A new playbook for ending gun violence
A conversation with David Hogg, an activist and survivor of the Parkland school shooting, and Anat Shenker-Osorio, the messaging guru, about new strategies and language for defeating gun violence
We need a new playbook for ending gun violence in America. The old one won’t do.
The other day, I decided to set up an unusual three-way interview in the hope of getting a glimpse of a new playbook might be.
David Hogg is, as many of you will remember, one of the remarkable young people who survived the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, and went on to become a prominent activist against gun violence (and a college student; he graduates this spring). Anat Shenker-Osorio is a message whiz on the political left, and many of you will recognize her as a star character of my most recent book, THE PERSUADERS.
Shortly before this interview, I had put David and Anat in touch with each other. David had read my book and become excited about my subject Anat’s ideas about messaging. He wanted to apply her powerful frameworks to his advocacy against gun violence. Then I had the idea of hosting them in a joint conversation for your benefit.
What emerged was a powerful reflection on the state of the campaign against gun violence, and a vital discussion about what the movement should be fighting for, how it should be fighting, how it should sound, what its shortcomings have been, and what a bold new way forward looks like.
You won’t want to miss this one.
“Gun violence is a choice we don't need to keep making”: a conversation with David Hogg and Anat Shenker-Osorio
Anand: David, if you think back to your earliest moments coming of age as an activist, after Parkland, did you think we would be ahead of where we actually are today? Did you anticipate what an enormous lift it would be to change the culture and norms and laws?
David: I felt like we would've made more progress by this point, especially if we turned out more young people to vote. Because that was what was drilled into our heads, was “You just need to get young people to vote more.” Over and over. And then we did, at record numbers. And, unfortunately, even though people are literally having their elections decided by that, they still don't perceive young people as a group that actually votes.
That’s why we have to expand the coalition to include other groups that are allied with us — for example, to show that there are grandparents who are furious about this. We need to show that there are veterans who are with us, and many gun owners, like my family, who own guns and support stronger gun laws — the silent majority of gun owners. Because in social change a lot of the time, with gay marriage or marijuana, it's a matter of getting to a critical breaking point in public opinion that's somewhere in the realm of 70 to 75 percent public support for an issue, and then all of a sudden the dam just breaks open.
Right now, for stronger gun laws, I think we're somewhere around 55 or 60 percent. We have to figure out how to get that last 10 percent.
Anand: I wanted to talk to you and Anat together because of that question of the persuasion of that next 10 percent. You recently shared online that you had been reading about Anat’s work in my book and been blown away — as so many are by her!
I wanted to understand, as someone who's been doing this for some years, when you encountered Anat's ideas around persuasion and messaging, did it suggest something different or challenging relative to what you and your activist peers have been doing?
David: A few things. One, I think Anat’s ideas challenged some of the concepts that I had been using from Kingian principles of nonviolence. Dr. King had these principles of nonviolence that he used as his philosophy, and one of them is about attacking the sources of evil rather than the perpetrators of it, so that you can have reconciliation.
So, for example, after Uvalde, we used a message of coming together across difference. It was, Let's come together, let's focus on what we can agree on and acknowledge that we have our differences. And we did something.
It was tiny, though, and barely really did anything at all. After reading THE PERSUADERS and learning about Anat’s ideas, my view of it is that, although I would really like to go with that kumbaya message of Let's just bring everybody together, even those that don't agree, and let’s make whatever small amount of change we can that we do agree on, I look at the strategy that the NRA used, and they were not like, “Oh, let's just all come together and talk about why everybody needs to have an AR-15.”
They were a tiny but extremely loud and angry minority. And we need to replicate that on our side, because, while some people are afraid of having their guns taken away, other people are afraid of having their children taken away and their siblings taken away and their families obliterated by the unfettered access to guns.
One of the most useful metaphors that I recall from your book was this idea of selling pizza versus cheeseburgers and how Democrats’ solution is trying to make a middle ground pizzaburger that both alienates their base and doesn’t convince anyone new.
I realize I had taken that approach with guns. If you are an ardent gun supporter that is going to be angry about this stuff, it doesn't matter what I say; you’re not going to be voting for my ideas, and I gain nothing from trying to appeal to you. I gain a lot more by appealing to young people, a generation the government has failed over and over, from economic recessions to a pandemic to gun violence to climate change to student debt to growing inequality and more.
Another thing: When I talked to Anat the other day, she talked about how fear makes people more conservative. And I think our movement has relied on anger and fear as our motivating factors. And what it's resulted in is this cycle of outrage after these shootings that then animates the other side.
I realized, after talking to Anat, that we need to shift the message from anger and fear to anger and hope, that we can change this and things don't have to be this way and that it's ridiculous we've been put in this place and we're angry about the political system that has enabled this.
Anand: Anat, can you give me the landscape of messaging on guns today as you assess it?
Anat: When you look at the landscape of messaging, and when you actually look at public opinion on guns, what David just said is true. The most recent Pew that I can find, which is from 2021, is saying that roughly half, 53 percent, of Americans favor stricter gun laws.
But, interestingly, when they're asked about particular policy ideas, the level of support grows. Preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns: 87 percent support that. Making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks: 81 percent. Creating a federal government database to track all gun sales: 66 percent. We're declining, but we're still not down to 53.
So what does it mean that 53 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws as a general principle, but 80-plus percent of them support specific ones? It means that someone other than us has defined what it means to have “stricter gun laws” —
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