TO: The law and policy director of gun reform interest groups everywhere
FROM: Ryan Newberry, Strategy Consultant
RE: Forcing Republican Senators’ hand on gun policy reform
DATE: Sept. 10, 2019
Republicans in the Senate will only vote on gun reform if an impassioned and organized electorate demands it. To achieve Senate votes on reforms such as expanded background checks, red flag laws, and an assault weapons ban, you must target five vulnerable Senators up for reelection in 2020 with an escalating campaign designed to vividly illustrate the consequences of inaction, motivating a bipartisan majority of voters to tell their respective Senators that if he or she doesn’t protect them, they will vote for a candidate who will.
Public outcry for gun reform is loudest in the aftermath of a mass shooting, fading as the national narrative moves on.1 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his Republican colleagues in the Senate exploit this phenomenon by paying lip service to policy changes while parrying calls for votes on reform measures, including a universal background check bill already passed by the House.2 McConnell, ever the cynic, recently said he would allow a vote on any gun control reform backed by President Donald Trump3 — but with a majority of Americans favoring gun control,4 your organization has the opportunity to force McConnell’s hand by:  organizing the public in five states where a sitting GOP Senator is susceptible to a 2020 electoral challenge;  leading participants in a coordinated, sustained and escalating campaign to educate voters on gun control and on their leverage over the five target Senators;  converting passive support for gun policy reform into mounting pressure that spurs the target Senators to push McConnell for a vote.
CONSTITUENTS, COALITIONS, AND OPPONENTS
Your constituents need organizing: A bipartisan majority of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina (states where a GOP Senator is facing a contentious reelection bid in 2020) support gun reform, including up to 90% support for some initiatives, which include background checks, red flag laws and a ban on assault weapons.5-9 Thus, your campaign should center on organizing volunteers in provocative public actions intended to educate and motivate the general public by dramatizing the dire consequences of leaving politicians in power who value access to guns over human lives. These actions would take pro-gun rhetoric and policy to their most extreme conclusions: performative active shooter drills in public spaces, satirical protests advocating for the extension of 2nd Amendment rights to children and even pets, and more. Such disruptive actions would include a message about how the targeted Senator in each state can act (but hasn’t) to improve the situation, how the public can pressure him or her to do so, and whom they can vote for instead if need be. The primary objective is to inspire and mobilize the bipartisan majority of voters already on your side, with a secondary aim of publicly embarrassing the target Senators.
Strategic coalitions can amplify your campaign: Partnering with national advocacy organizations such as Everytown for Gun Safety; activists such as Parkland survivors David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez; pro-reform celebrities like Cardi B10; affinity groups with a stake in the policy outcome, such as the Parent Teacher Association and conservative Catholic clergy11; and potential grassroots influencers, such as teachers and students, would help you capture public and media attention in a bipartisan or, preferably, nonpartisan way. The bigger your platform, the more participation and success your campaign will enjoy.
Your opponents know public opinion is against them: While pro-gun interest groups give them and their party considerable financial support to maintain the status quo,12 the Senators’ constituents, who control their political fates, overwhelmingly support gun reform.5-9 The only way to move Martha McSally (Arizona), Cory Gardner (Colorado), David Perdue (Georgia), Susan Collins (Maine) and Thom Tillis (North Carolina) to action is by giving them reason to fear the voters in their states more than they crave the gun lobby’s financial support.13 Flipping three seats would erase the GOP’s Senate majority, a threat that may be sufficient motivation for McConnell if he is frequently receiving panicked phone calls from vulnerable caucus members between now and November 2020.
FRAMING AND MESSAGING
Overarching message: Mass shootings are now a part of everyday American life; protecting ourselves means preparing for the worst — and electing officials who will put your safety first.
- The message to volunteers: You don’t need to change minds, just inspire action.
- You can keep your volunteers energized and motivated by reminding them that there is already bipartisan support for gun reform in their states; their job is simply to mobilize that support.
- The message to the general public: If you’re not comfortable living in a society where active shooter drills — and active shooters — are routine, then you have to hold your Senator, and your fellow voters, accountable every day until the 2020 election.
- Your messaging must make the problem and its causes clear, that the solution is attainable and that inaction (from politicians and the public) is unconscionable.
- The message to parents: Every time you buy a bulletproof backpack for your child, you’re letting your Senator off the hook. The most effective way to protect your children is by demanding reform from your elected representatives.
- The story you tell parents will transcend politics, defining the stakes as their children’s lives versus the NRA’s profits.
- The message to potential partners: It’s time to build a movement that takes gun reform from a hot-button issue to a bread-and-butter issue.
- The majority of voters in the target states already support gun reform, so you have a unique opportunity to leverage your partners’ platforms to change the terms of the debate.
- The message to opponents: This isn’t about politics; it’s about the safety of our loved ones. If you won’t protect us, we’ll protect ourselves — nonviolently — in public spaces and at the ballot box.
- Members of Congress only take actions that maximize their opportunity for reelection, so your constituents have to make it crystal clear that they will only reelect the target Senators if they honor their desire for gun reform.13
POTENTIAL THREATS AND OBSTACLES
Though Republicans and the gun lobby will fight you at every step, the biggest threat to success is simply apathy: If a majority of the electorate loses interest or buys into the myth that it is powerless, then the target Senators will not act. But if you can convince the pro-reform, bipartisan majorities in the five target states that reform is a matter of literal life and death, and that they have the power to effect change with their voices and their votes, then no amount of NRA contributions or McConnell resistance will stop the targeted Senators from acting in your favor out of self-preservation.
You have the opportunity to frame the narrative. Tactics like the ones outlined above, coupled with education on easy steps for pressuring the local Senator into action, will highlight the threat pro-gun policy poses to the public, while turning the gun lobby’s rhetoric against itself. Most importantly, your efforts will shift the public mood from impotent dismay to empowered anger, imbuing a majority of the electorate with the agency that comes through the knowledge that the only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a vote.
Ryan Newberry is in his second year at NYU Wagner. He is Managing Editor for Online Publications for The Wagner Review, Vice Chair of Wagner Advocacy and Political Action, and Communications Chair for Students for Criminal Justice Reform.
- Gun control: registered voters. do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws? Civiqs. January 15, 2015 — August 27, 2019. https://civiqs.com/results/gun_control?uncertainty=true&annotations=true&zoomIn=true. Accessed Aug. 30, 2019.
- Here’s the House gun control legislation Mitch McConnell refuses to take up in the Senate after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Business Insider. Aug. 5, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/the-house-gun-control-legislation-mitch-mcconnell-senate-2019-8. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- Levine M. McConnell vows to bring up gun legislation — as long as Trump backs it. Politico. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/09/03/mcconnell-guns-trump-senate-1479818. Sept. 3, 2019.
- Americans largely support gun restrictions to “do something” about gun violence. NPR. Aug. 10, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/10/749792493/americans-largely-support-gun-restrictions-to-do-something-about-gun-violence. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- Polling. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. https://lawcenter.giffords.org/facts/polling/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- New survey reveals Colorado voters overwhelmingly want state lawmakers to prioritize gun safety laws in 2019. Giffords.org. Jan. 3, 2019. https://giffords.org/2019/01/co_gun_safety_poll/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- In a shift, most Georgia voters call for gun control restrictions. Atlanta Journal Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional-govt–politics/shift-most-georgia-voters-call-for-gun-control-restrictions/hW9o8PbtCYF1xolbPJNrRI/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- New polling: 81 percent of maine voters support life-saving red flag legislation. Everytown.org. April 16, 2019. https://everytown.org/press/new-polling-81-percent-of-maine-voters-support-life-saving-red-flag-legislation/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- Exclusive poll: NC weighs in on guns, school security. Spectrum News. https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/charlotte/news/2018/05/02/north-carolina-gun-control-guns-in-schools-school-safety-ar15-poll. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- 23 celebs who have spoken out publicly about gun control. Elle.com. Aug. 5, 2019. https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/g19070006/celebs-speak-out-gun-control/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- The Conservative Case for Gun Control. The Jesuit Post. Feb. 26, 2018. https://thejesuitpost.org/2018/02/the-conservative-case-for-gun-control/. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- National Rifle Association. OpenSecrets.org. https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/totals.php?id=d000000082&cycle=2016. Accessed on Aug. 30, 2019.
- Congress: The Electoral Connection. Mayhew D. Yale University Press. 1974.