Taking on Guns and the NRA, One Tweet at a Time

Survivors of gun violence, joined by family members, watch a video Survivors of gun violence, joined by family members, watch a video at a press conference held with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at New York's City Hall on Dec. 17bout gun violence at a press conference held with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at New York's City Hall on Dec. 17 Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

On Dec. 21, a group of A-list Hollywood celebrities, including Jon Hamm, Reese Witherspoon, Jamie Foxx, and Beyoncé, posted an 80-second, black-and-white video clip on YouTube calling for lawmakers to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with gun violence. The clip, uploaded the same day the National Rifle Association held a press conference calling for armed guards in schools and no new restrictions on guns, has been viewed 4 million times.

The public service announcement is well-produced and hits all the intended emotional chords as it reminds viewers of mass shootings from Columbine to Newtown. It’s is part of a broader “Demand a Plan” social media campaign by the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns that was launched right after the Newtown massacre. (The group is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P., which owns Bloomberg Businessweek.) The video also raises an intriguing question: Can social media strategies somehow level the playing field with the NRA, a laser-focused, well-financed, and successful lobbying group with four million members?

John Feinblatt, who oversees MAIG and is a chief policy adviser to the mayor, is ready to go on the offensive with the NRA and thinks the moment has arrived for the gun safety movement  to make legislative advances. He says there is “enormous pent up frustration because Americans want to be safe.” Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can effectively focus that raw energy on Congress and President Barack Obama to get things moving and undercut the NRA’s clout in Washington. “What people want is to be heard and you have to give them that vehicle,” says Feinblatt.

The Demand a Plan site delivers that with video testimonials of 30-plus survivors and victims’ family members and all manner of online tools to mobilize support and donations to pressure the White House and Congress. Some 600,000 users have signed an online petition to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, require criminal background checks on every gun sold in the U.S., and crack down on arms trafficking. The Demand a Plan campaign has generated 10 million tweet impressions since its launch on Dec. 17, according to Feinblatt. This chart of Google search results for “gun control” shows interest spiking far higher after Newtown, compared with responses to other shooting incidents, going back to 2005.

Yet it’s worth asking if a “Twitter Revolution,” to borrow from the Arab Spring lexicon, can change the U.S. gun policy debate over the long haul? Social media is a great technology for disseminating information, organizing protests, and expressing spontaneous emotion—but it is unclear how effective it might be in a prolonged legislative battle to sway, cajole, and basically electorally threaten lawmakers beholden to the NRA and gun industry money.

“Signing an online petition is easy, but getting the continuing electoral and financial support of millions is difficult,” says Harry Wilson,  a gun industry expert and a public policy professor at Roanoke College in Virginia. “If gun control groups, including MAIG, are not significantly emboldened and empowered by the Newtown tragedy, then they have lost the battle.”

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