Guns and Soundbites: How the NRA Out-Messages the Gun Control Movement
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution
So if the right to bear arms is not to be infringed, shouldnt it extend to handheld grenade launchers and small missiles? How about nuclear arms? After all, nuclear weapons dont kill people, people kill people. And if we outlaw nukes, only outlaws will have nukes.
This example is what lawyers call reductio ad absurdumtaking an argument that seems logical and extending it to the extreme. The slippery slope argument favored by those in the pro-gun community mimics this by claiming that acceptance of one fact leads inevitably to its extremee.g., if you take away my ability to buy an assault weapon with a large-capacity magazine, its just the first step down a path to eliminating private, legal ownership of firearms altogether.
Which brings me to a broader point regarding the resonance of messages (some communications theorists call it the stickiness of messages). I just paraphrased three very well-known arguments of the pro-gun rights lobby, off the top of my head, with relative ease.
Can I do the same for the pro-gun control movement? Absolutely not. And thats my point.
Yes, the National Rifle Association is a well-organized lobby with lots of money. They reward politicians who vote for positions they advocate and punish those who do not. But in the end, I believe the success of the pro-gun rights movement over the past decade or so has much to do with the lack of a coherent, well-structured message to counteract the simple but compelling arguments outlined by gun rights advocates.
Simply put, pro-gun forces communicate in ways that resonate, while anti-gun forces do not. As I have mentioned in this column in the past, a message not heard is no message at all. This unavoidable truth is sometimes difficult for advocates who deal in substance and depth on a day-to-day basis to understand.
So when NRA EVP Wayne LaPierre gives a full-length press conference in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings, he skillfully offers up a soundbite like, The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and lays out a simple proposal like putting armed police officers in every schooland that is all the general public hears or remembers.
The true believers in the gun control movementwho watched his press conference live and devoured every secondsee LaPierre as a nut. But those arent the people you need to convince. Most of us only watched snippets of his comments on the evening news, or read them in newspapers, or had them passed to us via social media. So soundbites are all that get through. And in this case they are memorable, succinct, and personalize the messagethat is, they speak not in terms of facts and statistics but answer the elemental question: What is at stake for me?
The NRA and its leaders know exactly what they are doing with statements like these.
By way of contrast, consider the success of anti-drunk driving groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Over the past 30 or so years, drunk driving has gone from being rather commonplace to being considered akin to mortal sin in most segments of U.S. society. And heres whats interesting: I cant tell you what the maximum legal blood alcohol level is in New York, how many drinks are needed to get there, how many die each year from drunk driving, or other vagaries of fact, politics and policy. I can tell you, however, that friends dont let friends drive drunk and a designated driver saves lives. This is the power of messages that resonate.
Yes, we are seeing political movement now on gun control, at both the state, and federal levels. Early this week, New York State passed some of the most stringent gun control legislation in the nation. And on Wednesday, after a first term utterly silent on the issue of gun control, President Obama proposed sweeping legislation aimed at limiting gun violence.
But it took a heartbreaking visual messagei.e., the massacre of children in Newtownto get there. More so than even 2012s earlier deadly incident of gun violence at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the deaths of nearly 20 elementary-school students and heroic teaches at Sandy Hook Elementary moved a president to tears and a nation toward action.
Most corporate lawyers and press officers wont find themselves dealing with issues as politically inflammatory as gun control. But the lesson of the current debate is a useful one: There are always at least two sides to a debate, but you have to come armed with a coherent, well-thought-out message and the right tools to get that message heard. After all, if you give your opponent all the memorable lines, his side of the story is all anyone is going to remember.
James F. Haggerty, an attorney and communications consultant, is CEO of PRCG/Strategic Communications and the author of In The Court of Public Opinion: Winning Strategies For Litigation Communications (American Bar Association Publishing, 2009).