One year after Congress failed to pass a background check bill that 90 percent of Americans supported, groups to combat the National Rifle Association are ratcheting up their financial investment, and pledging to take the gun lobby head on like never before.
“Because of Washington’s failure, we are beginning the next phase in the fight,” said John Feinblatt, president of the newly launched Everytown for Gun Safety funded with $50 million from Michael R. Bloomberg. Added an Everytown press release: “This means continuing to press for change in Washington and moving beyond Congress to bring the fight for common-sense gun policies to state capitols, corporate boards, and state and federal elections — fields of play formerly occupied almost solely by the gun lobby.”
And a year after former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords declared, “Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s,” her political action committee is fundraising at a rate of $2.5 million in just three months.
The gun violence prevention movement won some major state battles over the past year, but so, too, has the gun lobby, which remains a menacing check on forward movement. As the next generation of gun safety activists aims increasingly to battle their opponents head on, here are some key tactics from the NRA’s playbook that they are just starting to take up:
Reward lawmakers who vote with you; punish those who don’t. Core to the NRA strategy is to reward those legislators who take positive action and positions on gun reform — and punish those who don’t, even when they otherwise align politically. This longtime tactic is one gun safety groups have historically stayed away from, and it is the one Everytown has been most explicit about duplicating from the NRA. “Michael Bloomberg couldn’t be clearer that he is going to hold people accountable who vote against gun violence and reward those who vote for,” said Feinblatt. But no one has said quite how far they will go. Key to the NRA strategy is total ruthlessness. Take the demise of former Tennessee lawmaker Debra Maggart. Maggart, a leading Republican in the state, had an “A+” NRA rating and a history of backing gun bills. But after she killed a bill that would have allowed Tennesseans to keep their guns in their car wherever they went, she became a target. During her election months after the vote, her face was plastered across NRA billboards, newspaper ads, and fliers that questioned her gun record and analogized her to Barack Obama. The NRA threw its support behind another, newcomer candidate. “They did this to send a message: ‘If you don’t do what we want, we will annihilate you’,” Maggart told the New York Times after losing her election.
Bloomberg described the strategy this way. “They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to go after you.’ ‘If you don’t vote with us we’re going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we’re never going to stop.’ ” But rather than committing to stoop the NRA’s level, Bloomberg says, “We have to make them afraid of us.”
Deploy your members to every town hall, where they can hijack the conversation. The NRA has long employed its members to turn out and make gun rights an issue — everywhere they go. Fora convened to discuss an unrelated topic such as school reform have frequently devolved into a discussion about guys after gun-rights representatives pack the room.
Gun safety groups have already started to play this game over the past year. After Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) voted against the background check bill in Congress, Bloomberg organized protesters to attend Ayotte’s public speaking events and question her on her vote, much in the same way the NRA has flooded town halls. And this is core to their plans going forward. Moms Demand Action in particular, one of the groups that joined to form Everytown, has turned out its members around the country over the past year to hold “stroller jams” and to fill city halls with diaper bags in opposition to expansive gun legislation.
Make your constituent base as broad as possible. Everytown plans to boost its membership from 1.5 to 2.5 million over the next year. But the NRA already claims to have more than 5 million members behind it. The group touts this figure to suggest widespread support and clout with gun owners, both to the general public and to gun industry folks who may be considering affiliating with other groups. But reports suggest that this number is padded by a whole host of individuals who aren’t actually willing current members. Among the 5 million are those given “honorary membership” without having signed up, lifetime members who have died, others who have let their membership lapse, and those who receive the free magazine. This has been described as one element of a campaign to make the NRA seem much more formidable than it really is. And it works. New gun groups are countering this not just by aspiring to add a million members over the next year, but also by showing that they represent a much larger chunk of society than just gun owners — everybody. Everytown is focusing particular attention on representing victims of gun violence, mothers, and mayors. Those constituencies alone have grown the movement’s potency over the past year.
Make the conversation about principles, not guns. The NRA has made gun rights about more than guns. NRA-ILA Executive Director put it this way: “I’ve met thousands of NRA members and I know that we all share the same core belief in freedom. The Second Amendment is just a guarantee of one specific freedom; it represents a value system that goes far beyond gun ownership. As the old saying goes, ‘Gun control isn’t about guns. It’s about control.’” This narrative has been been perpetuated in the refrain that the government is taking your guns away and it is encapsulated in the absolutism of the NRA. From their perspective, nothing short of absolute gun protection sanctity is permissible, and there is never a bad time to defend that ideal, even right in the wake of a gun violence tragedy.
The gun safety movement has always had the obvious symbolism of safety and security. But in the past year they have tailored their message to emphasize community, and in particular, family. “I think the gun lobby should be very afraid of people who are tired of gun violence in this country, particularly moms,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action and now a board member for Everytown. “Moms are afraid our children will be taken away and in the end, I think that’s the emotion that will win the debate.”
Turn your opponent’s strengths against them. After the Newtown Massacre, Mayors Against Guns invested $12 million in television ads against the NRA in key states. These ads were persuasive and helped make gun safety a national conversation. But Amy Showalter points out in Forbes that they also permitted senators in deep red states to say “New York City didn’t tell them how to vote,” depicting gun safety advocates as distant, cultural elites. Gun safety advocates have capitalized on the same sort of messaging, however, to the opposite effect. The NRA may still be menacing enough and well-funded enough to primary some candidates out of office or intimidate them into a vote, but now the public sees them as those ruthless players who win even when the overwhelming majority of the public supports reform. That has prompted some candidates to distance themselves from the NRA, which is now perceived as politically toxic in some places.