DECEMBER 19, 2012
For days after Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Rifle Association—which strides across the gun-rights issue like a colossus, spending ten times as much on lobbying as the country’s pro–gun control groups combined—was nearly silent. No tweets, no Facebook updates, no public statements, and not even any leaks. Only yesterday—in the late afternoon five interminable days later, and only after the 26 bodies began to be buried, 20 in small caskets—did the NRA clear its throat with a brief statement. Expressing shock, sadness, and heartbreak, the group claimed it had kept quiet “out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency”; announced a press conference Friday; and pledged “meaningful contributions to make sure this never happens again.” It did not mention guns.
This is no accident. “Over the years the NRA has perfected its strategy for responding to mass shootings: Lie low at first, then slow-roll any legislative push for a response,” reported the New York Times. (Let’s pause to note how depressing it is that there have been enough massacres for the NRA even to have a standard operating procedure.) Judging from reaction on the blogosphere and Twitter, the NRA’s default crisis mode sparked the same reaction as the “silent treatment” does among children: fury. Yet there was also a whimsical pining for real debate: The hashtag #wishfulNRAtweets inspired sarcastic tweets such as, “On second thought, assault weapons can’t be much use to civilians uninterested in spree killing or fantasies of it.”
But a cold look at the NRA’s PR strategy reveals it to be a smart and understandable one, according to conversations I had with communication strategists—from the left and right—before the group issued its statement.
“Given how high emotions are running right now, this is not a good time to try to have a meaningful conversation about gun violence, particularly if you fall on the pro–Second Amendment side of the debate,” said Todd Harris, a veteran Republican strategist. “The public is not interested in hearing reasons right now for why assault weapons shouldn’t be banned. They may be receptive to those arguments in a month or two, as they have been in the past.” He added: “One of the basic tenets of crisis communications is to not speak unless or until you have something to say, and at this stage, it could very well be that folks at the NRA feel like their voice is not needed.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who helped former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey handle the scandal that prompted his resignation, concurred, arguing that the heat of battle is not when the group is most effective. “Their power is not one of crisis,” he explained. “It’s one of campaign and political management—it’s checkbook, independent-expenditure campaigns, where people in Washington don’t see them and people in New York never hear them.” (As Dave Weigel noted, the NRA has elevated this strategy to an art form.)
But since my interviews with Harris, Sheinkopf, and others, the NRA has broken its silence. Its statement, which the group emailed to me when I requested comment, and the promised press conference could still amount to very little, and likely will do nothing to appease critics. Still, the NRA’s responses to past prominent shootings, as Mother Jones details in this extensive rundown, have been far more dismissive than this one. For instance, just three days after the movie massacre in Aurora, Colorado, in July, the NRA sent a letter to supporters asking for money because “nothing less than the future of our country and our freedom will be at stake,” and a day later posted on its website a Wall Street Journal op-ed that claimed President Barack Obama “could kill the Second Amendment” during his second term. Tuesday’s statement, at least, opted for apparent sincerity over alarmism.
If the NRA does honestly grapple with gun control Friday, it will be a massive, unprecedented shift for the organization. And it may mean the defeat of silence as a PR strategy in the gun debate. As Risa Heller, another Democratic strategist with experience handling political crisis (in her case, former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s), told me earlier Tuesday, “You cannot make your problems go away by ignoring them.” Rather, she argued, the group’s silence only draws attention it: “They need to find a way to stake out some reasonable ground, whatever that would be.” The NRA’s promise of “meaningful contributions” sounds like an attempt to do exactly that.
So what of the anger directed at the NRA for saying nothing? “[Liberals] got into the boxing ring and are looking for a fight, and the NRA isn’t getting in the ring with them,” Harris said. But now the NRA is getting in the ring after all, albeit with a more conciliatory posture in this round of the debate. Attempts to shame the NRA into issuing an apology or defense will likely continue if (when?) Friday’s press conference proves unsatisfactory. “If your goal is to simply attack the NRA, then this is a good strategy,” Harris added. “If your goal is to solve the problem or to take steps to solve the problem of reducing gun violence in America, then it’s probably counterproductive.” While Harris accuses the NRA’s opponents of wanting to score political points rather than honestly debate the issues, Sheinkopf says that the NRA, too, is guilty of putting its own political interests above principle. “The principle has been abandoned in favor of the interest,” he said. “The principle is the Second Amendment, the interest is ensuring the NRA has power.”
The NRA has every right to seek to maintain power at the expense of the issue at hand. Its opponents’ strategy, however, should be to expect nothing more from the group—even after Tuesday’s statement and Friday’s press conference. By contrast, mocking the NRA’s silence (New Yorker writer Tad Friend had been counting the hours since @NRA last tweeted, for instance) unduly accords the group the status of an enlightened civic actor, one whose hokum about “freedom” and “sportsmen’s rights” might be a sincere, valid defense for, say, the legality of vicious assault weapons. In fact, if that were a sincere, valid defense, you would probably be hearing it from the NRA right now, instead of a milquetoast statement promising “meaningful contributions” that—if the group’s callous history of responding to mass shooting is any guide—won’t be meaningful in any meaningful way.