In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at a Connecticut school, the debate about U.S. gun laws is a grim reminder that public relations strategies can be used to support many different types of values – some of which may not be in the public interest.
I admit my bias: I believe that despite vigilance in searching for weapons of mass destruction abroad, Americans find them all too available at home. Including the Connecticut incident, six of the 12 deadliest shootings in history have happened in the last five years. And despite the massive gap in gun violence between the U.S. and other industrialized nations, Gallup research reports a steady 20-year decline in support for stricter gun laws. Why?
|Memorial to victims of Connecticut shooting (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
It’s worth considering the most potent public relations strategies of the ‘pro-gun’ movement:
- A values-based message: The gun lobby has made the issue not about guns but about freedom – one of the most potent values in American history. There’s power in the myth of ‘bearing arms’ as a legal and moral right established by the nation’s founders, even if the constitutional argument is questionable.
- An appeal to emotion: The ‘rights and freedom’ argument has emotional resonance, even when reason tells us that principles established in an age of slow-loading muskets make little sense in a world of semi-automatic weapons. The other emotion the gun lobby uses effectively is fear, as we saw when a pro-gun Congressman responded to the Connecticut shooting by arguing that mass killings happen because people are unarmed. Fear also gave impetus to Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground’ law. While overall rates of violence and assault are on the decline, fear prevents many Americans (like Canadians) from believing the evidence.
- Managing issues by framing the postmortem: In framing the debate, the gun lobby has also won the battle to discourage public discourse in the aftermath of tragedy: “Don’t politicize the situation,” they say. “Don’t disrespect the victims.” These familiar refrains have become conventional wisdom, even as they turn PR best practice on its head; good crisis management usually involves talking about how to prevent a similar disaster in the future. If these deaths had been caused by terrorist attacks or collapsing bridges, would politicians say it’s “too soon” to talk of changing policies or laws?
- Selective use of facts and evidence: It is easy to say that banning certain types of firearms would have a negligible impact on gun-related deaths. These arguments, of course, overlook the clear correlation between stricter gun laws and lower rates of gun violence.
Is all lost for U.S. advocates of gun control? No. The symbolic power of a truly horrific event – such as the murder of innocent children – can create momentum for change. And while gun culture pervades American society and 300 million guns are not going to disappear, the natural constituency for firearm ownership is shrinking slowly. The pro-gun lobby is not alone in having values, emotion and symbolism on its side. And in a public relations battle, irrefutable evidence and irresistible logic are formidable assets indeed.