A Shift In Strategy

posted on April 1, 2015

In January, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) program “Frontline” aired a special called “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA.” The show immediately established its anti-gun tone with video and 911 tapes from the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. A voiceover gravely intoned, “Once again, innocent victims gunned down. And then, legislation voted down.” Vice President Joe Biden appeared asking the question that clearly perplexed the “Frontline” producers: “How could [Congress] vote that way?”

The show portrayed NRA and Congress as an unholy alliance against gun control, which it uncritically assumed was a righteous cause. In doing so, it suggested that if gun control was to succeed, new fronts would have to be opened in the battle over the Second Amendment. Perhaps not coincidentally, this mirrors a renewed focus by anti-gunners on state-level activity.

Of course, the gun control movement has always proceeded on the assumption that when firearm-related crime strikes, it provides them the opportunity they seek to advance their political agenda. Moreover, anti-gunners believe, this applies even if their proposals would not have prevented the crime in question. 

That was certainly the case with the proposed federal “response” to Sandy Hook, which was a broad ban on private firearm sales that would have done nothing to prevent that tragedy. The perpetrator of Sandy Hook did not obtain his crime guns in a private sale. He killed his mother and stole them from her. As should be obvious even to the “Frontline” producers, murder and theft are already illegal.

Mark Glaze, the former executive director of Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun mayors’ coalition, acknowledged this “mismatch” in an interview last year. “Is it a messaging problem when a mass shooting happens and nothing that we have to offer would have stopped that mass shooting?” Glaze asked rhetorically. “Sure it’s a challenge ... .” Glaze’s characterization of a “messaging problem,” however, vastly understates the “challenge,” which is more accurately described as convincing Americans to surrender their dearly won freedom on false and exploitative grounds.Americans as a people are not moved by the message or the goals of the gun control lobby, which are grounded in the idea that the people of this country are brutish, unstable and untrustworthy. 

Thus, the answer to Biden’s question is a simple one: The vote failed because the proponents of the measure tried to swindle the American people, who saw through their deception. Congress’ decision, moreover, was ratified by the American electorate in last year’s midterm election. Of the 13 members of Congress who voted against the federal gun control package and were up for re-election in the 2014 midterms, 11 were voted back into office, and the two who lost were defeated by pro-gun challengers from the opposing party

While “Frontline” exaggerated NRA’s supposed stranglehold on Congress, we have the access, credibility and track record to play an influential role on Capitol Hill. Yet “Frontline” was wrong to “blame” us as “the problem” in the stalled effort to pass national gun control. The real answers are again deceptively simple, perhaps too much so for the big thinkers at PBS.

First, Americans as a people are not moved by the message or the goals of the gun control lobby, which are grounded in the idea that the people of this country are brutish, unstable and untrustworthy. Meanwhile, the message of freedom and self-reliance that underlies the Second Amendment resonates strongly with a broad     cross-section of the American public.

Second, people who care about their Second Amendment freedoms are well acquainted with their congressional candidates’ position on the issue and vote accordingly. On the other hand, people who profess to be gun control advocates generally either don’t participate in national politics or base their participation around other priorities. Congress responds to a vocal, energized constituency, including advocates of the Second Amendment.

Thus, while the “Frontline” program did not explicitly say so, it seemed to be conditioning gun control proponents for a shift in strategy. While anti-gunners are by no means giving up on the idea of federal gun control, they are now shifting their money and attention to other battlegrounds, hoping to establish beachheads that will tip the national campaign in their favor. 

Those who’ve studied (or survived) World War II will recall the United States’ island-hopping strategy in the Pacific. Rather than directly assaulting the Japanese mainland, American forces targeted Japanese possessions in the Pacific with relatively weak defenses. Each victory gained territory and helped reinforce the offensive effort. 

Instead, [anti-gunners] are looking to change the map one state at a time. And if you think you’re safe because you live in a pro-gun state, think again.  That, in a nutshell, is how the  anti-gunners are now looking to advance their agenda. For now, they lack the political strength to pass legislation through Congress or to exercise a “nuclear option” like repeal of the Second Amendment or ratification of an anti-gun multinational treaty (like the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty) that would empower the president to pass gun control unilaterally as an exercise of “foreign policy.” Instead, they are looking to change the map one state at a time. And if you think you’re safe because you live in a pro-gun state, think again.  

In the year following Sandy Hook, gun control forces gained ground quickly by passing a number of laws in states that already tended toward strict gun control, including Connecticut, Maryland and New York. For the gun owners of those states, however, these laws mostly just made a bad situation worse, rather than establish a sea change in policy.

More significant for Second Amendment watchers was the passage of bans on standard magazines and most private firearm transfers in historically pro-gun Colorado. Never mind that the success of this measure directly cost three Colorado legislators their jobs, two in historic recall elections. Gun control advocates considered this victory a way forward. 

Die-hard anti-gunners, moreover, were willing to pay the price. Even after sinking $350,000 into the failed effort to retain the recalled senators, Bloomberg remained smug. “In Colorado, we got a law passed,” he told Rolling Stone. “The NRA went after two or three state senators in a part of Colorado where I don’t think there’s [sic] roads. … And, yes, they lost recall elections. I’m sorry for that. We tried to help ’em. But the bottom line is, the law is on the books, and being enforced.”  

Unfortunately, Bloomberg can afford such bluster. His war chest is as inexhaustible as his ego. A few hundred thousand here, the end of a few political careers there, what does it matter to him? At the end of the day, he’s still rich, and he’s still in the fight. 

Nevertheless, the number of elected officials willing to sacrifice their jobs for Bloomberg’s ego is not unlimited, so he deployed another arrow from his quiver last year with the passage of yet another private transfer ban, this time in Washington state through ballot initiative. Elsewhere in this magazine, I describe the political dynamics of initiatives in more detail, but the important point here is that this tactic bypasses politically accountable legislators. Instead, it becomes, to a large extent, a ground and propaganda war, where the ability to pour funds into the effort often leads to a decisive advantage. Wherever the effect of spending is greatest, Bloomberg is most likely to have the edge. 

Strong allies can also provide a decisive factor in conflict. Here, too, Bloomberg has shown strength in the states. As the 13th-richest person on the planet, he has access to his fellow billionaires, many of whom find it fashionable to strive for politically correct “social responsibility.” Several of them from the technology sector joined the Washington state effort, raising over $10 million dollars to see the initiative pass by 59 percent of the vote (a lackluster investment, considering supporters of private transfer bans regularly claim public support exceeding 90 percent). 

Groundwork is being laid for similar initiative efforts in at least 12 other states. In Arizona, Bloomberg is already looking to indoctrinate the press corps through a joint venture with the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to help media figures “improve” their reporting on “gun violence.” In Nevada, they are hard at work recruiting supporters to finance their effort.

Make no mistake, no gun owner is isolated from this state-level attack. Even if it never reaches your state, ideas that take root in populous locales (which are often anti-gun) can eventually sway the national political discourse, even as they remain highly controversial in many places. As America’s premier defender of the Second Amendment, NRA-ILA needs your help more than ever. The rights you save by supporting efforts outside your state’s borders might eventually be your own.

Illustration by T.S. Jessell


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