When I was a kid growing up, I was active in politics. At age 6, I was stuffing envelopes for our Congressman. At 8, I was walking precincts. And, in 1968, at the ripe old age of 10, I worked in my first presidential campaign washing car windows in shopping districts and leaving a printed message on the windshield that read: “Your window was washed courtesy of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Now that you can see clearly, please vote Kennedy for President on June 5.”
Kennedy was murdered just after midnight June 5 by an assassin using a .22 caliber revolver. That moment, plus my memory of being a small boy when his brother President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, framed my thinking and, I believe, the feelings of the majority of Americans on the issue of gun control.
As a teenager and young adult, I carried with me the belief that all guns were bad. I firmly believed in banning all weapons. Over the years, I have moderated my view and have a broader understanding of those who enjoy hunting and going to pistol ranges. I don't support this activity, but I understand people's right to enjoy them.
During this same period I grew in my thinking, the National Rifle Association grew even more adamant that every American has a right to own and use firearms and assault weapons. The NRA also grew even more politically powerful in lobbying, advocating, and promoting its viewpoints by generating deep concern with elected and regulatory officials that they would stop at nothing to ensure their vision of the 2nd Amendment trumped the reality of imposing sensible gun control laws to prevent assassinations, violence, and massacres such as what happened in Newtown, CT, last month.
Obviously, the NRA and its members didn't pull the triggers in Newtown. However, the NRA is complicit in promoting the unnecessary and tragic gun violence in America and is the leading organization that pressures and prevents elected officials and government agencies from instituting stricter gun controls to prevent the tragedies that the NRA has played a role in promoting.
The question in 2013 remains the same as it did in past attempts to enact stricter gun control after a tragedy – how can the gun lobby be beaten this time?
Messaging and positioning is essential to victory. President Obama must avoid alienating Americans who support gun ownership of rifles and handguns. Instead, he should aim for a ban on assault weapons for which there should be strong public support. The president must drive a wedge between radical gun advocates who believe there is a right to own any type of firearm and the law-abiding hunters and pistol aficionados who understand there must be a compromise for the future and safety of America.
The president is already off to a good start. This week he made a series of important and sensible gun control and public safety proposals.The immediate and reactionary NRA response was to oppose these measures and send an army of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to defeat them.
The NRA played its cards wrong after Sandy Hook when its recommendation was to hire armed guards at all schools. This week's latest communications gaffe was airing a television ad that attacks President Obama for accepting armed security for his family. The NRA's bad messaging immediately backfired and leading Republicans such as a Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) condemned its advertisement.
The key to winning the gun control PR battle is to raise some very simple questions and force the NRA and the gun lobby to answer them directly, such as “why does anyone need to have assault guns?” and “Who needs a magazine containing more than 10 bullets?”
Also, just like messaging in political campaigns, gun control advocates must spotlight the leading pro-gun personalities to ensure the public sees how out of touch they are with reasonable, responsible, and common-sense-driven Americans. The more Americans see of gun supporters such as Wayne LaPierre, James Yeager, and Alex Jones, the more likely they will see the dangerous, self-centered inflexibility and radicalism of their views.
Right now, the NRA is continuing to play the wrong hand by opposing sensible control measures. Their radical response and messaging will not sit well with the vast majority of Americans who want reasonable solutions. And, because of the epidemic of violence –and the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 – the issue of gun control is growing stronger among minorities tired of gun violence destroying their communities.
Polling, such as a recent Associated Press/GfK poll, demonstrates the actions and messages from the NRA could lead the majority of Americans to rise up and demand the president's gun control program be adopted, thus signaling the end of the NRA's influence.
Sam Singer is president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he has spent the past 20-plus years helping a wide variety of clients develop their public affairs strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.