Friday, October 6, 2017

Listen: A path forward for gun control activism (and request for assistance).

This post presents my proposal for gun control activism.  At the end, I ask for help in furthering it.  Please comment here, on Facebook, or directly to me if you have suggestions.

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals was raised to fame by Glenn Beck -- it was neither the best nor the most famous manual for activism before then, but a foam-mouthed Beck inadvertently made it a household name on the right during Obama's first term. All of that being said, it's still useful for its concision and the way in which it addresses asymmetric conflict.  And there is no more asymmetric conflict in the country today than the gun control debate.  A small percentage of the American public has decided that gun ownership is deeply symbolic of numerous tribal beliefs, and their passion and their smart strategic decisions have dominated the discussion and decided the outcome, every time.

For many people, the conversation ended with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.  As Dan Hodges puts it in an oft-quoted tweet, "In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."  In this view, the fight is over and the victors were the gun lobby and that invincible and vicious bogeyman of the American left, the NRA.  They turned a debate about appropriate regulations for a popular American hobby into a culture war, deployed their troops with passable tactics and expert strategy, and won.  And now nothing remains but for us to endure regular mass shootings, a higher suicide rate, and an astronomical accident rate.  We have lain these sacrifices at the feet of our Moloch and he will punish any defiance.

I do not accept that.

My goal is to enact reasonable and common-sense gun regulations, starting with universal background checks which prohibit anyone with a recorded felony, a history of domestic abuse, or a place on the no-fly list from getting a gun.  Past that, I also want to impose federal minimum standards for gun ownership (including a safety course, already required in many states) and to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

How to do it?

Alinsky: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.  In a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. ... One big problem is a constant shifting of responsibility from one jurisdiction to another — individuals and bureaus one after another disclaim responsibility for particular conditions, attributing the authority for any change to some other force.

One longstanding problem with the debate is that the target is amorphous.  There's no single regulation that would have prevented all of the big-profile mass shootings, and even if there's a law that might have helped, it becomes a faceless question of degree.  The gun rights proponent can reasonably argue that banning high-capacity magazines might have saved a few victims at Sandy Hook, but it's impossible to stop someone who's willing to throw away their own life in a spree killing.  We need good guys with guns to stop these attacks, they argue... then the argument becomes a debate over statistics and studies.  And when you try to match faceless statistics against someone's very immediate personal desires, you will always lose (c.f. climate change).

We need to pick a target and make it the face of the gun rights movement.  Personalize it in a way that can be easily understood, and polarize the issue so that companies, politicians, and voters need to decide whether or not to take the side of the target.

Alinsky: Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. .. Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blueprint of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: "Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!" he chuckled. "See that big hall? That's our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they'll be shown in and
there will be coffee, T.V., and good toilet facilities — they can sit here until hell freezes over."

The NRA seems like the obvious target, but that's their whole purpose.  It's why they've abandoned any pretense of a gun rights advocacy group.  Now they're all about the culture war.  Just check out their latest ads, which barely even mention guns.  They've gotten really good at this stuff, too, and are constantly innovating to find new ways to fight the culture war and maintain the intensity of their following.

Instead, we pick a gun company -- a company interested in maintaining its value for shareholders and which just wants to manufacture and market their firearms or accessories.  They will not be inclined to resist action, nor will they be able to handle it as expertly as an organization like the NRA.  Moreover, it should be a company which has sold a specific product which was used to kill a specific victim.  The product should be absurd.  The victim should be sympathetic.

Alinsky: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.  You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying "You're right — we don't know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us."

In addition to those constraints, we also want to ensure that our preferred policy outcome -- universal background checks -- would have stopped the specific crime if it had been in place.  Our constructive alternative should ideally be the obvious solution in fact.

So there we have it: we need a sympathetic victim of a crime that could have been prevented if universal background checks existed, and which can be laid at the feet of a specific company.  And if all of this appears a little cold-blooded, please remember that the Scopes trial that brought evolution into the classroom began with the ACLU arranging out the perfect test case, and that the NAACP took the Rosa Parks case and turned it into a movement because she was seen as "responsible, mature woman with a good reputation" who was married and employed.  Progress doesn't happen by accident.

Once we have chosen our own case, then we'll devise tactics.  Alinsky advises that ridicule is usually the most "potent weapon," for "[t]here is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions."  And he also says that "[a] good tactic is one your people enjoy. ... They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."

We have many things on our side as we start this fight.  We have many allies all over the country.  And I don't even mean high-profile ones like Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown initiative; the American public overwhelmingly supports numerous gun control initiatives.  This New York Times' Upshot column (hat tip: Ali Benjamin) illustrates the extent of this support.

We can do this... if we work together.

And that now brings me to the request for help that I mentioned earlier.  Here it is: I haven't yet found our target.  I am not sure any of the high-profile killings fit, or any of the many mass shootings in recent years.  What would be the perfect case for us?

Wrack your brains and hearts, and comment here, on Facebook, or in person if you have suggestions.  Then we can move forward.


  1. I think a radical response is absolutely going to be the only way forward, here, so yes -- we should be "all in" with this tactic. More research needed, for sure, as we try to grapple with this and the best way to make actual progress. Also -- why not the "waiting period" for purchasing guns? One great podcast to listen to dealt with this issue and "both sides" today -- as we try to educate ourselves/our group: Crooked Media's "With Friends Like These, hosted by Ana Marie Cox, "A Novel and Disturbing Place." It's important to keep in mind why gun control policies "need to be conscious of race and racism."

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