Preliminary Case Study of the NRA Response to the Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Part 2

Issue:  The response of the NRA (National Rifle Association) to the shooting spree deaths of 28 people in Newtown, CT on December 14, 2012.

Background Information:  On Friday morning, December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother and traveled five miles from his house to Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Once at the school, Lanza broke into the building and proceeded to shoot 26 more people; including 6 faculty and staff members and 20 first graders.  In total, 28 people, including Lanza were dead when the rampage stopped.  On Tuesday, December 18, 2012 the National Rifle Association (NRA) released a statement, saying it would hold a press conference on Friday, December 21, 2012 to address the Sandy Hook tragedy and add a meaningful voice to the dialogue on gun safety.  On Friday morning, December 21, 2012 the NRA held a press conference in Washington D.C.  during this and subsequent appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week and CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, December 23 the NRA came out against taking any measures to restrict gun sales or gun licensing.  The organization also made it clear it would not support such measures should they be brought to Congress.

Questions:

  1. The NRA was not part of the initial crisis at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  However, now the organization has inserted itself into the conversation.  What role, if any, does the NRA have in this debate?
  2. Given the press conference and the appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows, does the NRA now have a public relations crisis?
  3. How can the NRA, regain its footing in the debate over gun control?
  4. Was Wayne LaPierre the correct person to put out in front of the camera? Is there someone else who would be a better spokesperson?

I am interested to know what others think?  I will be posting my response to these questions and how I feel the NRA should have best handled the situation later this week.

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The debate about firearms in this nation is one which goes back to the early days of the republic. In the 226 years since its founding, this nation has grown and technology has advanced.  The use of firearms today is different than at the time of the Revolution.  Yet, the Constitution allows for every citizen the right to bear arms.  In the past couple of years there have been some major events which have brought gun rights back to the forefront of the American dialogue.  The attempted assassination of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, which killed six people; the mass shooting at Fort Hood in Oklahoma, which killed thirteen people.  Over the summer, in Aurora, Colorado the movie theater shooting which killed twelve people and injured 58 others.  Finally, and most recently there was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which killed 27 people, including 20 first graders, six faculty members and the mother of the shooter.  Each mass shooting has become more heinous than the previous.  Now, with 20 dead children, a serious effort is being made by the President to craft legislation which will hopefully address the epidemic of gun violence in this nation.

One of the major players in any debate of gun rights is the NRA (National Rifle Association).  This organization is the largest pro-gun lobby in the nation and has a great deal of political power to swing when it needs to.  The NRA has attempted to block all types of gun restriction legislation for years; from the Brady Bill, named after President Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady who was shot in the head during the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981, to the assault weapons ban of 1994; to other lesser legislation.  Whenever there is legislation being offered, at the state, local or federal level, the NRA does it best to block such legislation.

As the events of December 14, 2012 unfolded in Newtown, CT, it became clear the United States had never faced tragedy of such magnitude.  While there has been school shootings before in this nation, there has never been a shooting involving such small children.    From a crisis standpoint, the actions of local and state officials seemed to be flawless.  A crisis center was immediately established; parents and children were kept away from the media (as best as possible); there was clear communication between the parents, school and state officials and first responders.  The media were kept informed, but also they were kept away from those who were directly affected and the public was given information the information it needed to process the entire event.

In the days immediately following the tragedy, many public figures were heard making statements for gun control legislation.  New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, one of the most outspoken public figures when it comes to gun legislation seemed to be leading the dialogue for new, tougher laws for gun owners.  Yet, during these conversations, there were voices missing.  The pro-gun legislators were nowhere to be found.  They were keeping silent.  Could it be that even the most ardent supporters of gun rights might be changing their tune?  Former Florida Representative and Morning Joe co-anchor Joe Scarborough was one of the biggest pro-gun supporters when he was in Congress.  The Monday after the shooting, he led off the eight o’clock hour of his show with an impassioned plea for better gun control.

Yet, there was still one voice missing from such dialogue:  The NRA.  On the Tuesday following the shootings, the NRA released a statement saying it would hold a news conference the following Friday to add its ideas to the coming debate over gun control.  As the nations largest pro-gun lobby, the NRA should have a seat at the table when discussing gun rights and ownership.  The views held by the members of the organization are important in having a productive dialogue about gun rights and gun control.  Yet, what the NRA brought to the conversation were not  thoughtful ideas.  They brought a rash statement that gun control would not prevent such events from occurring in the future.  The organization’s attempt at having a meaningful dialogue only involved rebuking calls for meaningful legislation and calling on schools to post armed guards during school hours.  The press conference the NRA hosted did not allow the press to ask questions and the spokesperson was visibly short-tempered.

Due to the nature of the why the press conference was called, being openly hostile would not be a way to garner support for the ideas which were presented.  Instead of adding to the national dialogue, the NRA spokesperson placed the organization in a crisis of its own.  Any good public relations professional should have prepared the spokesperson to do one of two things:  If this was going to be a full on press conference, then questions from the press should have been allowed.  If the spokesperson was just going to read a statement, it should have been short and to the point.  Not a 30 minute diatribe against gun control laws.  Finally, the public relations professional who was advising the organization failed to communicate how important it would be for the spokesperson to come across as compassionate and understanding in the aftermath of such a tragedy.  From a public relations standpoint, the NRA failed and its spokesperson is to blame.  Having a good spokesperson, especially when dealing with such a difficult topic is essential to bringing people over to a certain way of thinking.  By putting a spokesperson in front of the cameras who was openly hostile, the NRA failed to recognize who the stakeholders watching were.  The people who were watching were not members of the NRA, but a public in shock from the violent deaths of so many young children right before Christmas.

The response by the NRA to the shootings at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Fort Hood, Tucson, Columbine, and more has been inept at best.  In order for the organization to be taken seriously and have a seat at the table during the coming debate and policy discussion over gun control, it must offer more than just armed guards and a hostile spokesperson.  The NRA must present itself as open to discussion and new ways in which it can help to cut down on gun violence in this nation.  Until it does, it will be seen as a radical group, out only for itself and its members and not looking to make the country safer.

 

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