24 Oct 18 – As the Offensive Weapons Bill stalls in Parliament following a backbench rebellion over government plans to ban big rifles, UKSN’s author has a few ideas for nipping this kind of State behaviour in the bud.
1. Target shooting needs a dedicated public relations and public affairs function. PR is about talking to the press; PA is about talking to politicians. BASC does this very well for the huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ countryside lifestyle set, as does the Countryside Alliance and, north of the border, SACS. Target shooting, in contrast, doesn’t make a visible effort and its national governing bodies do little or nothing to draw attention to themselves. With the exception of the NRA’s annual Vizianagram target rifle match for MPs and lords, there is no regular engagement with the world of politics. Even the Vizianagram is just a jolly for a self-selecting handful.
2. Target shooting needs to regularly engage with the news media, both to generate article output and to build a deeper understanding. National newspaper journalists are, in general, London-dwelling millennials whose sole exposure to firearms is through American TV dramas, violent video games and police press releases. We shooters know these three sources paint firearms as an unquestionable evil, a stain upon mankind. Until we spend some of our money bringing reporters to our ranges, showing them what we do, letting them have a go, imparting a bit of understanding about licensing, cost and all the rest of it, the news media will continue to nod approvingly whenever government or the opposition proposes banning things. Journalists simply do not know that there is a whole world built around safe and responsible fun on the target range. In this day and age where reporters are expected to crank out thousands of words of clickbait per day, it is up to us to push our safe and responsible sport into their faces and harness some of that clickbait for our own benefit. We swim or we sink.
3. We need to build and promote a distinctly British target shooting culture and voice – a culture that embraces gallery rifle and CSR shooters just as much as the floppy-hatted TR brigade and the greybeards of black powder. If you talk about firearms ownership inside the M25, most people assume you’re some kind of American NRA survivalist prepper loon or a mercenary killer for hire. This image is heavily ingrained – and, indeed, is subtly encouraged by police workers. We need to flush that out by creating and repeating an image of British target shooting that is neither toffs in tweed nor shaven-headed “government ain’t gonna take mah gunz” lunacy.
4. We need to take ownership of the conversation around firearms licensing and cost. At the moment target shooting staggers from crisis to crisis because full-time salaried police lobbyists, whose brief is to end private firearms ownership, continually nag for access to any politician or civil servant who will listen. We need to get these people on the back foot, answering questions we raise and making them issue public rebuttals. BASC had the right idea with their 10-year certificate plan. To use the military term, we need to break the lobbyists’ OODA loop. Until we do that and deny them the public space to float bans and other anti-shooting talking points, we will never win and the State will continue erecting ever higher barriers to access our sport.
5. We need to productively engage with the police and moderate their hotheads. The vast majority of police workers have no exposure to firearms except as weapons used to harm human beings, both by their co-workers and by criminals. I think it’s a reasonable assumption that when you spend years or decades only ever interacting with the scum of society, you probably start to believe that anything which looks roughly similar is also a threat. If you’ve spent years arresting people who carry guns, you probably see anyone with a gun as a probable criminal, whether or not that is true – and we need to do more to make the average copper aware that registered firearms ownership is not a marker for criminality. We need to step up our existing police training programmes – the NRA and BASC both run occasional sessions for firearms licensing teams and these are a good model to build on.
6. We need to stamp out the social media tendency to want firearms for self-defence. It ain’t going to happen. Yes, a few people in Northern Ireland do have pistols as self-defence weapons but that will never, ever happen on the UK mainland. We need to be realistic – and we need to be seen as reasonable. The British public are conditioned to see firearms as tools of mass murderers: we make ourselves look worse when we talk about self defence, resisting government and all that American nonsense which has never had any application or relevance in the UK. Save it for the pub.
7. We absolutely need to sort out our personal social media presences. Long, rambling posts full of rhetorical questions about gun ownership are shit and boring and nobody cares. Similarly, nobody cares about the old analogy between firearms licensing and cars. This is a rhetorical technique known as whataboutery and everyone hates whataboutery. If you cannot deal with the question “why should you be allowed to have a gun” by answering it instead of bleating on about “well you have a car that can break the speed limit and run people over”, then say nothing. This is not to say that analogy and rhetorical questions have no place – but we need to develop strong, forward-looking answers to simple and sometimes ill-informed questions. Those answers need to concentrate on building a positive case for target shooting that stands on its own merits. Sadly, in this day and age, facts do not go half as far as making people feel happy about something.
8. We need to build awareness of PR and marketing techniques. Looking at the Offensive Weapons Bill going through Parliament now: when Labour is losing they start to shriek about the “gun lobby”. That is a deliberately loaded phrase used to conjure up images of heartless Americans profiting from dead babies (of course that’s total bullshit, but this is political communication we’re talking about here). We need rifle clubs themselves to start engaging with the press, with civic society, with local politicians and with the wider general public. We need to get out there and invite MPs – even the hostile ones from hostile political parties – to our ranges and our dinners and events, while being as crushingly polite and well-mannered as we can possibly be so no-one can turn around and accuse us of being spittle-flecked lunatics. We need to bring along local churches, mosques, synagogues, Women’s Institutes, Rotary clubs, Scouts, Guides and all those kinds of organised pastimes. We need to throw our doors open and show the world that we are just ordinary people with a fun hobby that can be shared by many more. Even if they don’t share it, at least they’ll understand it’s not much different from playing darts, or golf, or whatever.
9. We also need to develop well-understood strategies for dealing with negative publicity. What do we do if a fellow member of the licensed firearms community breaks the law? What should we do when a reporter rings up out of the blue and asks for comment on something outrageously bad that someone’s done? When your club or association is appearing in the news because a reporter’s made a connection between a member and you, how do you turn that around? We need internal training courses within target shooting on handling these kinds of situations and a well-understood SOP to follow. The NRA’s current approach to this kind of thing is to bury its head, which can occasionally have its merits, while the NSRA does not appear to do this at all. British Shooting appears to have a good understanding of how and why to build a positive public persona around elite Olympic shooters – some of that wisdom could be used at regional or even local level too.
10. Stop relying solely on others. BASC is a countryside lifestyle association. They happen to have a very well resourced firearms law advice department but that does not necessarily mean it is their duty to fight our battles in Westminster, sympathetic as they are to us. You can apply the exact same argument to the Countryside Alliance. If the national governing bodies for target shooting are unwilling to get fully stuck in but are happy to let others do the heavy lifting for them, collar the key people and demand to know why.
Further suggestions are welcome in the comments.
Above all, this is going to mean spending time, effort and money on a long-term aim, and I am not sure the target shooting world really wants to do that. Shooters are not a unified bunch and passively resist any attempts to bring them together. Most target shooters would quite happily see Parliament voting for bans on types of firearm they do not personally use so long as they themselves are left alone. Perhaps doing the things above would help break down those insular little silos – or perhaps not.