Gun enthusiasts have long accused Colorado's Democratic leadership of "following the script" established by major gun-control advocacy groups, such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG), in their campaign to pass legislation expanding background checks and limiting magazine capacity -- two measures that now have state senators John Morse and Angela Giron battling recall efforts. As it turns out, that may not be just rhetoric: A playbook for gun control strategists does exist, and it seems to have some bearing on the state's gun-rights battles.
An eighty-page guide called Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging, produced last year by D.C.-based political consultants who count MAIG among their clients, has been causing a stir among gun-rights groups since it surfaced in open-record inquiries about a gun buyback program in Washington state recently.
Like many strategy papers churned out on all sides of the gun debate, the document pushes various talking points for building public support for the cause. But it may be more candid than most in its discussion of how to tailor and spin the message to particular audiences, and how to use emotion rather than facts to bridge the "intensity gap" in arguments over gun violence.
Among the guide's helpful hints: DON'T use the term "gun control." DO talk about "preventing gun violence." DON'T advocate "stricter" gun laws; "stronger" gun laws plays better. DON'T refer to the National Rifle Association as an extremist organization unless you're talking to your "base," meaning a group of fellow gun-violence-prevention crusaders. Research shows that the general public regards the NRA as a "relatively benign" mainstream group, so broader audiences require a change in tune -- demonize the NRA leadership, but don't alienate the rank and file. ("We should avoid lumping NRA lobbyists and the members of the NRA into the same category.")
Keep in mind that men are "much more motivated by protecting people from 'gun crime' than preventing 'gun violence.' Women are motivated by both." When addressing minority groups, "it is more likely than not you are talking to someone who has personal experience with gun violence."
And, of course, it helps to refer to "Stand Your Ground" laws as "Shoot First" and "Kill at Will" laws that "provide cover for gun-toting vigilantes."
More examples? Consider high-profile tragedies such as the Aurora theater shootings as an opportunity to speak out; "the most powerful time to communicate is when concern and emotions are running at their peak." Emotionally driven arguments are much better than dry policy discussions, especially if you've got good pictures to go with them: "For example, intimidating images of military-style weapons help bring to life the point that we are dealing with a different situation than in earlier times."
Amid the relentless spinning of language and statistics, at least a few of the guide's talking points seem to rely on shaky or simply inaccurate research. One key assertion -- that 40 percent of Americans "have themselves or personally know someone who has been a victim of gun violence" -- turns out to be based on proprietary data that can't be checked. There's also a claim that all four guns used in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings "were bought at gun shows without background checks," which is incorrect. Dylan Klebold's TEC-9 was acquired through an illegal sale, and the seller and middle man did prison time.
Yet many of the guide's arguments, particularly those concerning assault weapons and magazine capacity, parallel the arguments put forth by Morse and others in Colorado's legislative brawl last spring. Gun activist Dudley Brown, founder of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, says his organization is one of several now filing open records requests to find out what degree of contact Morse and Governor John Hickenlooper have had with MAIG strategists in advancing the gun legislation.
Brown says the guide is "essentially a public relations firm putting into print what we always knew the left would do, which is use emotion and climb over dead bodies to advance your cause. They always accuse us of following in lockstep with the NRA, but anyone who knows me knows that isn't true. It's not like we have some national organization that's dictating the pace."
Initially skeptical about the recall effort, Brown has in recent weeks become a strong supporter of the movement, portraying Morse as taking his "marching orders" from New York Mayor (and MAIG founder) Michael Bloomberg. Check out the latest RMGO ad below, followed by the messaging guide:
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More from our News archive: "Colorado gun-control laws: Here's why 55 sheriffs think they're illegal."