Gun rights activists who joke about the existence of a “gun control playbook” were stunned recently when they discovered there actually is a strategy guide about waging a political gun control effort, and advice from that pamphlet is being used by backers of a gun control initiative now gathering signatures in Washington State.
The 70-plus page guide, produced last year and apparently posted on-line by Temple Beth-El though a link no longer appears on the TBE website, is titled “Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging.” It offers advice on everything from using effective rhetoric to dividing National Rifle Association members from NRA leadership.
One of the people who prepared the guide was Al Quinlan, a principle of the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (GQR), which also has offices in London and Buenos Aires.
According to the guide, he was part of “a team of communicators” with “decades of experience advising organizations on message development and strategic communications.” Other members of this team were Frank O’Brien, creative director and founder of OMP, another Washington, D.C.-based firm, and Jeff Neffinger and Matthew Kohut at KNP Communications, also headquartered in Washington, D.C.
A Public Disclosure Commission report filed by the Seattle-based Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility (WAGR) shows a May expense of $43,700 paid to GCR for opinion research.
TGM attempted to contact Quinlan, who was traveling and leaving on vacation with his family, according to an aide. The others did not immediately respond.
Among GQR’s clients are the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Joyce Foundation, several state education associations, Defenders of Wildlife, National Public Radio and the Sierra Club. Among OMP’s clients are Planned Parenthood of America and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Discovery of the links between GQR and the Initiative 594 campaign – and ostensibly the guide, itself – came somewhat by accident in an ongoing inquiry by the Second Amendment Foundation into the City of Seattle’s controversial gun buyback program in January. SAF was seeking all documents relating to the program from the office of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and also from King County, since Executive Dow Constantine was also involved.
According to e-mails obtained from King County by SAF under a public documents law request, WAGR’s Zach Silk sent a Feb. 20 message about progress on gun control measures during this year’s legislative session that was copied to Sung Yang, chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine. That e-mail had an attachment headlined “Framing, Message, and Language for Gun Violence Prevention” from GQR. It was a three-page memo to the “Gun Violence Prevention Communications Taskforce” and was essentially a summary of key points in the larger 2012 guide.
WAGR is pushing I-594, a 15-page gun control measure to be presented to the State Legislature in January that is currently gathering signatures. It is up against I-591, filed in mid-May by Protect Our Gun Rights, a statewide grassroots coalition that includes gun rights and gun collectors groups, a major state hunting umbrella organization and the state’s law enforcement firearms trainers.
SAF is not involved in the initiative campaign, but its sister organization, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, is.
The “Preventing Gun Violence” report reminds readers that “most Americans consider the NRA to be a mainstream organization.” During its research, GQR asked people which of the following statements came closest to their personal opinion:
- “The NRA is an extreme organization with too much power in Washington that blocks any attempts to reduce gun violence in America.”
- “The NRA is a mainstream organization that protects our Second Amendment rights and provides information about gun safety.”
As revealed on Page 23 of the guide, they found a “sharp ideological divide,” with self-described liberals concurring with the “extreme” statement by a two-to-one margin, while conservatives by a whopping 81 percent margin agreed with the “mainstream” description. The report acknowledges, “outside of our base, an easy assumption that people think of the NRA as an out-of-control, extreme organization would be misplaced.”
So far, the NRA has not taken a position on either Washington initiative, but the guide appears aimed, at least in part, at demonizing the five-million-member association as something of a national bogeyman.
The GQR document also advises that “An emotionally-driven conversation about what can be done to prevent incidents…is engaging.”
On Page 45, the guide addresses Stand Your Ground laws and counsels the use of provocative substitute phrases including “Shoot First” and “Kill at Will,” asserting that these terms are “more accurate and persuasive.” In the process, it also identifies terms that should be avoided in public debate, among them the term “duty to retreat,” noting that the term may be an established legal principle, but it coveys weakness to the public and is “hard to defend.” In Washington State, court rulings dating back almost a century have enshrined the principle that there is “no duty to retreat” from an attack that occurs in a place where the victim has a right to be.
The GQR attachment circulated with the Feb. 20 e-mail offers “key points” on how to frame an effective message pushing the gun control agenda. Its first point: “The core frame should be personal and emotional—centered on ‘people’ and not on facts, laws, or legislation.”
It suggests demonizing semiautomatic rifles by stressing that “These weapons are not your grandfather’s rifle.” However, gun rights advocates would counter, “They are your son’s rifle.”
The memo also suggests, “Use a few facts—but only in a way that reinforces the personal frame—not as a recitation of a list of facts without the connection to the personal anguish and loss.”
It also advises to “cite law enforcement’s support at every opportunity,” which may be a problem in this case because a major law enforcement group has already come out in opposition to I-594. The Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association (WSLEFIA) came out against the measure, and will instead support I-591, a one-page initiative that would prohibit government gun confiscation without due process of law, and prevent background checks that do not comply with a uniform national standard.
The gun control guide also offers points on semantics by recommending the use of the phrase “stronger laws” rather than “stricter laws,” and “preventing gun violence” rather than “gun control.”
Indeed, since the title of the strategy guide actually is Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging, it might be fair to suggest that the title ought to be “Gun Control Through Effective Messaging.”