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Grassroots Power Trumps All

Thursday, August 15, 2013


The outcome of April’s Senate gun control debate has once again put our grassroots power on display. It’s never been a secret that NRA members are a political powerhouse, but the media are now analyzing our tactics like some kind of scientific discovery. Most get the story wrong, writing off our victories as due solely to campaign money, even though the NRA Political Victory Fund is by no means the biggest political action committee (PAC) in Washington—not even close.

But one recent analysis on Forbes.com was insightful. The author, Amy Showalter, began by saying, “I’m going to share with you five reasons the NRA won, and they have nothing to do with the often reported reasons like their PAC funds, their ability to turn out pro-gun voters in every legislative district, and the abundance of their skilled in-house and external lobbyists, although those are all true.”

Her first point was that all too many “grassroots” campaigns by other groups in Washington exist only online. She quoted one of our election volunteer coordinators telling an audience that “no one ever tripped on a bag of email.” That’s a great way of saying that many Washington veterans don’t trust purely online communications, because it’s difficult to verify their authenticity. An email can come from anywhere, and claim to be from anyone, but you know the origin of a handwritten letter. The return address confirms the presence of an educated constituent—who is also likely to be an informed voter—and the effort invested in drafting a personal letter shows a much higher level of dedication to a cause. Media types have long swooned over the Obama machine’s use of online resources, and there’s no doubt that online communications will be a growing part of our campaign arsenal. But when it comes to influencing lawmakers, excessive reliance on “social networks” may be a mirage.

That’s why Showalter cites “Investment in the power of face to face” as one of the reasons for NRA's success. “Being face to face communicates that you are willing to make an effort,” she writes, because “it increases your sincerity quotient.” She observes that “online advocacy is the lowest form of commitment” and quotes a veteran operative saying “so many people in this town push a button and think it’s real grassroots. It takes real people.” 

That illustrates why it’s important for NRA members to continue to communicate with our elected lawmakers in every possible forum, from personal meetings in the district office, to town hall meetings and even just a friendly “hello” at the local July 4 parade. If you plan a Washington, D.C., vacation, be sure to drop by their offices at the U.S. Capitol. Take every possible opportunity to thank your lawmakers for supporting your Second Amendment rights, or to express your disappointment if they have failed to protect them. Then follow up with a letter or phone call to remind lawmakers and their staffs of the reason for your interaction.

Showalter also notes the power of personal stories or anecdotes that illustrate the impact of proposed new restrictions. Our political opponents certainly rely on this tactic when they
use victims of violence to push their agenda. But when we illustrate that proposed restrictions could leave potential victims less able to defend themselves, we remind lawmakers that their votes can have real-world consequences that they may not intend.

The passion and intensity of our grassroots efforts are two other factors Showalter cites, and those in turn are driven by common ideals and values. I’ve met thousands of NRA members and I know that we all share the same core belief in freedom. The Second Amendment isn’t just a guarantee of one specific freedom; it represents a value system that goes far beyond gun ownership. As the old saying goes, “Gun control isn’t about guns. It’s about control.”

The intensity of our shared values is reflected in our knowledge base. Showalter notes that “the NRA volunteers know their stuff” and are “much more advanced and adept at persuasion” than other activists. That’s why a survey of lawmakers’ staff revealed that Capitol Hill staffers believe NRA members “back home are head and shoulders above other interest groups.” 

That’s a heck of a report card and every NRA member should be proud of it. Despite our opponents’ criticisms, we’ll never apologize for our members and supporters getting involved. But we didn’t get this far by resting on our laurels. We will be challenged again on Capitol Hill—maybe very soon. When that happens, we need to rise to the occasion as we always do, knowing that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance—and eternal readiness to act. 

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.