The National Rifle Association was already in a tough position when Wayne LaPierre took to the podium this morning. A full week after the violence in Connecticut, the nation’s biggest advocate of gun rights broke its self-imposed silence to offer their side of the recent debate.
LaPierre’s calls for increased school security and have been widely panned. That’s no surprise: the press conference really was a no-win situation, which they must have known when they decided it would be held on the Friday before Christmas weekend. There is nothing LaPierre could have said that would have drawn a positive response; this is an “against-the-spread” PR situation where the biggest victory is in making the smallest waves.
Yet there were three points that stood out in the official NRA response that clouded even that goal:
1. Making it all about the NRA. LaPierre explained his organization’s week-long silence as deferential to the community in mourning, but said he was forced to speak up:
Because for all the noise and anger directed at us over the past week, no one — nobody — has addressed the most important, pressing and immediate question we face: How do we protect our children right now, starting today, in a way that we know works?
This has the makings of a pretty good thesis statement except, but it is off the mark on a couple points. First, the noise and anger was not directed exclusively at the NRA in the last week. Horrific events like those in Newtown stir the most visceral emotions; and in that maelstrom of sadness and pain thinking thoughts like “Ban all guns now!” is completely logical. I’m sure there were plenty of freedom-loving Americans who, in the hours after the news of the shooting broke, would have gladly surrendered their Second Amendment rights to prevent a repeat of those events. It would have been nice to acknowledge that – though there were plenty who took the opportunity to bash the NRA, those people whose allegiance to the Second Amendment was shaken a bit shouldn’t be lumped in with the Michael Moores of the world.
Second, people have been asking “How do we protect our children?” for the last week – nonstop.
Framing their statement this way makes the NRA look extremely narcissistic and a bit paranoid. Yes, they will be under intense scrutiny from their political enemies, but that’s not who the most important audience was this morning. The NRA needed to demonstrate understanding of the greater understanding of last week’s events to connect with the broader public.
2. Blaming the media. The NRA followed a call for more security in schools with an admonishment of the media for their framing of the debate:
Now, I can imagine the shocking headlines you’ll print tomorrow morning: “More guns,” you’ll claim, “are the NRA’s answer to everything!” Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools.
Perhaps this was an attempt at inoculation – framing the response before the inevitable response came. But chastising the media while standing in front of the media only encourages more negative coverage.
3. Talking about guns. Here’s the crux of the problem: the shooting in Connecticut wasn’t about guns, it was about a sick person who took children’s lives for reasons the general public does not know yet. The discussions about gun control are one aspect of the reaction to the shooting. Unfortunately, that’s the area of discussion where the NRA decided to dwell.
The NRA is charged with defending its members’ rights to own guns – so it makes sense that the gun control angle would be the policy arena that was of most concern. But by acknowledging only that angle, the NRA legitimized the idea that the reaction to Newtown should be exclusively about gun control. Even when LaPierre mentioned other factors – such as American culture’s promotion of violence through video games – it was framed as the shifting of blame away from gun ownership.
By presenting this morning’s press conference within the context of the gun control debate, the NRA missed an opportunity to reduce the gun control element by elevating and expanding the overall conversation about what to do in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. In many ways, the NRA allowed its opponents to shape this morning’s statement – which is a sure recipe to lose your point.
How It Could Have Gone Better
The reality is that the NRA had something important and possibly resonant to say. After expressing his sympathies (which he did), LaPierre could have stated that in a situation like this it is important to think clearly and rationally to find solutions which will keep our children safe – and not be distracted by policies which do nothing to protect our children but allow politicians to pat themselves on the back. We should not and cannot, LaPierre could have said, sacrifice progress for the sake of easy motion. (There would have been some context mentioning the NRA as a four-million-person membership organization, which LaPierre worked in well this morning.)
LaPierre could have continued: Over the coming weeks and months there will be necessary and important discussions about what caused the horror in Connecticut – discussions in which the NRA will lend whatever expertise we can. Those discussions will surely involve expanded mental health services, school security, and (naturally) the limitation of gun rights.
On that last item, LaPierre might have noted that the reaction was understandable in the wake of such events. Without accusing anyone of trying to score political points, he might have called attention to a high level of misinformation and misunderstanding floating around in the media and in social media discussions. Then he could have unveiled guncontrolfacts.com (the URL is available for not that much money) or some other new website dedicated to illuminating that discussion with truth – because, again, the ultimate goal is to find solutions that work. A question-and-answer session would have been highly contentious, but would have been better than ignoring questions.
And that would have been it, because the goal of today would have been to return to the public eye, express understanding and a willingness to talk, and then to let the other side overreact if they felt the need to.
There would have been no Asa Hutchinson discussing a task force to put armed guards in schools – that policy push could come down the road. There would be no lambasting of the media or aggressive posturing, and certainly no opinions about the effects of video games and movies. The reaction from the punditocracy would have still been hostile, but the NRA would be better positioned to mitigate the likely gun control proposals that will emerge from the Biden Commission.
There also would be no shrinking from the NRA’s core values – just a recognition that, sometimes, tone matters, and that an effective response doesn’t mean having all the answers.