In the wake of the carnage in Parkland, Florida, students at Brandeis have expressed their fear and anger about the lack of reasonable gun regulation in America. A walk-out planned for March 14 is evidence that the trauma of these events can have a catalyzing effect on progressive students. After every mass shooting, we try to convince ourselves that this incident will be the tipping point, that this shooting is so horrendous it will move legislators across the aisle to act. Yet, seemingly without end, the vicious cycle continues. It is enormously difficult not to be overcome by feelings of disappointment and hopelessness as these mass shootings continue to occur again and again. 

There is an urgent necessity for common-sense gun regulations to curb violence, but the strategies that the left has employed have been critically ineffective. Most progressives rightfully blame the National Rifle Association and the prevalence of special interest groups and lobbying in America. They cannot, however, be a scapegoat for failure and a justification for inaction. The manner in which Republican leaders such as President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott have, in recent days, defied the NRA is indicative of the limitations of lobbying in the face of massive public pressure for reasonable reform. The NRA is not going away, and progressives cannot work to change their incentives: however, there are key ways in which the left can make its message on gun control far more effective. 

The problem for the left stems from ignorance. On aggregate, both sides of the aisle after incidents of gun violence tend to talk past each other. It is important to note that cyclical mass shootings are not a result of apathy or indifference on the part of the right. In fact, conservatives are deeply shocked by these events as well. The critical difference is that they view these events as arguments for their own beliefs on gun violence. That is, to the right, restrictions on gun ownership prevent individuals such as teachers from exercising self-defense. As a result, they believe that too much gun control is a cause of mass shootings, not the solution. This is why gun sales skyrocket in the aftermath of publicized shootings, according to a Feb. 20 Vox opinion piece, and why each successive tragedy is never enough to convince a sufficient number of legislators to pass comprehensive reform. Instead of pushing Republicans to the left, the message and advocacy activists have pushed has often just caused both sides to dig their heels in further and made compromise impossible. 

Given the outburst of emotion on the Brandeis campus, the question ought to be how progressives can target their messaging in different ways to actually effect change. There are at least four ways in which aspiring activists can target their message to conservatives to make them more likely to support common sense gun reform. 

First, emphasizing the human nature of the tragedy and avoiding “policy speak” is vital. Gun control works: Numerous studies, including a two-year research review by the RAND Corporation, have produced a wide set of statistics that demonstrate the benefits and necessity of gun reform. Yet, while data and evidence can effectively serve as ancillary support for arguments, it is an unfortunate habit of progressives to focus too much on statistics and numbers. Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times is perhaps the primary example of the academic impulse to quantify arguments. He has for some time advocated for the left to treat gun violence as a public health crisis, emphasizing well researched statistics in his op-eds. According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, studies have shown that statistics often fail to motivate people to action, because they tend to be abstract, nebulous and impossible to relate to. What does it mean if states with gun ownership rates that exceed 32 percent of total households are more likely to have death rates above 10.5 per 100,000 people? Data from an extensive survey research project by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research seems to demonstrate that Americans are swayed more easily to support common-sense gun control by messaging that uses powerful images and stories as opposed strictly to facts and statistics alone. 

Second, activists need to focus far more on forms of gun violence other than mass shootings, especially suicide. While incidents such as the shooting in Parkland have a emotional impact on the country, they are not sufficient to make conservatives believe gun control arguments. The right points to the fact that, according to Kristof’s own article in the New York Times, mass shootings makeup only around one percent of total gun violence in the country. By contrast, the vast majority of gun deaths in America are the product of self-inflicted harm. In 2016, for example, over 22,000 individuals died by suicide using a firearm. As a result, conservatives are more likely to be persuaded by arguments about suicide. For one, they target a more personal issue, one that potentially feels closer to home for many Americans. In addition, guns are particularly likely to be lethal in suicide attempts, meaning that restricting access to firearms for individuals struggling with suicidal ideation could meaningfully affect their chance at survival.

Third, activists must better tailor the rhetoric of their arguments to appeal to a conservative frame of reference. Data from the survey project by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research indicates that the use of different words and phrases has a substantial impact on the efficacy of a gun-control message. When talking to men, for instance, use the term “gun crime,” as opposed to “gun violence.” Likewise, referring to “strong” gun ownership restrictions rather than “strict” restrictions and “gun violence prevention” rather than “gun control” were all more likely to persuade conservatives to support common left-leaning policies. 

Most importantly, researchers from Oregon State University found that tailoring a message culturally, to call upon values such as responsible gun ownership and cultural heritage, was far more likely to be recieved better. According to research conducted at Stanford University, using a technique known as moral reframing can be critical to persuasion. Moral reframing focuses on  making arguments that are persuasive to the principles and values of the targeted audience. In the case of gun control, appeals to conservatives ought to be related to values such as family , patriotism, respect for authority and order. Arguments about protecting law enforcement from criminals were found to be quite effective, for instance. Unfortunately, Democrats have often treated gun owners with condescension. Former President Barack Obama’s remarked that rural Americans “cling to their guns or religion,” according to an April 14, 2008 article in the Guardian. Likewise, particularly severe attacks on the NRA were found to be ineffective because most Americans view them as a mainstream watchdog organization.    

Fourth, progressives need to be better informed about guns. Many individuals on the left find it difficult to recognize the legitimacy of conservative arguments regarding complex issues such as race and sexual orientation. When individuals on the right, for instance, use ignorant terminology such as the “gender binary,” it creates a gap in trust that makes persuading others nearly impossible. he same force is at play for gun control. When progressives use ill-defined terms such “assault weapons,” individuals on the right may become instantly turned off of left-leaning perspectives. Only by demonstrating respect to gun owners – by listening and learning about guns – can gun control proposals become persuasive.

The vast majority of Americans support common-sense gun control. Reforms, including fixing background checks, are broadly popular among Republicans as well. Yet, despite enormous efforts and truly admirable courage on the part of advocates, survivors and students at universities including Brandeis, the time and effort is put to waste unless the messaging is actually targeted, well-framed and powerful in the right ways.