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Five Reasons The NRA Won The Recent Gun Control Debate That Have Nothing To Do With Politics

This blog post first appeared on Forbes.com

No matter one’s position on gun control, there are lessons we can learn from the recent battle on background checks. According to Gallup, Over 90% of the public supports background checks for all gun purchases, yet the measure failed to pass the U.S. Senate.

According to most published sources, the reason is simple: the NRA has tons of money and threatened to “primary” those who voted against their will in the next election. If only it were that simple. As my colleague Dr. Kelton Rhoads, reminds us: “People are generally unable to distinguish a successful tactic in a failed campaign, or a failed tactic in a winning campaign. People over generalize, and assume any tactic used in a failed campaign is a bad one. Whereas a successful campaign blesses every tactic used.”

I’m going to share with you 5 reasons why the NRA won, and they have nothing to do with the often reported reasons like their PAC funds, their ability to turn out pro-gun voters in every legislative district, and the abundance of their skilled in-house and external lobbyists, although those are all true.

They simply execute the basics extremely well. As NRA volunteer Robert in Arizona told his fellow members about the basics, “Thanks for emailing your U.S. Senator, but you have to also write a letter or send a hand written postcard. No one ever tripped on a bag of email.” The good news is the tactics the NRA employed that no one is talking about are things that you can implement in your next persuasion battle. In addition, there were some mistakes made by gun control advocates that unwittingly aided the NRA.

1. Transformational vs. Transactional Leadership

As an NRA leader who’s worked there for over two decades told me, “I think our volunteers’ passion and intensity cannot be matched. You can’t pull a switch; your grassroots has to have sustainability and you have to train people. We might be happy with a recent legislative victory, but we examine why we won, we evaluate what we need to do better, and get our volunteers geared up for the next battle.” But how do they foster that culture, that fervor?

When we look at the grassroots effectiveness of the NRA, a big part of it has do with their volunteer leadership. According to one of my annual grassroots conference faculty members, Dr. Brad Sagarin of Northern Illinois University, there are two kinds of leadership styles: transactional and transformational. “Transactional leadership rewards people for accomplishing goals, and interventions typically occur when problems arise. Transformational leadership, on the other hand, motivates followers through appeals to ideals and values, and instills volunteers with their leader’s vision and direction.” From what I have seen over two decades of researching grassroots best practices, the NRA (and many unions) practice transformational leadership.

One of their long-time volunteer organizers told me, “At NRA, we believe in true grassroots. We don’t think that volunteers are ‘customers.’ These people are our friends. I’ve been in their homes, I’ve met their children, I’ve sat at their kitchen table, I’ve met their grandchildren. In addition, we on staff do all the things that we ask volunteers to do. We walk neighborhoods and pass out literature, we get on the phones, we raise money, we volunteer for campaigns. We consider ourselves peers with our volunteers.” Remember, this is an “inside the beltway” professional speaking–trust me, it’s very atypical.

At an annual conference I sponsor for political involvement professionals, I was reading some of the materials that attendees brought to share with their colleagues. One was a regional NRA newsletter. There was the typical legislative update and election news, but there also was a full page dedicated to volunteers in this particular region. In fact, the staff member took the time to mention each volunteer by name, mentioned the activities and events they attended together during his recent trip to the region (many of which had nothing to do with the NRA), described much fun he had with these people, what good friends they were, etc. I had never before or since seen that kind of personal recognition of volunteers. There is a core of collegiality that is unmatched in many grassroots organizations.

The Bottom Line: What is your ratio of transactional vs. transformational leadership behaviors? Share your vision and give your volunteers meaningful responsibilities.

2. Superior Grassroots Volunteer Quality

Several years ago, National Journal conducted one of their “insider” informal polls, where they asked D.C. insiders and congressional staff to name the most effective lobbying groups. The NRA of course made the list (along with the Heritage Foundation, The Credit Union National Association, AARP, The Teamsters, The American Israel Political Action Committee, and others). What was revealing were the reasons why these groups were effective. The answers included: “foot power and financial power,” “their allies respect them, their opponents fear them,” and what I think is the most telling: “Their constituents back home are head and shoulders above other interest groups.” Having taught citizens at all income and education levels how to get powerful legislators on their side, I have seen the good and the mediocre among sincere citizen advocates. I’ve never worked for the NRA, but from what I know of their volunteers and volunteer leadership, they would be in the “head and shoulders above” category.

I know from the interviews I conducted with these volunteers as well as the volunteer leadership practices of the NRA, they take great care to train, equip, and motivate their volunteers. And their volunteers are willing to show up and do the work.

I interviewed three NRA volunteers for The Underdog Edge. These were rank and file NRA members who changed the mind of a (or several) legislators. However, I could not use their stories in the book. Why? They were so much more advanced and adept at persuasion compared to the other “underdogs” I interviewed. Because I was looking for a pattern of influence behaviors practiced a majority of the ordinary people I interviewed, I could not include them in my book —- they were that unique. What did they do?

3. Volunteers Who are Intrepid in “Showing They Know”

As I reviewed their interview notes for this blog post, I came across something startling. In each and every one of the interviews, with Shaun, Mike, and David —– they exhibited the same behaviors when influencing up that none of my other interview subjects did. It’s as if they had their own “code,” their own methodology for advocating with lawmakers. They knew more about current gun laws, and the constitutionality of them, than the legislators and in one case the law enforcement officials they were trying to persuade (and they did persuade them, by the way).

One of them took on a committee of state senators, a majority of them who were against a proposal. He received a call from his state lobbyist about a half-hour before a major piece of legislation was to be debated in Austin. He immediately headed to the State House to testify. As he told me, “I was able to refute, point by point, 9 aspects of a proposed state law which showed it was unconstitutional and only aimed at law abiding gun owners. I could tell I was successful when I saw how angry my own representative was with me. The key is, Amy, we know the law better than the legislators.” Whether you like it or not, the NRA volunteers know their stuff. They are well trained and intrepid when it comes to explaining their point of view.

As former Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot told me when I interviewed him for The Underdog Edge, “Amy, we talk and listen to people all day. We get pretty good at telling who is truly committed and sincere and who is not.”

In the recent debate on background checks, one of the NRA’s top volunteers, Sean from Ohio, took the initiative to approach like-minded organizations and volunteered to speak at their upcoming meetings about the pending legislation. For two months he was giving at least three speeches per week to local groups. Two things stand out about this: 1) he is willing to give three speeches a week; 2) he knows his stuff enough to do this. I wonder how many organizations have volunteers capable and willing to do the same for their cause.

The Bottom Line: Do you equip your team to not just regurgitate talking points, but to practice intrepid advocacy for your cause? How would they do when they are challenged by someone up the food chain? Do you even trust them to carry important messages?

4. Investment in the Power of FTF

“FTF” in my world is “Face To Face,” as in FTF influence. I was excoriated by some for an opinion piece I wrote for Roll Call several years ago where I stated that many interest groups are relying too much on email advocacy. Amazingly, grassroots leaders were aghast that I dare state that while a vital part of the persuasion toolbox, online advocacy is but one of many tactics, and that you have to integrate all tactics to win. Some grassroots leaders called me and said their regional staff saw the article and ranted to them about my view and how they were concerned that I indeed was correct, because all of their resources were invested in online advocacy.

Two people called me after the article was published: an AFL-CIO staffer and an NRA staffer. The AFL-CIO person told me, “Amy you are right, so many people in this town push a button and think it is real grassroots. It takes real people.” This from a leader whose membership occupies less and less of the private sector workforce, yet still wields great influence. The other call was from the NRA. “Amy, I liked your article, but hey, if these groups keep doing online advocacy, that’s fine with me. Let them keep doing that, because we’ll keep doing what we do, and we will win.”

Remember what Congressman Jim Lightfoot said—legislators are pretty good at judging the credibility and sincerity of each and every constituent lobbying for a cause. Being face to face communicates that you are willing to make an effort; it increases your sincerity quotient.

I’ve seen this exemplified as well with one of my pharmaceutical clients. They have a very active structure of patient networks that advocate for legislation at the state level. These groups regularly convene offline for social and education events; there is a true offline community. They expressed concern to me that other pharmaceutical companies are now trying to copy their model. However, these copycat companies are creating online-only networks. I predict that the groups that have strong online and offline interaction will prosper while those that are only online will have persuasion challenges. There’s just no substitution for face-to-face interaction and the scientific literature hasn’t changed to date about its power. The NRA understands this and invests in it.

The Bottom Line: Online advocacy certainly is here to stay and plays a role in moving your message. However, online advocacy is the lowest form of commitment. What are you doing to equip your team to show up offline?

5. Narrative Goes Both Ways

Many have asked why the compelling stories of families affected by gun violence, particularly the Newtown victims, didn’t have more of an impact on this debate. Their stories of course had an impact; the Congress would not have considered gun legislation without them. But, as Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation wrote recently in his Roll Call article entitled “Power of the Personal Story Is Not New to Congress,” “In a survey of House chiefs of staff conducted last fall, when asked how frequently personal stories are used in meetings with their member of Congress, 88 percent said somewhat or very frequently.”

Stories are not new. It’s the combination of the story, the context of the debate, and the political accountability of the group telling the story that can move a lawmaker. I would never counsel someone to refrain from using narrative to make a point; we are hard-wired to respond to story. But the other side has stories, too.

While it seems like the NRA is portrayed as caring only about their guns, their rights, etc., there is a great deal of concern for the rights of others — for the underdog. As I reviewed my interview notes, each one, again, had a story of an underdog, an ordinary person, who would have benefited from their position —– people they often do not know or have relationships with, so they also effectively argue for the interests of others.

Mike told me the story of a local proposal to limit the number of guns one could buy per month. A woman who purchased a gun to protect herself from her estranged husband (against whom she obtained a restraining order) was attacked by him; her gun malfunctioned, but she survived the attack. However, due to the proposed law, she would not have been able to purchase another gun because it fell within the restricted time frame.

Another member reminded a local legislator who was fighting the location of a gun range near his church that a 90 year old church member who was gunned down at a local restaurant was killed by those who illegally obtained guns, and that that issue was more important to address than the location of a practice range.

The Bottom Line: How can you advocate for others you do not represent? Remember, legislators expect you to talk about how you benefit; when you look out for others, you increase your persuasion quotient.

So, agree or disagree with the NRA, there are factors besides the “money and power” theme to to their effectiveness, but they are not as predictable or malignant as the “money and power” theme, is it?

And, like any other group, they benefited from the mistakes of their opponents. Here’s a few of them for your consideration.

Rahm Emmanuel’s Recruiting of Pro Gun Democrats

Something Democrats who favored the background check legislation have failed to remember (and few in the media are reporting) is that many of their colleagues were recruited to run for office precisely because they were “pro gun democrats”.

That’s right, back in 2006, an element of Rahm Emmanel’s strategy to win back the House in 2006 was to recruit candidates who supported gun rights. There was a reason Rahm Emanuel recruited them all those years ago–he felt that they would be less threatened at the polls because of the NRA’s ability to impact elections.

The Bottom Line: The philosophy and campaign platform of an elected official of any level still matters. Legislators who ran in pro-gun districts and included their support for gun rights are going to generally maintain that commitment and philosophy.

Leveraging Your Opponent’s Mistakes

Michael Bloomberg has tons of money and holds himself in high regard. He has created the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Group which will impact this debate. He has already spent $12 million of his own money for advertisements against the NRA’s position in key states. However, I believe it backfired in this recent debate.

His group ran ads over the last congressional recess in places like Arkansas and Arizona. Instead of winning over Arkansas and Arizona voters, it gave Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) the ability to say that “New York City didn’t tell them how to vote”.

Many gun safety advocates will press on and continue to run ads, which is a standard tactic and is perfectly acceptable. However, we know how just running TV ads worked for Karl Rove’s Super PAC efforts to elect Mitt Romney. You’ve got to have several tactics at the ready and not throw money at a couple obvious tactics.

The Bottom Line: Sometimes your opponent makes a miscalculation which benefits you. Be ready and unafraid to leverage it to your advantage.