Is the gun violence prevention movement really taking head-on an issue that is held by as little as 2% of the American public as being the most important factor in voting for Congress? Both Democratic candidates and gun violence prevention advocates ignored the market while failing to energize important segments of their customer base this past election. Until the gun violence prevention movement re-positions its product into one that better resonates with what is driving voters during elections, the issue will continue to be a largely inconsequential one in shaping Congress. But the movement also needs the help of Democratic candidates to light the fires.
What follows is the result of many aspects of this writer’s career. Having started in business by progressing into executive positions with international responsibilities in one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical corporations, I was part of the arrogance and group-think that occurs when identity becomes tied to organization and/or position. Later, as founder of a successful ‘small business’ (albeit having receipts in the millions), I was hired, and paid handsomely, by multiple large corporations in a consulting/advisory capacity. On occasion I would have to deliver a message different from the one held by the client, and was no stranger to the marginalization, ostracizing, and even condescending tone that was sometimes directed my way when the opinion was contrary to the way some viewed the matter. But I would not have been worth my paycheck if I had not done so. Been there, done that, and have worn that tee shirt.
As a business owner and manager, I invested heavily in leadership and customer service training both personally and with all of my corporation, later holding the position of adjunct professor and course director for leadership development in one of our local universities and was hired to teach leadership development to business owners as part of continuing education. Leadership is intimately tied to customer service skills when one understands that the workings of a corporation are based on internal customer interactions. As informed by one of my mentors, corporations are wasting their time in conducting both internal and external customer service surveys – one would be reflective of the other. And the only sustainable competitive advantage that a business has is customer service – far more complex than most understand as it is a driver of innovation. As the quality of product is held in the eyes of the customer, it becomes important to understand what drives customers. And what one wants to do is to energize and enhance the buying of one’s product with customers that are already known buyers, not letting them slip away to your competition where they may never come back. It’s about protecting one’s brand.
As noted below, there has been much crowing about Washington State closing the background check loophole. But voting on an issue supported by 90% of the public is a far different matter from that of electing a candidate to office – the two involve very different customer expectations. And until the gun violence prevention movement embraces what the market is telling it and re-positions its product into one that better resonates with what is driving buyers during elections, the matter will continue to be a largely inconsequential one in shaping Congress.
The morning following the mid-term election results, I received two rather remarkable e-mail communications, one from the Brady Campaign and the other from the Everytown for Gun Safety organization (and a few days later a similar one from Americans for Responsible Solutions). Both touted Washington State voting to close the background check loophole. One read “YOU DID IT!” In my mind I pictured these groups trying to find some way to put a positive spin on what was otherwise a devastating evening for the gun violence prevention movement as well as the progression of civil and human rights in our country – the two movements are not unrelated.
Truth be told, one can’t dress this pig up enough to improve its looks. The real story was that the Republican Party made additional gains in the House and took control of the Senate in a veritable trouncing of Democratic candidates in what the NY Times reports as potentially becoming one of the top five election year swings since 1946. And what this means for the gun violence prevention movement is that the same party that successfully bucked public opinion in obstructing federal gun violence prevention legislation is now in the position of being able to go on the offensive as they have in the past. And, knowing that federal law trumps state law, there’s no telling what the Congressional thank you will be for the gun lobby (96% of total NRA contributions went to Republicans this election cycle, the NRA carries political clout) that will enhance gun sales to the benefit of the firearms industry that bankrolls that lobby. And don’t count on the Democratic Party to exhibit the same nerve (euphemism) as the GOP that mercilessly exploited the filibuster over the past six years, perhaps even taking the tact to duck that ownership in advance of the next election by passing it on to a president for veto who is serving out his final two years. Throw this sitting president to the wolves while covering their own backsides? Well Democratic candidates sure drank the GOP Kool-Aid and ran away from him this election despite a notable record of accomplishments upon which they failed to run.
This election outcome occurred despite all the tough talk by gun violence prevention groups about making obstructionist politicians pay the price at the polls, some pumping millions of dollars into the effort and others putting out hard-hitting public service announcements. But the opposite happened; the needle moved in the opposite direction. And for a reason. What the market was saying was being ignored – and, as in business, failing to heed what resonates with the market, what customers really want, can be lethal.
The Gun Violence Prevention Movement
In a previous article I posed the question as to how the Senate could be at risk of falling to the GOP if that party had obstructed expanded background check legislation that 90% of America wanted – this included majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, gun owners and non-gun owners, NRA members…essentially any demographic one wished to examine. But the GOP obstructed with impunity, even following the public outcry over the slaughter of 20 youngsters and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary and Democratic victories in 2012, because they knew, as most of us who have competed in business understand, that the market would not punish them for that behavior. And until the gun violence prevention movement listens to what the market is saying, it will be pouring its money into a black hole.
What’s the market telling us? In a national poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation two months prior to the mid-terms, the issue of crime/violence/public safety was held by only 5% of individuals polled as being one of the two most important issues in deciding how to vote for Congress, with the specific issue of gun control/rights garnering only 2% (see page 4 for breakout). And when partisan differences are examined, the issue of violence/public safety fell into into a tie for 5th place with the Democrats, and is off radar with both Independents and Republicans. (The following graphics come from this source).
And in a late October poll taken in North Carolina, gun violence did not even make the list of issues considered to be important to voters in deciding their vote for US Senate (the Hagan – Tillis contest – a much needed win for the Dems) – see page 8. This despite a veto-proof Republican majority in both the NC House and Senate that bucked public opinion and enacted legislation expanding concealed carry into multiple public venues including establishments serving alcoholic beverages, public parks, greenways, playgrounds, educational property, and paid public events – and Mr. Tillis served as House Speaker at the time the legislation was debated and passed. The gun violence issue was never addressed in the three debates between the candidates.
What was important to the outcome of this election? As reported in the NY Times, “Black Vote Seen as Last Hope for Democrats to Hold Senate”, Representative Marcia L. Fudge (D – OH), Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus stated “Anybody who looks at the data realizes that if the black vote, and the brown vote [Latino], doesn’t turn out, we can’t win. It’s just that simple”. And from the same article, Cornell Belcher, the pollster, wrote in an October 1 memo that “African-American surge voters came out in force in 2008 and 2012, but they are not positioned to do so again in 2014. In fact, over half aren’t even sure when the midterm elections are taking place”. In a previous article this author displayed a graphic depiction of how these large voting blocks helped to overcome a 20% advantage in white voters for Mitt Romney in 2012 that also led to Democratic gains in both the House and Senate – reproduced below.
The objective of this mid-term for Dems and gun violence prevention advocates should have been to get as large a turn-out as possible from these voting blocks. But what we got instead was the lowest voter turnout since 1942 (about 37%). And neither the gun violence prevention movement nor Democratic candidates effectively worked to energize the black and brown vote. In fact, Democratic candidates distanced themselves from our first African-American president.
The need to re-position/rebrand the gun violence prevention product into one that resonates with important market segments becomes glaringly obvious. That’s why when this writer saw the opinion of a United Nations human rights committee in Geneva Switzerland (overseeing our country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in March of this year that rampant gun violence in the US, including its disparate impact on women, children, and ethnic/racial minorities, constituted a violation of our government’s obligation to protect the right to life, the door was wide open to re-position gun violence into a rights violation that could resonate with the very same voting blocks that carried the Dems to victory in 2012. A report (African-American Gun Violence Victimization) was authored, that was joined by Amnesty International USA and the Violence Policy Center following editorial input, and issued to a second human rights committee (Committee to End Racial Discrimination – CERD). These efforts were successful in swaying that second committee to issue the same opinion. A strategy to re-position gun violence into one having greater political impact was born. There was a clear synergy between the human/civil rights and gun violence prevention movements that had practical application and could be quickly implemented.
I communicated heavily with individuals in several gun violence prevention groups and the NAACP Washington Bureau (as well as some politicians discussed below), all of whom I had met with in the past, but couldn’t get to first base with the strategy. Remarks such as thanking me for my efforts under international law or this is a US matter not a UN matter, completely missed the point. This isn’t about international law or UN treaties or what is enforceable and not enforceable – it is about creating market perception to energize buyers of a product, something we do in business all the time; as an old saying goes, perception is reality. And the perception of the Republican Party as being one that tramples on the rights of women and racial/ethnic minorities (and others such as the LGBT community) is indeed already based in reality. Gun violence could now join the fray with, as but one example, the white hot fires of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, one that garnered national attention, where thousands (under the leadership of Reverend William Barber, president of the NC chapter of the NAACP) continuously marched on the legislative building in Raleigh in protest of the Republican assault on rights with hundreds of citizens of various races and ethnicities being arrested. And gun violence could have been positioned to be perhaps the most egregious of the many rights violations under protest as women and racial/ethnic minorities all suffer disproportionately from gun violence – and this following Ferguson, MO and the highly publicized shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis that were enabled by Republican-sponsored law. The GOP is not only failing in their duty to protect our unalienable right to life but is working to further expand public exposure to firearms to the financial benefit of industry.
The lack of focus on driving these important voting blocks in advance of the election was evident in the work of some of these groups. Consider the Jim Brady Memorial Service that recognized the life and legacy of Jim Brady who, along with the steadfast support and activism of his wife, Sarah, was successful in getting enacted what is arguably the most important piece of gun violence prevention legislation to date, the Brady Background Check. This event occurred within a month of the election with many prominent individuals from the news media as well as Vice President Biden in attendance. And part of the dialog was to complete the work of this individual and his wife as the background check loophole remains open. Would not the involvement of the African-American community be important in shaping Congress into one that could help complete this mission? And could not the legacy of this courageous individual be further enhanced by our Vice President publicly stating that we need to not only continue the fight for this individual’s work but expand upon it in addressing the disparate effects of gunfire in racial/ethnic minorities? Almost half of gunfire victims in this country are African-American (yet they constitute only 13-14% of our population), and background checks did not keep guns out of the hands of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, both of whom had been conditioned to harbor either racial hatred or bias in the way they viewed African-American males. Yet, having attended the event, diversity was sparse at best. Not one of the 34 photos of the event disseminated by the organization included a person of color. Was this a missed opportunity for both the organization to further its goal of expanding background checks as well as the Democratic Party to energize important voting blocks during an event covered by news media?
And in a TV ad disseminated by Americans for Responsible Solutions, the only image of a person of color is an African-American male, wearing sunglasses and a cap, walking right center of camera during a segment discussing stalkers and domestic abusers. I communicated this concern to the organization citing that even the NRA ads running in NC, in all of their hypocrisy, were including images of African-Americans – but without response.
What is surprising is that some of these gun violence prevention leaders, such as Dan Gross of The Brady Campaign (who was a partner at an Ad agency) and Michael Bloomberg (clearly a savvy business person), must understand what resonates with the market. If the intent is to impact Congress and achieve ‘common sense’ gun laws, are they really taking head-on an issue that is held by as little as 2% of the American public as being the most important issue in their vote for Congress? This while failing to energize important market segments that have shown the ability to shape Congress into one that would buy their product?
But the gun violence prevention movement, and others, could not do this alone. They needed the help of Democratic candidates to light the fires.
The Democratic Party
How did a president who was re-elected to office in 2012 by an impressive margin turn into a liability for Democratic candidates a mere two years later? You have to hand it to the GOP. They intentionally constipated Washington creating public dissatisfaction and then blamed the dysfunction on the president and the Dems by claiming that they were the ones who failed to reach across the aisle. As Paul Krugman recently stated: “The biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism boardering on sabotage is a winning political strategy.”
Rather than fighting back and running on a notable track record of accomplishments in the face of obstruction (improved employment, growing economy, stock market at record highs, etc), Democratic candidates instead fell prey to the tactic and ran from the president, the very individual who energized the voting blocks that carried the party to victories in 2008 and 2012. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes (running against a mastermind of the Republican tactics, Senate minority (soon-to-be majority) leader Mitch McConnell) completely ducked the question as to whether she voted for the president. Candidates distancing themselves from the first African-American president could only serve to demotivate important voting blocks. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart took on Democratic candidates who reportedly asked the president to delay actions on controversial issues such as immigration reform and the Keystone pipeline until after the election, so they could intentionally distance themselves from the president for those decisions. And they lost.
Regarding the gun violence re-positioning strategy, I took the case to a well-respected Congressional Representative with a track record of supporting gun violence prevention as well as to Senator Hagan’s campaign office, but was unable to achieve any traction in advance of the election. North Carolina is a ‘Black Belt’ state (22% African-American vs 13% nationally) and the advantage held by Senator Hagan in pre-election polls disappeared on election day due to “lower-then-expected turnout numbers”. In an article by UNC professor Gene Nichol entitled “Where’s the fight in North Carolina’s Democratic Party”, he makes the point that the heavy lifting in the protest of the hard right agenda of the legislature was being done by activist teachers, parents, students, NAACP, Equality NC (a gay rights group) and others while Democratic candidates were in a race to the middle. And is there any wonder as to what happened to the energy when it came time to vote?
Granted that midterms are notorious for low voter turnout. The objective, for both the Democratic Party and the gun violence prevention movement, should have been to try to hold the Democratic majority in the Senate until the 2016 general election – no easy task as Dems had a disproportionate number of seats up for grabs. Yet neither Democratic candidates nor the gun violence prevention movement worked to effectively energize their important customers. In fact it can be argued that the Dems demotivated important voting blocks by not fighting tooth and nail for their causes. Even if the Dems still lost, those customers would know where the party stood come the general election. In business, if one doesn’t take care of their customers, indifference sets in and the door is left open for them to try another product. And no business ever, ever wants their customers to move to a competitor – those that leave often do not come back.
No doubt that 2016 should be a better year for the Dems and the gun violence prevention movement. Voter turnout will be higher and we will need to see how the rift in the Republican Party plays out as it tries to govern – I suspect not well with the no-compromise Tea Party crowd. But will gun violence be a major player in those elections as a stand alone issue? Although much was made of the defeat of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in 2012 US Senate races by gun violence prevention advocates (both candidates being NRA A rated and supported by NRA contributions) it was not their position on ‘gun rights’ that took them down at the polls – it was their insensitive and offensive remarks about rape pregnancies – there wasn’t enough NRA money that could have saved them. The ‘Moms’ movement within Everytown is a promising part of that organization as it is tapping into one of the important voting blocks that can impact Congress.
It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating something and expecting a different result. Well, the gun violence prevention movement has had two spectacular failures in the past year and a half. The first was the failure to achieve approval of bipartisan expanded federal background check legislation despite 90% of the public supporting such legislation. The other was the Senate falling into Republican control despite the spending of millions of dollars into the political process in support of gun violence prevention.
In the words of former president G. W. Bush, “…fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.” Well….
It’s time to re-position the gun violence prevention product. Any business would.