People often ask how they can persuade lawmakers on the other side of an issue or decision-makers who don’t represent them. It’s possible, but involves second-degree advocacy. For students and supporters of March for Our Lives there are three strategies that can flip lawmakers on gun control.
In the aftermath of of last month’s terrible shooting, Parkland survivors and students from around the country are organizing a ‘March for Our Lives’ and they’re changing the national conversation on guns. However, they’re running into problems flipping traditionally pro-gun lawmakers. The Parkland students come from a liberal part of Florida but the rest of the state leans pro-gun. Despite their best efforts, a measure to ban assault weapons wasn’t included in the final bill signed by Governor Rick Scott (R) because voters in the districts of those lawmakers were themselves opposed to such proposals.
So how can March for Our Lives students persuade lawmakers from pro-gun districts?
In addition to voters in their districts, politicians listen to institutional leaders in their district. Business and non-profit leaders, chambers of commerce, and other political leaders in district – they all have the ability to make things easier or harder in the district, which translates to re-election – keeping their job.
Second-degree advocacy is persuading voters, institutional leaders, donors, and other influencers in a lawmakers’ district to take action themselves, calling on their elected official to vote a certain way. It’s tricky, and requires a degree of finesse. Here are three second-degree advocacy strategies for the March for Our Lives students and their supporters:
1) Keep up the pressure by staying reasonable and sympathetic.
Students are particularly sympathetic right now. They are literally fighting for their lives – for the right to walk their schools in safety.
The moment they become unsympathetic, the gun lobby will pounce and call their efforts naïve or unreasonable and they will lose valuable advocates within those conservative districts.
Effective activists prioritize their wish list. They’re clear on what their top one or two ‘must haves’ are, what their ‘would be nice to have’ items are, and what their ‘can live without’ policies are. In this instance, asking for a ban on bump stocks is totally reasonable and winnable. Closing the gun show loophole on waiting is also a policy that the public and their lawmakers can get behind. However, attempts to limit the number of guns people purchase or create a gun or ammunition registry will most likely be a poison pill. Keep in mind the people who need to be flipped are usually from pro-gun districts.
Similarly, as long as students stick to arguments about bump stocks being a way to circumvent existing law and their right to be safe in school, they will continue to persuade middle-of-the-road voters. But saying that we need to rethink the 2nd amendment or that guns in general are ‘bad’ will turn off a large constituency. Remember, a majority of NRA members support common sense gun policy like background checks. To engage and keep that segment of voters from turning against them, students need to avoid inflammatory language about guns and gun owners.
2) Turn voters in decision-makers’ districts in to their advocates.
In order to go about this, March for Our Lives students need determine if they know anyone in the district of the decision-maker. Asking their parents to identify friends, relatives, or college roommates who live in the district of the lawmaker in question is the first step.
Next, they need to reach out to those people, tell them how afraid they are, and ask them if they would consider contacting their lawmakers.
3) Institute a “vote with your dollars” type of campaign.
Back when North Carolina’s legislature passed an anti-transgender people “bathroom bill”, people from outside of North Carolina couldn’t directly ask those lawmakers to repeal it. But they could pull their money. People urged businesses like the NCAA to stop doing business in North Carolina. It was devastating to their economy and eventually led the state legislature to revisit the issue.
The key is to look at the big employers in the districts of pro-gun elected officials. It shouldn’t be too tough to find the big businesses there via the chambers of commerce in their district. Or better yet, they can see who donated to them. Sites like the FEC or Open Secrets make finding this information relatively easy. See if the CEO donated to their campaign. Students can encourage people who are customers or stockholders to contact those companies and ask them to call on the lawmaker to support gun safety.
These students are brave, smart, and determined. But if there’s anything the past year in American politics has taught us, the hot button-topic of the moment can change quickly. In order to keep the pressure up and achieve significant wins, the March for Our Lives students need to employ these second-degree advocacy strategies.
Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products: Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and Campaigning 101. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get activism training & lobbying training tips.