  is an issue worth fighting for.

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17 Responses to What climate activists can learn from the NRA and the gun-control wars

  1. homunq says:

    Yay, finally a CP post that faces the filibuster head-on! I agree with the rest of the points too.

    There’s one point that’s missing. How can the NRA fight so ruthlessly for positions that are more radical than what their members support? Because their members are members for other reasons. NRA doesn’t just attract members through political sympathy, it also markets itself through training programs, gun shows, and who knows what else. The Sierra Club is the one environmental org I can think of with corresponding marketing tricks; they are thus a natural for running the bare-knuckled fight that’s needed on an issue like the filibuster, which the average member probably doesn’t connect to global warming. Also critically, like the NRA, they’re a 501(c)(4), not a 501(c)(3), so they can get take sides in specific political races.

    … So I googled a bit on how to take over the Sierra Club and make them work more along the lines of this post. Here’s a group which includes their current board of directors and has only 30 members(!):
    And the top post is by David Orr (an ex-professor of mine, actually), starting a facebook group “League of Sierra Club Voters” to discuss these issues. I’m a calcified facebook recalcitrant, but if you’re on facebook and you agree with this post, by all means, join.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    One Thought, and Trying to No Avail

    That’s a great post. Thanks. A couple thoughts . . .

    Although the points made in the post are all important and helpful, we should also keep in mind the immense differences between the two issues and challenges. The nature of the gun situation/issue and the nature of the immense societal wake up and change called for by the climate and energy issues are substantially different in some ways, of course. Very different. So, although the sorts of things mentioned in the post are necessary, we’ll need to implement them in more voluminous ways (in volume), and better ways, than in the case of the NRA, and we’ll also need additional approaches to meet the climate and energy challenges, all keeping well within the bounds of ethics, as the post also notes.

    Keep in mind, five of the six most profitable companies in the world are oil and gas companies. They are not gun companies. Indeed, gun companies are probably rather small. (I can’t even think of one, let alone where it might list in the Fortune 500?) That’s a BIG difference.

    Also, as an aside, even as we know the importance of the climate and energy issues, and even as people point out the importance of California presently, I’ll offer a thought about my own experiences recently:

    I listened closely to the conference call last week (involving Al Gore and etc.). After the call, on their site, I posted a detailed comment, offered help, and (if I remember correctly?) asked to be contacted — or at least implied that I’d like to be contacted. I haven’t heard a thing yet.

    Similarly, I recently offered to drive up to San Francisco or Oakland and meet with one of the leaders of one of the main climate organizations, for an hour over lunch or coffee, to discuss some observations and ideas. The response was, in essence, “too busy now”.

    So, presently, I am not feeling — at all — as though people want to sit down, hear observations, hear ideas, and actually get people on board. I’m in California, am a Berkeley alum, have worked in the oil industry, have been active on the climate and energy fronts for several years now, and blah blah blah, and all that the organizations seem to be interested in are donations and asking (via e-mail) that we send e-mails and make phone calls to representatives. If it weren’t for the importance of the issues themselves (climate, energy), and for the need to care about future generations and other species, I would be inclined at this point to give up on the efforts of the organizations that are presently trying to lead us. Although I’m willing to help, most of them are currently frustrating me more than inspiring me or leading me.

    Sorry for the complaints. Although I admire the efforts of some of the climate organizations, I am not inspired by their outreach approaches or degrees of success so far. Nor am I interested in sending more e-mails to politicians. I’m willing and happy to meet with a leader or leaders of the organization(s) in the Bay Area.



  3. homunq says:

    Audobon Society has the marketing, but it’s 501(c)(3), so can’t act like the NRA.

  4. homunq says:

    Jeff@2: You don’t become an activist by saying “please contact me” or by offering to share your ideas with other activists. You become an activist by pushing your ideas with the general public, developing a network of supporters on whom you can call when there’s work to be done (whether it’s letter-writing, petitions, protests, boycotts, canvassing, creative actions, or, yes, donations). You have a good point that established environmental organizations should probably be more peer-to-peer, not top-down; so, do something about it.

    (I’m not trying to belittle your concerns, but to spur you to more action. Cheers!)

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    Some good advice there but it’s apples-and-oranges.

    The NRA was not opposed by the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the world who collectively have ONE BILLION DOLLARS PER DAY in profit to bring to the fight.

    Indeed, the NRA itself, while falsely claiming to represent the “Second Amendment” interests of its “gun owner” members, is in fact nothing more or less than a lobbying group for weapons manufacturers. In some ways the NRA is the ultimate “astroturf” group. You know that the American Petroleum Institute is organizing “citizen rallies” to oppose any action to reduce GHG emissions? That’s the NRA model at work.

    The strongest parallels are not between the NRA and climate activists, but between the NRA and the fossil fuel corporations. The most obvious being, that both of them have enough money to buy politicians. Lots of politicians.

    What can climate activists learn from the NRA? Easy. We need to come up with tens of millions of dollars in bribes to pay off some Senators.

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    We are experiencing perhaps the hottest year on record in the hottest decade on record and the fact is that in this years elections across the country NO ONE IS RUNNING ON CLIMATE CHANGE LEGISLATION. A few Democrats may be agreeable to voting for some kind of legislation but it has not been an issue again this year. No one is saying we must limit greenhouse gasses now. No grassroots movement is showing up at anyone’s rallies. The above advice will only work if enough people get upset enough to get the message out and elect representatives who will make a change.

  7. homunq says:

    Michael@6: Yes, it is vitally important to grow the grass roots of loud environmental activism. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about tactics for lobbying, which is perhaps less important, but still absolutely worth talking about. Whatever the size of your grass roots, you can be more or less effective at lobbying.

    Double the size of the grass roots, you double your power; let’s call that 1 unit of extra power for 1 of exra work. Double your lobbying effectiveness, you double your power; let’s say that’s the same, though with how ineffective environmental lobbying it is, the extra work may actually be much less. Double both, and you’ve quadrupled your power; three units of extra power for only 2 units of extra work. That’s why it’s important to be balanced, you can’t neglect either factor.

  8. fj2 says:

    re: “Win new allies.”

    ” . . . . Supporters of climate-change legislation need to work harder at making allies out of businesses interests that previously may have been skeptical of climate change, like the insurance industry.”

    (To a certain extent it seemed that the Clinton Foundation had some successes in doing stuff like this.)

    And yes, this is true yet, the insurance industry has a lot at stake from environmental disasters in particular, but it is also deeply entrenched in transportation systems based on cars which in turn are profoundly entrenched in developed-world economies.

    Ultimately, envisioning a suitable framework for the future — maybe that’s what oil-front-person Pat Michaels wants someone to tell him — and, the “moral argument” is a critical one, but there are many others, that all of powerful cash-rich companies and industries must be made to see that actually business-as-usual is high-risk and there is much better opportunity — and safety — being prepared and even more entrenched in the inevitable and dramatic changes to come quite soon that are driven by climate change; where, now, some of the best buy-in prices, highest growth, margins, etc., opportunities can be “mined” if they are smart. To a certain extent they know this already. (T Boone Pickens may be an example.)

    They must be shown that dramatic change is happening right now and they are at high risk if they do not understand what is going on, change, restructure business models and culture, and adapt; instead of pushing back on the winds of extreme change. And, this is the truth!

    They may want to stay business-as-usual, but this is not the reality for long and does not make good economic and business sense.

  9. wag says:

    Another advantage of the NRA is there are no industries whose profits are affected by loosening gun restrictions

  10. Karen S. says:

    It’s true about the disproportionate effect of vigorous involvement on the part of a few dedicated people. Last fall a small group of constituents in my town got royally tired of the contemptuous treatment we were getting from an elected local official, and decided to do something about it. We organized a campaign based on voting records, promises broken, and statements made that were already on public record, no false claims here. As a result, we caused the longest-serving elected official in the state–37 years–to be unseated. The rest of the local Commission had a wake up call from that, and they are much more responsive and aware of the meaning of public service now. It works great when you get involved, but it’s also a lot of work.

  11. This is a really interesting post on the tactics of lobbying and I do hope some of the climate groups active in the States adopt the ideas.

    Touching on Jeff’s point, I think one of the biggest problems with the current climate campaigning organisations is their lack of collaboration. They are all fighting for (vaguely) the same thing in a safe climate but it is also bundled up in lots of other issues (anti-big business, poverty alleviation etc) and very few seem willing to recognise that energy is the basis of what, globally, is recognised to be a “normal” life.

    I do not believe that normal people get up in the morning and think, “I’m going to destroy the future”, yet this is exactly what the use of fossil-fuelled energy invites them to do. What’s worse, because of the way we account for our economic activity, they are assured it is “rational behaviour” because fossil fuel is such a “cheap” way to obtain energy. Faced with such a situation, I believe the only truly human response is to change the system so that we our economic activity is rewarded for nourishing the planet rather than destroying it.

    The first time we invented accountancy (15th century Italy, double entry book-keeping) we transformed the way people were able to think about business activity and how to make decisions on best courses of action. Unfortunately at the time there was many fewer people on the planet and we hadn’t discovered any meaningful use for fossil fuel so the inventors of a system that has the concept of balance at its heart simply didn’t realise there was a cost to using the planet’s natural services. Well, we know now. It is time to put that right.

    Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate”. Read chapter summaries at or download the complete first chapter at

  12. peter whitehead says:

    At Town Hall meetings, ask denier candidates if they got their ideas from BP.

    They are a current hate figure, so let’s use them.

  13. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    The post by Robert J. Walker states the NRA’s membership is not that large. While that’s true, it also meaningless, as millions of people who aren’t members are in symnpathy with the NRA’s *basic* message. This basic message is not, as the author states, “largely outside” of the mainstream of American thought. In fact, the NRA’s basic positions are in the mainstream, and it’s those who oppose them who aren’t in the mainstream. For example, the NRA takes the strange position that a US citizen has the right of self defense, and with a firearm if need be. Cicero, 2000 years ago, believed the right of self defense was the one right which trumped everything else. How can this notion not be mainstream? Secondly, the NRA has been loud and clear that the 2nd Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms and not a collective one, and the US Supreme Court has now issued two rulings to confirm this. Is the US Supreme Court now outside of the mainstream of American thought?

  14. Prokaryotes says:

    The welfare of the people is the ultimate law.
    (Salus Populi Suprema Est Lex) Cicero

    No one can speak well, unless he thoroughly understands his subject. Cicero

  15. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Do people have the ultimate right of self defense, yes or no? If yes, would that include the use of a firearm, as the person under assault sees fit?

  16. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    “Any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right”

    So, it seems, Cicero agrees with the NRA’s position…

  17. homunq says:

    This is not about the agreement with the “basic message”; there’s no doubt that a majority of Americans support a basic individual right to some form of gun ownership. This is about the NRA’s no-holds-barred fight against any form of gun regulation whatsoever. At this point, US citizens have seen their rights under the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments eroded substantially in order to buy (in my opinion illusory) safety from terrorists, yet second-amendment rights have been so zealously guarded that a certified insane person on a terrorist watch list still has a good chance of being able to go to a gun show and buy a gun with no waiting period. The number of Americans who agree with this state of affairs is certainly less than the number of NRA members.