One of the most persuasive opinion pieces on the issue of gun control was published on October 4th in the New York Times. “Want Gun Control? Learn from the N.R.A.” by Hahrie Han proposes that we look at why rational arguments simply don’t work when it comes to convincing lawmakers and those opposed to gun control to take measures protecting U.S. citizens from gun violence. It’s an article about persuasion even though the author does not describe it as such. Han is a University of California Santa Barbara expert in the study of civic and political participation, collective action, organizing, and social change, particularly as it pertains to social policy, environmental issues, and democratic revitalization.
One of the primary arguments advanced by Han is this:
The N.R.A.’s power is not just about its money or number of supporters or a favorable political map. It has also built something that gun-control advocates lack: an organized base of grass-roots power.
Han argues that gun-control groups focus on persuasion, while gun-rights groups focus on identity. In a way, though, the latter is a form of persuasion. Homophily, or the sense of similarity people feel toward others, is one of the primary aspects of source credibility. In persuasion theory and research terms, that means to the extent you seem to be like me in some important ways, I’m more inclined to listen, be attracted to, learn from and side with you.
Han posits that the N.R.A. has formulated a base via relationships. As a cohesive collective this base is more powerful than gun-control advocates who cling to common sense and moral outrage but don’t come together as protectors of a way of life. She adds that there are more gun clubs and gun shops in the United States than there are McDonalds. And, the N.R.A. can bring 80,000 people together for a conference — people who see themselves as protectors, not simply of guns, but of a way of life.
I always start my persuasion and negotiation classes and presentations with the observation that no idea, no matter how sensible, attractive, intriguing, or clearly presented, stands on its own. To persuade those on the fence about the need for gun common sense and even those who consider themselves opposed to automatic weapons, for example, we need to think about the way of life such common sense protects. We can’t visit the issue occasionally and hope for change. Gun lobbyists will wait for the horror in Las Vegas to fade in memory. To bring about change, moral outrage must be converted to consistent, collective action protecting the lives and liberties of the innocent.
Four million have joined the Everytown for Gun Safety, Han points out. But that’s just a start. Only when a substantial base is formed of people invested in protecting the rights of those who merely wish to attend a concert or go to school will we possibly see change. Only when that base repeatedly, doggedly pounds on the doors of senators and congress people “owned” by gun lobbies insisting that they refuse to take money from them will we see change.
It isn’t enough to be right about the need for what I’d rather call gun management than gun control as the latter evokes defensiveness. There needs to be more understanding of why so many people are willing to risk the lives of innocent people so that they might purchase whatever guns, in whatever quantity, they wish.
Effective persuasion is about knowing how the other side thinks. Those who advocate for gun control must clearly define a view of the future with which people who own handguns and/or hunting rifles can identify. They must provide opportunities for those morally outraged by gun violence to come together and grow in both voice and number. Until these things happen, we can expect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be robbed again and again from innocent people simply wishing to go about their daily lives.
Kathleen is professor emerita at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and and expert in persuasion, negotiation and politics in organizations. She also blogs here.