As published in The Washington Post on May 2, 2014
When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed his state’s so-called guns everywhere law, it marked the latest in a string of legislative defeats for gun-control activists. Since the December 2012 Sandy Hook murders, 20 states have loosened gun laws . Georgia has now upped the ante with a bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons into bars, churches, schools and airports and prohibits law enforcement from requiring someone to show their gun owner’s license .
To be sure, there have been meaningful successes for gun-safety advocates. But since Sandy Hook, the majority of gun laws passed in state legislatures around the country have loosened restrictions. How did this happen? Why did the nation respond to such a heinous crime by relaxing gun laws?
For progressives, there’s an easy answer — the money and lobbying clout of the National Rifle Association. This has an obvious appeal and even a modicum of truth. But as a Democratic strategist who looks at the relationship between public opinion and political reality, I fear that this answer has become a crutch: a comforting story progressives tell ourselves to avoid facing the fact that the country trusts the NRA more than us on this issue. After Sandy Hook, advocates expected a mighty backlash against legislators standing in the way of common-sense gun laws. But the opposite has happened: Only those legislators supporting stricter gun laws are at risk.
The problem is that supporters of new gun restrictions have traditionally approached the issue of gun violence as a political problem to be answered by changing laws. Instead, we need to start looking at guns as a public health problem to be answered by changing minds and habits. Until we change how we frame the debate through our messaging and strategy, the landscape for common-sense gun laws will only become increasingly hostile.
Consider: In 2000, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed believed having a gun in the house made it a more dangerous place to be, while only 35 percent believed it made a house safer. In a poll of 800 voters I conducted recently, opinions were almost perfectly reversed: Fifty-three percent now believe a gun makes a house safer and 35 percent more dangerous.
It should be noted that the new majority is wrong. A gun is 12 times more likely to be used on a household member than on an intruder. But in politics, perception is often more important than reality. For most Americans, the lesson of Sandy Hook is not “guns are dangerous.” Rather, it is, “the world is dangerous and I need to protect myself.”
The political approach to gun control has only aggravated many Americans’ sense of helplessness. By connecting gun laws to high-profile tragedies, we remind people that current laws are failing to prevent those tragedies, undermining our own argument.
What would a public health approach look like?
First, it would avoid divisive efforts to pass laws that compel behavior and instead focus on persuading people of the inherent risks of guns by highlighting the more than 600 fatal gun accidents that occur each year. Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety movement, for example, has a new video featuring a young girl coming across her parents’ gun by accident. This is representative of the day-to-day tragedies we should be focused on stopping.
Second, it would point toward solutions that might appeal to both sides in the debate — such as incentives for gun buyers to choose a weapon designed so it cannot be fired by anyone other than its owner. Positioned as a way to reduce accidents and thefts, this could appeal to responsible gun owners. To be sure, pro-gun activists have opposed even the availability of such technology — but this is the kind of fight gun-safety advocates should relish, because it puts the NRA in the position of saying people shouldn’t be able to choose a gun they believe could keep them and their families safe.
Third, it would focus on successes, not failures. Since 1993, the rate of gun homicides has dropped by a third while the number of nonfatal gun crimes has dropped by 69 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. On every metric that matters, we are safer from guns today than we were 20 years ago. When it comes to public health, success breeds momentum. Drops in the rate of smoking led to smoke-free bars and higher cigarette taxes, reducing smoking further. After the first wave of laws setting blood-alcohol limits reduced drunk driving deaths in the ’70s and ’80s, advocates successfully fought for even tougher limits. By building a narrative of success, progressives can restore confidence in law enforcement and show that new laws are worth the effort and can be applied without restricting the rights of responsible gun owners.
It should be noted that none of this is going to change the minds of extremists within the NRA. But that’s not necessary. The key is creating a narrative of shared values and meaningful progress. If the NRA opposes that agenda, it will — over time — lose trust, and its followers in Congress will lose elections.
Messaging matters in every political issue. On the issue of guns and violence, its importance is measured in lives saved or lives lost. The last year has shown conclusively that from a messaging perspective, progressives are losing the gun debate. By reframing the debate, it is possible to choose a winning message and make Americans safer.
Danny Franklin is a partner at Benenson Strategy Group, a strategic consulting firm, and a member of its team advising the White House on public opinion and communications.