NRA’s Public Relations Misstep

All social movements have a radical fringe. There is always a group of people who feel so passionately about a cause that they will go to what most individuals consider the extremes to make a point.

 Here are just a few examples:

  • Abortion: Army of God
  • Animal Rights: Animal Liberation Movement
  • Civil Rights: Black Panthers
  • Conservatism: John Birch Society
  • Environment: Earth Liberation Front
  • Anti-Immigration Movement: The Minutemen

These radical groups have something in common. Their more moderate allies universally distanced themselves from the fiery rhetoric and over-the-top tactics. Until this week, I would have said that this is a truism of social movements. Moderate groups always distinguish themselves from the radical groups pushing for change under a shared banner.

 The National Rifle Association, however, is rewriting what we know about the relationship between moderate and radical groups by first criticizing radicals and, then, retracting its criticism.

Over the weekend, the members of the group Open Carry Texas made a statement about gun rights by taking their assault-style rifles into stores and restaurants. While the NRA did not criticize the group by name, it labeled the demonstrations as extreme, “weird,” and “downright scary.”  In a statement, the NRA noted:

Recently, demonstrators have been showing up in various public places, including coffee shops and fast food restaurants, openly toting a variety of tactical long guns. Unlicensed open carry of handguns is legal in about half the U.S. states, and it is relatively common and uncontroversial in some places.

Yet while unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms.

Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.

The statement also noted:  

Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners. That’s not the Texas way. And that’s certainly not the NRA way.

By Tuesday, the NRA had retracted its statement, describing it as a mistake.

While this public apology may have appease NRA’s radical allies in the short term, it will likely cause the organization public relations problems in the future. Savvy radical groups will interpret NRA’s retraction as support for in-your-face gun ownership and likely up the ante by engaging in more public demonstrations. Worse for the NRA, in order to attract widespread attention again, radical groups will use more extreme tactics. What will the NRA do then?  

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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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