A Tale of Two Movements : And The Messages We Send


Wayne LaPierre - National Rifle Association executive vice president.

Wayne LaPierre – National Rifle Association executive vice president.

Do not fret. I am not about to talk on either side of the Controversy surrounding the tragedy that befell the small community of Sandy Hook . Just for the record however I am pro-gun control. But my view of the issues is not what is important here or at stake. Truth is what is central to any lobbying effort. If you cannot convince your listeners of that reality then you have lost them.

Jason Linkins wrote a piece on the press conference given by Wayne LaPierre in which he said:

Spend enough time dipping into the post-game reaction of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre‘s press conference today — staged and performed as the organization’s first public statement since the tragic school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — and you’ll likely run up on any number of people who’ll tell you the LaPierre’s presentation (which included calls for more guns in schools and greater restrictions on video games) was tone-deaf or ineffective or out-of-touch or a failure.

Those critics are wrong. LaPierre’s presentation was terrifically effective.

His measure of success for a lobbyist like LaPierre is as follows:

The NRA are lobbyists who represent a bunch of gun retailers, and this is what lobbyists do — they help their clients sell their products. And every action that LaPierre took today can and should be viewed through that prism.

I happen to agree with this assessment despite my disagreement with what Mr. LaPierre had to say. I was not in his target audience. I was a playing the motorist to his bicyclist. And therein lies a world of truth.

Leslie Carlson© Leslie Carlson

Leslie Carlson
© Leslie Carlson

Michael Andersen wrote a piece about another lobbyist Leslie Carlson in which he said:

If Leslie Carlson has anything to say about it, “bike backlash” isn’t so bad. It’s only a problem if those of us who understand the advantages of bikes don’t know how to respond.

The Portland-based communications consultant says public skepticism about bike projects around the country is simply a sign that bikes have become part of the political back-and-forth – and she’s got a quiver full of interesting strategies for fighting back.

“That’s what democracy is for,” she says.

Carlson is a good-natured mercenary in the democratic roil. Her firm, Brink Communications, has specialized in environmental sustainability messaging for a list of public and private clients including the Oregon Department of Transportation, Portland Bureau of Transportation and the City of Eugene.

But though she doesn’t shrink from dispute, Carlson comes off as studious and pragmatic. Sustainability isn’t her religion; it’s her business. In an interview with the Green Lane Project, she was eager to share some suggestions for how bike believers around the country can roll up their sleeves and lash back against foolishly auto-centric public policy.

Similarities In Approach

LaPierre and Carlson make their livings helping their clients “sell something to buyers”.

Gun manufacturers have a product which is in fact a weapon. Things like assault rifles are used to kill people. You really do not use them for hunting animals. They are for killing humans.

Bicycle manufacturers make a tool for transportation. But it does not mix well with heavier faster modes of transportation and that is where Ms. Carlson comes into play. She is helping governmental agencies fight the resistance to spend money on infrastructure that should make using bicycles safer. The reason there is so much resistance is because the number of people currently using that transportation mode is outnumbered 50-to-1 by automobile drivers.

Lobbyists like LaPierre come by their calling honestly. LaPierre is an avid gun user. But sometimes lobbyists are not emotionally committed to what they advocate. It is after all a job first and then if you are lucky it is also a passion.

Preaching To The Choir

Now I mentioned earlier that I was essentially playing the role of motorist to Mr. LaPierre’s cyclist. In the struggle to gain traction within the transportation scene cycling lobbyists have learned to, as Michael Andersen puts it, “Tackle Cars Head On“. What is sometimes most disturbing is the way in which cyclists rally around their versions of Ted Nugent:

You do not have to dig too deep into the annals of the ChainLink Forum to find folks using a similar style of rhetoric to describe motorists. I often refer to this as the “Spawn of Satan” approach. It works quite well with 20-something riders who are certain that their 30-something counterparts in the Church of Urban Cycling would never steer them wrong.

But what happens is that we end up forgetting the basis for having both the NRA and Cycling Advocacy groups. When I was still a Boy Scout and joined the NRA it was because it was an organization that sponsored gun safety and marksmanship efforts.

But all that changed in the mid 1970s:

The Cincinnati Coup

The NRA was founded back in 1871 and for much of its history devoted itself largely to issues of marksmanship, such as safety and training.

But the political landscape around guns began shifting roughly a century after the group’s founding. Following passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, new groups came on the scene devoted to protecting Second Amendment rights in the political arena.

“Basically, after the competition in gun rights started, the NRA was forced to rethink how to do things,” says Phil Watson, director of special projects for the Second Amendment Foundation, which has won a number of high-profile legal battles. “The presence of other groups being out there forced the NRA to become more of what they are today.”

An internal coup at the NRA’s annual meeting in 1977 in Cincinnati forced out old-school shooters and hunters who did not want the group deeply engaged in politics and ushered in new leadership that reshaped the NRA into the lobbying powerhouse it has become.

“When people say gun lobby, they mean NRA,” says Harry Wilson, author of Guns, Gun Control and Elections.

The same sort of politicization of cycling has been occurring as well. We have lost a fair number of groups like the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation which like the League of American Bicyclists focused primarily on safety. These groups have transformed themselves into ones whose names include “Transportation Alternatives” or something similar.

Supposedly the intent was to broaden the appeal to include citizens who not only biked but used mass transit as well. And it seemed a great idea since the earmarked funding of years past was being combined into a single pot of monies over which cyclists and motorists and mass transit users had to fight. You would have though that such a situation would have forced the cycling community to learn to compromise with the motoring community and the mass transit community. But at a street level the situation has turned ugly. Cyclists are very much anti-motorists in much of their verbal discussions on the ChainLink Forum.

Getting Back To Basics

I visited the Dearborn Bike Lanes today. I was unimpressed for the most part. What is most disappointing is that for the $450,000 spent on some 12 blocks of protected bicycle lanes, there will little attention paid to the road surface unevenness. Standing water, soon to become ice, can be seen up and down the avenue. The bicycle-specific control lights are nice but several cyclists who are more interested in speed than safety (or so it would seem) are already complaining that the lights are not timed to allow them to travel the length of this corridor without having to stop.

We need to revisit the only acid test possible for cycling improvements and that is safety. Anything else is simply a second-tier concern. We are not really concerned with trying to prove that fossil fuels are bad for the environment. There are engineers who will make that situation improve over time. Our concern should be whether in the simple execution of our rights to travel to and from work we can be made as safe as possible.

Running red lights or blowing stop signs are inconsistent with safety. It does not matter whether our actions in this regard do little harm to others. If we die in the course of breaking a traffic law the result is that the numbers of fatalities rise and that makes cycling less safe overall both in terms of our perceptions and the statistics.