How Not to Message Gun Control

Every mass shooting brings with it a familiar cycle: Politicians offer condolences, lefty gun-control advocates attack those politicians on a number of fronts for doing so, we talk (argue) about gun violence for a few days on social media, and, much to the astonishment of the aforementioned advocates, nothing ultimately happens.

Gun-control proponents have even become aware of this pattern.  A Facebook image I’ve seen a dozen times this week, shared mostly by my progressive friends, reflects recognition of this reality.  Yet, the people posting it still don’t understand why this cycle persists.

Many of those friends fall into the same set of tired traps that perpetually confound activists and politicians.  As someone who is moderate on the issue of gun control, and who has no extremely strong feelings either way, what frustrates me is how easy it would be to avoid these pitfalls.

And, yet, despite over a decade of circling back to the same tropes, liberals seem not to understand the direct link that connects this flawed messaging to the complete lack of any policy victories whatsoever.

At a certain point, they must be asking themselves, “How can we semi-routinely endure awful mass shootings in this country and use those to push our messaging, and, at the same time, not achieve any sort of policy wins?”

Why can’t liberals (or even non-liberal gun-control advocates) win on this issue?  It’s a great question.  And here are the answers:

1. Stop exaggerating.  One of the talking points most shared by liberals in the wake of the Parkland shooting is that, per the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety, this is the “eighteenth” school shooting in 2018.  Except it really isn’t.

The problem with this kind of exaggeration is that it isn’t at all necessary.  Even if this is “only” the fifth shooting this year, it goes without saying that that’s still cause for major concern.  Parkland by itself would be cause for major concern.

The trouble is that this sort of spin immediately undermines the credibility of those who would push for gun control.  A conservative who might otherwise agree with stricter gun control measures looks at that talking point and thinks, “If they’re not being straightforward about that, can I trust them when they swear they won’t eventually call for gun confiscation?”  Anyone who wants to persuade conservatives on gun control has to be credible.  Fudging the facts instantly destroys that credibility.


2. Stop attacking “thoughts and prayers,” especially the “prayers” part.   Another recent development has been the gratuitous, angry mockery of those who say “thoughts and prayers.”  This comes from two places.  First, frustration over inaction in the policy realm.  Second, seething condescension by non-religious people over what they perceive as superstitious nonsense that isn’t doing anyone any real good.

But mockery won’t motivate people to agree with you on a large scale.  Even worse, this, too, is completely unnecessary.  Proponents could just as easily say, “My heart also goes out to those poor families who are hurting.  I can’t imagine the pain that community is experiencing now.  And I think we should take the following action in the wake of this tragedy . . . ”  Simple.


3. Stop demonizing the NRA.  This one will be more difficult for folks to stomach, but, here’s the reality: The NRA is an advocacy group.  It has a perfect right—a perfect right—to push for policies.  Just like teachers’ unions.  Just like the AARP.  Just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Except the NRA spends less on lobbying than those and many other groups do.

Now, if you’re saying, “those other advocacy groups’ positions don’t get people killed,” go ask a pro-lifer what he thinks about Planned Parenthood.

Yet, the NRA is presented as a literal terrorist organization by gun-control advocates.  This is an awful messaging strategy.  For one thing, the NRA is a massive organization, comprised of millions of members.  The exact number is somewhat in dispute, but even the sharpest detractors concede it’s over 3,000,000.  The NRA says its membership rolls number over five million.  Pew found that fully 14 million Americans consider themselves NRA members.

Telling that many people that they have “blood on their hands” when someone several states away commits a heinous act won’t win hearts and minds.

Second, from a persuasion standpoint, it makes gun-control proponents look incredibly weak to say, “The reason we can’t get legislation passed is because of this outside group,” because it’s tantamount to saying, “We can’t get legislation passed because this outside group is so much better at lobbying for its positions and making its arguments than we are.”

The solution is to argue more effectively, not cry foul.

Above all else, certainly don’t characterize a group consisting almost exclusively of decent, law-abiding voters as “an anti-American hate group.”


4. Stop demonizing politicians who have received donations from the NRA.  Part and parcel to the previous point is that pro-gun-control progressives look unbelievably weak, disingenuous, and hypocritical when they behave as if every donation made by the NRA is a bribe.  You see this type of rhetoric constantly in the wake of one of these horrible incidents.  And it’s absurd.

Again: The NRA is an advocacy group.  They are free to donate, lobby, and push for policies like any other such group.  Was the $2.5 million Hillary Clinton received from the American Federation of Teachers during the 2016 cycle a bribe?   What about the $10.5 million she got from Soros Fund Management?  Was that somehow improper?

Of course not.  But, then, neither is the $90k Marco Rubio received from gun-rights groups last cycle.  Not to mention the fact that much of the reporting around these figures is itself faulty (see #1 above).

If gun-control advocates want to move policy at the federal level or in the vast majority of states, they need Republican partners.  That’s simple math.  And even Republicans who may have been sympathetic to some of those policies will think twice once they see their colleagues (or even themselves) being pilloried as craven monsters who don’t care about kids or as corrupt weaklings who have “sold their souls.”


5. Stop making constitutional arguments.  If your starting point is that the Second Amendment should be repealed, I applaud your intellectual honesty and I respect your position, but that’s a bad way to move the needle on gun control.

Much worse, though, is attempting to say that the majority got it wrong in Heller.  That’s fine for meaningless blog posts written by a nobody like me, but it’s useless as a starting point for a policy discussion.  One of the most tedious elements of post-tragedy Twitter was seeing people who have never cracked a conlaw textbook in their lives explain the “true history” of the Second Amendment.

Give it up.

This Supreme Court isn’t going to overturn Heller.  More importantly, although Heller is correctly-decided in my estimation, Heller’s existence doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that can be done constitutionally.  Focus on those reforms, rather than tilting at judicial windmills.

Moreover, the argument that Heller should be overturned also carries some unnecessary baggage: It makes it plain that the ultimate goal is precisely the oft-dismissed right-wing nightmare of eliminating the individual right to bear arms (and, presumably, the introduction of some kind of confiscation mechanism that would follow shortly thereafter).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is a losing strategy.  Even the most progressive commentator will admit—or even tout—the fact that guns are part of American culture in a way that is dissimilar to virtually any other country.

In short: Work with the culture, not against it.

As I said in that piece over five years ago, our culture is shifting toward greater stigmatization of gun use.  What’s more, there’s a major groundswell of support for many of the things that advocates like to call “common-sense” gun regulations.  But liberals and left-leaning media outlets always make the same mistakes and blow their opportunity to see these policies become law.

From today’s New York Times, for example:

Note the arguments here:

1. Members of Congress who receive donations from the NRA are its “servants.”

2. Running against the NRA is a winning strategy.

3. Only voting against the NRA will end bloodshed.

All three of these points are wrong.

Even more important than them being wrong, they are counterproductive to the goal of liberals—and everyone—to achieve policy wins that will reduce gun violence.

The reason that this keeps happening is that folks who are understandably emotional after one of these heartbreaking incidents give in to words and deeds that give them short-term solace at the expense of a long-term strategy that can reap the kinds of legislative achievements that would actually help tackle the problem.  Meanwhile, activists and politicians either genuinely surrender to those emotions themselves, or they pander to those who do in an attempt to signal that they’re on the “right” side of the issue.

The Times editorial board gets one thing right, though: Americans do largely favor certain reforms that gun-control advocates want.  Critics will say these reforms haven’t happened because the NRA is just so powerful that moving any kind of legislation is impossible.

That’s the wrong answer.  During this era of mass shootings, policy has been very difficult to move no matter who was in power, whether they were NRA supporters or opponents, largely because of a simple truth of cognitive science: When you attack someone’s core beliefs, they are more likely to double-down than change their minds, no matter how good your argument is.

If thousands of people killed in mass shootings over the last few years isn’t enough to move policy, then the messaging around that policy must be abysmal.  And it is.  A change in tactics can reverse that trend.

As much as it might be tempting to damn Republicans or NRA members to hell, doing so will repel the potential allies that advocates need to achieve changes that will have an impact.

Until that stops happening, we’ll be locked into this endless, lamentable cycle.

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2 Responses to How Not to Message Gun Control

  1. matt Gilliam says:

    What people miss in my opinion is that the politicians you “think” are on your side don’t really want to solve your problem. They want to have an issue that will keep them in power.

  2. Lauren says:

    Some really good points in there- says this super liberal. And how many times are we going to see our democratic leaders take us the wrong and ineffective direction before we can make any changes?

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