The Al Jazeera two-part documentary, How to Sell a Massacre, details discussions between senior members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and the (US) National Rifle Association (NRA) with the intention of obtaining funds to undermine the tight Australian gun laws.
This highlights the willingness of pro-gun interests to invest large amounts of money in influencing policy makers.
In the wake of the Christchurch killings, our government looked to fast-track legislation that would tighten up access to military-style semi-automatics and assault rifles. Pro-gun interests were unlikely to take this lying down.
Industries who profit from harmful consumptions, such as alcohol and gambling, share the use of a very similar range of tactics aimed at stalling restrictions to the sale of their products.
Over the last seventy years, the tobacco industry pioneered and refined the main tactics and, up until ten years ago, employed them effectively to stall legislation intended to restrict access to tobacco products. Following their court battles in the late 1990s, millions of their internal documents became publicly accessible and researchers have been able to confidently identify a wide range of tactics used by them to manipulate public opinion.
In the last thirty years the same tactics have been adopted by those promoting and protecting access to alcohol, gambling and, more recently, unhealthy food and beverages.
So, in anticipation of gun industry ongoing efforts to impede new gun laws, let’s look at four of the tactics most preferred by these industries.
First, public attention needs to be diverted away from the strong evidence for how restricting access to a harmful product leads to reductions in harm. This can be done by focusing attention away from the product and context in which it is used and, instead, focusing on individual consumers and claiming that harm is primarily their responsibility. This tactic echoes the pro-gun lobby claim that it is people and not guns that lead to carnage.
Once attention is focused on individuals, the claim is then made that the majority of harm from their products is generated by a few deranged, weak and possibly “sick” people who, for a variety of reasons, appear unable to control themselves. Why should the rest of us who drink or gamble or use guns sensibly be penalized by the actions of this small deviant group. Of course this claim fails to acknowledge how harm is generated in a wide variety of ways by a much larger proportion of our community.
A second tactic seeks to position the industry concerned as a responsible and legitimate part of our society, contributing positively both to the economy and to the wellbeing of our communities. The alcohol industry, for example, does this by sponsoring our elite sports and the gambling industry by funding community charities. Similarly, gun industry interests are likely put effort into presenting themselves as responsible and community-responsive members of our society.
A third tactic involves arguing that access restrictions intrude into our fundamental human rights. People have a right to choose how they live their lives; this is their business and not the domain of government; we must avoid turning our country into a “nanny state”.
This manoeuvre condenses our understanding of freedom down to what is happening for us as individuals; freedom is reduced to a matter of individual choice. But this distorts how freedom works in our lives. In reality, all our rights involve a balance between our individual freedom and our broader responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of ourselves collectively as a society.
A fourth and related tactic involves turning around and pointing the finger at those who are pushing for reform. They are repositioned from being seen as concerned citizens to being seen as members of a radical fringe; a small group of fanatics, spoilsports, puritans and wowsers who are ideologically driven and hell-bent on restricting the liberties of ordinary citizens. The industry advocate is, perversely, transformed into a moderate, talking sense and advancing a middle ground.
Unfortunately the contest between health and community advocates and industry lobbyists is not an even playing field. The profits from harmful consumptions ensure pro-industry interests are able to mobilize a wide range of resources including their own staff, their advertising, their researchers-for-hire, members of their associations and their relationship-building with politicians. Those advocating for gun reform continue to face a well-resourced and committed adversary.
For more, see Moral Jeopardy: The Risks of Accepting Money from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Gambling Industries (Cambridge UP, 2016)
For more on industry tactics see: www.tobaccotactics.org