Damned Spot

Pistol-Packing Mamas

The spots: “Safe Kids Fund No. 1” and “Safe Kids Fund No. 2,” produced by Ackerman McQueen for the National Rifle Association.

Transcripts: Click for a transcript of “Safe Kids Fund No. 1” and for “Safe Kids Fund No. 2.” 

These two ads are all about the pairing and juxtaposition of four words: “gun,” “safety,” “education,” and “politics.”

Vid 1 Here’s how the NRA sees the political landscape. 1) People want safety. 2) Gun-control advocates say guns are a threat to safety. 3) Gun-control advocates are using this equation to push for restrictive gun laws, which the NRA opposes. 4) Laws promise solutions but involve politics. 5) People like solutions but dislike politics. 6) The generally understood way to achieve solutions without politics is education.

The essential strategy of the NRA ads, therefore, is to connect the word “gun” with the words “safety” and “education,” to substitute the word “politics” for the word “law,” and to juxtapose “education” with “politics.”

Vid 2 The textbook understanding of debates is that you’re supposed to advance, rebut, and defend propositions. What makes each proposition substantive and open to rebuttal is its verb. For example, you’re supposed to argue that guns are safe or that proper education of citizens in the use of firearms obviates the need to seek new gun laws through the political process. But in the real world, persuasion is accomplished just as often through sheer association. You don’t have to say why guns are safe or how the safety of guns can be guaranteed through education. You don’t even have to say that these things are true. All you have to do is repeat the phrase “gun safety education” over and over.

Look at the NRA ads. Each one repeats the phrase “gun safety” five times and the phrase “gun safety education” three times. Each one begins and ends by saying we should set “politics” aside and focus instead on guaranteeing “safe kids” through education.

These phrases implicitly rule out the position of many gun-control advocates—namely, that guns are fundamentally unsafe and that new laws are needed to control them. Once the issue is framed as “gun safety,” the question is narrowed to how—not whether—guns can be owned and used safely. The task is to work with guns, not against them. As for laws and legislation, there is nothing to discuss. There is only the cacophony of “politics,” which is so unpleasant and confusing that you’re better off turning away from it and focusing instead on “education.” As the NRA condescendingly puts it, “You’re going to hear lots of disagreement about gun politics, but we can all agree on gun safety.”

My favorite line in both ads is the part where they say the NRA is demonstrating how to “make a difference” instead of “making arguments.” How cynically, ironically true.


All NRA advertising is basically corporate image advertising. The group has a problem in that a lot of people think its members are fanatics who read the Second Amendment as a license for any person to buy any weapon at any time. This isn’t that far off the truth, but the NRA would rather be thought of as a club for sportsmen and hobbyists who do civic good works on the side, something more akin to the Elks Club or the Shriners.

These two spots are an effort toward that makeover. As you note, they dismiss the very notion that the NRA is interested in “politics”—perish the thought—and avoid specific mention of issues such as trigger locks, the gun shows loophole, or the Million Mom March, which the ads were specifically deployed to counter. Instead, the reasonable-sounding “NRA mother,” Susan Howard, speaks from the hearth. She says she wants to talk “woman to woman” about gun safety and asserts that the NRA “knows how to make kids safe.” Howard and NRA President Charlton Heston then announce that the organization is donating $1 million to teach kids gun safety, and Howard challenges “a million more moms just like you to put up just a dollar each” toward the cause. Adopting the lingo of universal liberalism and the tone of a telethon, she notes in the first ad that “every kid in every school deserves gun safety education, and together, we can make that happen.”

You’re right on target with your comments about the loaded phrases “gun safety” and “gun safety education” (all puns intended). To most rational people, keeping kids safe from guns means keeping kids far away from guns, and guns far away from kids. To the NRA, however, “gun safety” means teaching kids how to use guns without killing someone else they don’t intend to kill. To that end, the NRA seems to be proposing the gun version of after-school driver’s ed. In urban areas in particular, the idea of after-school gun use classes will sound completely mad. But “gun safety” is such an innocuous phrase that it sounds like something to be in favor of. You have to think a minute before you realize that universal gun safety education wouldn’t have done much about the Columbine massacre—except perhaps to ensure that the killers were good marksmen.

Will these ads be effective? I think the answer to the question lies in another question: Has the NRA underestimated the intelligence of the cable-watching public? I’m sure some viewers will pay scant attention, hear the tinkly music, and leave with the subliminal impression that the NRA isn’t so extreme as they thought. Others will think for about three seconds and fully comprehend the wackiness of the NRA’s latest proposal. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on too many moms seeing this ad and sending Ole Moses a dollar.