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Public Relations

The NRA is fighting back against gun reform

America's younger generation are gunning for the National Rifle Association and they are gaining support

In its 147-year old history, the National Rifle Association has withstood the reforming zeal of US presidents, unseated senators and become one of the strongest forces in American politics. But can its campaigning power ever be combatted successfully to change America’s gun laws?

It’s a question that gets asked every time there is a major shooting in the United States. Figures from America’s Gun Violence Archive show that more than 1,800 people have been killed and more than 6,400 wounded in American mass shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in December 2012. The total tally of American firearm deaths is much higher, with nearly 39,000 people killed by guns in America in 2016 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Everytown for Gun Safety, an organisation committed to measuring America’s unprecedented levels of gun violence, says 96 Americans are now killed with guns on an average day, while the gun homicide rate is 3.6 per 100,000 residents – dwarfing the UK’s rate of 0.04. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime meanwhile calculates that the 300 million guns in the US represent 42 per cent of the 715 million guns owned by civilians anywhere in the world.

Enough is enough? The killing of 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, however, is being billed as a tipping point in the battle against US gun deaths. In March, as many as two million people in America joined The March for Our Lives, a series of 800 nationwide protests prompted by pupils at the Florida school, making it one of the largest demonstrations in American history. ‘To the leaders, sceptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn, welcome to the revolution,’ student Cameron Kasky told the Washington DC gathering. ‘Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware.’

The 300 million guns in the US represent 42 per cent of the 715 million guns owned by civilians anywhere in the world

Stars including Sir Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande joined student-led marches in New York and Washington. ‘This is a movement that has just begun,’ declared New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. ‘These students will change America.’

The NRA is a formidable opponent The NRA hit back, urging followers to mount their own counter-protests and stating that March for Our Lives was orchestrated by ‘gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites…. manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to destroy the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones’.

With five million members, a $250 million annual budget and a reputation for buying elections, the NRA is a formidable opponent. Its power also goes well beyond finance. ‘The perception that the NRA’s strength lies in its funding is deeply flawed,’ states Jeremy Heimans, co-author of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World and How to Make it Work for You.

Heimans cites a ‘recall election’ in 2013 that removed from office two Colorado state senators who had helped to pass laws aimed at limiting gun violence. This victory for gun advocates came nine months after a massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut left 26 dead, prompting horrific memories of the 1999 killing spree at Colorado’s Columbine High School.

The vote also came despite favourable polls for gun controls that continue to signal more than 90 per cent of Americans are in favour of legally enforceable background checks for all gun owners. Yet once again, the NRA managed to restrain the forces of gun control, coming out on top, even as it appeared to be at its most vulnerable.

These were investments designed to create a web of grass-roots activity fusing together the politics, culture and commerce of guns

Heimans notes that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who donated $350,000, and the senators’ supporters outspent the NRA five-fold, putting $3 million into the fight, against the gun lobby’s $600,000, while the NRA did not even appear to be terribly conspicuous in the campaign. A grass-roots intensity, garnered over decades of local action was what won the day, he argues.

Over many years the NRA had made small grants totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of small organisations in Colorado: gun clubs, shooting ranges, conservationist and hunting organisations and small local gun rights groups not formally part of the NRA. ‘These were investments designed to create a web of grass-roots activity fusing together the politics, culture and commerce of guns,’ says Heimans. ‘Think of it as an independent, self-organised crowd, untethered officially yet strategically aligned with the NRA’s interests.

‘Those who criticised the NRA for being AWOL during the recall campaign had misread the strategy. It had not disappeared. It had simply prioritised its ultimate mission over its brand.’

The NRA used a different strategy to beat the Manchin-Toomey bill, a piece of proposed gun control legislation supported by President Barack Obama. Offered up in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy, this bill was proposed by two senators previously known as strong pro-NRA allies. Yet it was scuppered by a NRA campaign that awarded politicians scores or grades, ranging from A to F, based on their voting record on gun rights.

After the NRA announced that it would be scoring the vote on a key amendment on background checks, 14 senators who had previously voted in favour of the legislation removed their support and vetoed the checks. ‘The NRA’s grading system is the modern equivalent of the emperor’s thumb pointed up for those he will save and down for those he condemns,’ says Heimans. ‘The halls and lobbies are full of stories of those who have crossed the NRA and paid a very high price.’

But there’s a lot we can learn from the NRA. Its capacity to toggle between old and new power is well-honed: its leaders know how to engage with old power tactics and when to get out of the way and let new power surge. ‘The NRA shows a rare capacity to be dramatically present in one moment and to disappear entirely the next. It draws on the strength, gravitas and resources of a big institution and the energy and creativity of a social movement.’

The halls and lobbies are full of stories of those who have crossed the NRA and paid a very high price

The NRA is much more than a mere hobby association or political advocate organisation. Over its existence, it has built a club culture, running marksmanship programmes for children, offering discounts on insurance, personal loans and a wine club and even marketing NRA toasters that scorch its logo into bread. The NRA is also skilled in public relations.

Scott Melzer, associate professor of sociology at Albion College, Michigan, and author of Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, argues that the organisation uses a nostalgic vision of frontier masculinity to denote gun rights defenders as patriots and freedom fighters. He contends that the association should be understood as much more than just a pro-gun lobby but rather as a social movement dedicated to preserving traditional conservative values and enlisting broad support across a spectrum of the population that identifies with them.

How can anti-gun campaigners defeat this well-organised political foe? Perhaps by enlisting the power of America’s biggest corporations. Gun sellers have been among the first to act. Retail giant Walmart announced in February that it would stop selling firearms to anyone younger than 21, while sports retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods pledged that its stores would no longer retail assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines.

Airline groups meanwhile cut ties with the NRA, with Delta Air Lines ending its discounted rate for the association’s members and United Continental saying it would no longer offer discounts on flights to its annual meeting, which this year took place in Dallas and was attended by more than 87,000 supporters – or ‘patriots’, as its website likes to describe them.

Car rental groups Hertz, Avis, Budget and Enterprise, insurers Chubb and MetLife, Wyndham Hotel Group and computer security firm Symantec made similar announcements, while the First National Bank of Omaha said it would not renew NRA branded credit cards.

Banking giant Citigroup acted in March when it announced a new policy on commercial firearms. ‘For too many years, in too many places, our country has seen acts of gun violence that have resulted in heartbreaking losses,’ stated Ed Skyler, executive vice president of global public affairs. ‘Over the same amount of time, we have waited for our grief to turn into action and see our nation adopt common-sense measures that would help prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands.

‘That action has sadly never come and as the weeks pass after the most recent mass shooting, it appears we are stuck in the same cycle of tragedy and inaction. As a society, we all know that something needs to change. And as a company, we feel we must do our part.’

Citigroup’s new US commercial firearms policy requires its retail sector clients and partners to pledge not to sell firearms to anyone who has not passed a background check, to restrict such sale of firearms to people under 21 and to not sell the ‘bump stocks’ or high-capacity magazines used in the Florida shooting. It will work with customers who do not comply with this new policy to ‘transition their business’ away from the bank. Citigroup will also start talks with commercial customers that manufacture firearms to ensure adherence to its new policy and it wants to encourage other financial services firms to tackle this issue, ‘leveraging collective action to encourage responsible practices’.

‘It is not centred on an ideological mission to rid the world of firearms. That is not what we seek,’ says Skyler. ‘There are millions of Americans who use firearms for recreational and other legitimate purposes, and we respect their constitutional right to do so. But we want to do our part as a company to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands. So our new policy centres around current firearms sales best practices that will guide those we do business with as a firm.’

And in April, the world’s largest investment company BlackRock responded to customer demand when it launched a range of products that specifically avoid investing in companies that make or sell fire arms for civilian use. Consequently, these products will not invest in supermarket chains Walmart and Kroger, Dick’s Sporting Goods and gun manufacturers Sturm, Ruger & Co, American Outdoor Brands and Vista Outdoor Brands.

BlackRock responded to customer demand when it launched a range of products that specifically avoid investing in companies that make or sell fire arms for civilian use

The wave of corporate action claimed some early results, with falls in the share prices of groups associated with gun-making. Vista Outdoor Brands has confirmed it is exploring the sale of its gun and ammunition brands, while LL Bean and Kroger followed Walmart’s lead by raising their minimum gun buying age to 21. But can the current backlash make serious inroads into controlling America’s guns problem?

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York in Cortland, New York State, who has written five books on the politics of US gun control, says corporate action on gun control has the potential to have an impact as companies ally with strong public feeling and use their networks to exert influence. However, he thinks this will be limited.

‘Corporates mostly don’t want to get too involved in politics,’ he says. ‘They’re interested in making profits, not in changing politics. The student-led movement, however, is something different and is already having a significant impact. It is going beyond the usual reactions that we get in the US to mass shootings and has prompted some previously gun-friendly states, like Vermont and Florida, to tighten their gun control policies.

‘They are making a real effort to create lasting change, rather than the short-term protests of the past, and they have an eye on influencing the mid-term US elections in the Fall.’ If that becomes a reality, Spitzer believes the new gun control campaign could have a major effect on American politics.

Given its culture, following and political and financial might, it may still not be the way to bet. But America’s youth now has a clear opportunity to make history.