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The NRA’s step-by-step playbook for responding to a mass shooting

Reuters/John Sommers II
NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre rallies his troops in May.
By Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The National Rifle Association has been the focus of anger after the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 high school students last week. Protestors outside the group’s Virginia headquarters blamed the group for the student’s deaths, while others called it a terrorist organization.

The organization, which funnels tens of millions of dollars annually to politicians who fight gun control laws, laid low. Its Twitter account wasn’t active for several days after the shooting. That silence is part of a now-familiar pattern of behavior, experts say, designed to thwart momentum for actual laws that would regulate gun purchases. The NRA didn’t respond to questions about their strategy.

Here’s how it works:

1. Lay low for 72 to 96 hours. The NRA’s first response is to shut down social media accounts “because there’s no appropriate response,” said Dan Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and the head of experimental research at PublicMind. “The idea is not to interact with anyone while the issue is still hot,” Cassino said, because “there is literally nothing that you can say.”

But that silence is only temporary. That’s because American interest in gun control has shown a predictable pattern after previous mass shootings. Within days after the Las Vegas shooting on October 1 that killed 58 and injured 851, or the Sutherland, Texas shooting on November 4 that killed 26, internet searches for “gun control” had fallen to their pre-shooting levels, Google Trends data shows:

Google Trends

Generally, the NRA waits until “as long as it takes for the media cycle to move on,” Cassino said—and that’s the heart of their strategy. The media cycle, and Americans’ interest in gun control, soon wane. By Feb. 21, the NRA’s Twitter account was active again, retweeting “good guy with a gun” stories, and articles explaining why gun control laws wouldn’t work.

2. NRA-backed politicians downplay the impact of gun laws. One day after the Parkland shooting, Florida senator Marco Rubio claimed gun laws wouldn’t have prevented it.

Typically, the first response to such a massacre comes from politicians who are supported by the group. They generally offer their “thoughts and prayers,” and, like Rubio, question whether stricter gun laws would have helped. Often the politicians and other pro-NRA talking heads that appear in public in the days after a mass shooting offer identical talking points.

This is misleading—countries with fewer guns have far fewer mass shootings. Clampdowns on gun ownership and purchasing after mass shootings have been incredibly effective in other countries.

3. Blame another cause. Two days after the shooting, on Feb. 16, the NRA’s Facebook account was back—and promoting an interview with chief of staff Josh Powell, advocating that schools hire trained guards to prevent shootings. “When you look at athletes, celebrities, the political class, all of these people have security and many of them have ARMED security,” Powell said. “So my question is: At what point are we going to get serious enough about protecting our children and giving them the same protection that all these other groups get?”

4. Mobilize the NRA’s rank and file. Five days after the shooting, the NRA posted a photo of a billboard that had been defaced in Louisville, Kentucky to say “Kill the NRA” on its Facebook page. The message “to all American gun owners” is “They’re coming after us,” the group warned. “Like and share to spread the word.”

By Feb. 20, the image had been shared more than 60,000 times. “They don’t argue with people,” said Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, the author of Loaded, a history of the US’s second amendment. They only see a benefit from “proselytizing to their base,” she said, “and it works like a charm.”

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