The National Rifle Association has found that its message -- loving freedom means loving guns -- translates into almost every language
The ad starts with a sober, simulated news report. A news anchor, looking directly into the camera, warns viewers about Brazil's proposed gun ban. "People are misrepresenting the disarmament issue," she says. "It won't disarm criminals." The anchor fades and a news-on-the-march montage begins, highlighting freedom's red-letter days. Nelson Mandela is released from prison. A single man impedes a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall falls. "Your rights are at risk," says the anchor, returning after the inspiring film clips. "Don't lose your grip on liberty." And then, to bring the message home, archival footage runs of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets, restoring popular rule after more than two decades of dictatorship.
The ad was the first in a series that aired on Brazilian prime-time television last October, when both sides of the country's gun control debate engaged in a heated exchange about the future of gun laws in South America's largest democracy. Proponents of the gun ban proposed outlawing the commercial sale of arms and ammunition to civilians, capping a series of controls enacted in recent years. Unless you were a police officer, a soldier, or a private security guard, you wouldn't be allowed to acquire a gun or the bullets to fire one. The idea was promoted by nongovernmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro and S√£o Paulo, adopted by two presidential administrations, and then delayed for years due to the lobbying efforts of Brazil's arms manufacturers. Finally, it was to come to a vote, the first time any country held a popular referendum on gun laws.
But Brazil's gun poll was never just about Brazil. Brazil was merely the most recent battleground state in a raging global debate over gun rights. A week before the vote, the London-based International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), which represents more than 500 gun control organizations worldwide, coordinated an international day of support for the Brazilian ban. Demonstrations took place in Britain, Italy, South Africa, and Turkey, among other countries. Passage of the ban, IANSA said, would "reinforce the movement in favor of gun control in other Latin American countries riddled with armed violence, and back the efforts to control private gun ownership at [an] international level."
Polling numbers heading into the last month of the campaign gave gun control advocates every reason to be optimistic. As late as mid-September, support for the proposed ban was running at 73 percent, thanks in part to the backing of the federal government, the Roman Catholic Church, and Globo TV, a large media conglomerate. Yet, when Brazilians went to the mandatory polls on October 23, they handed the international gun control movement one of its most stinging defeats, rejecting the ban by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. The number of civilians in Brazil who legally own a gun is estimated to be only about 2 million. In other words, some 59 million Brazilians voted to preserve a prerogative the vast majority of them will never enjoy.
Spreading the word -- quietly
It hasn't worked for just the Americans, of course. During the last couple decades, the NRA has assisted gun rights advocates in fighting anti-gun legislation in Australia, Britain, and Canada. Australia was one of the NRA's earliest foreign venues, and where it made the biggest impact.
In the early 1990s, as Australia began tightening its gun control laws, the head of the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia (SSAA) twice visited the NRA's headquarters outside Washington, D.C., to absorb lobbying and public relations know-how. (The NRA picked up $20,000 worth of his travel expenses.) In return, in 1992, the Australians welcomed then NRA President Robert Corbin, who embarked on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. Corbin met privately with pro-gun interests and gave media interviews. Part of his objective was to soften the violent image of the American gun lobby among the Australian public. Still, he was anything but delicate when encouraging Australian gun advocates to adopt hardball political tactics, if they cared about keeping their weapons. "They call us the Evil Empire and they hate us," Corbin said of the NRA's opponents. "But we win."
As was the case in Brazil, the Australian visit helped catalyze the country's gun rights movement, but to a more obvious extent. The Australian group launched its own legislative action institute in 1993, inspired by the NRA's lobbying arm. Australian gun owners even organized the Australian Shooters Party, and in 1995 won a seat in the New South Wales state parliament -- reportedly the only legislator in the world elected solely on a pro-gun platform.
Yet the NRA's Australian excursion did little to endear itself to the Australian public at large. Their link to the NRA has marked the Sporting Shooters' Association for easy criticism, especially in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, where a man shot and killed 35 people at a tourist area in Tasmania. "The general public only sees what's in the media," says Jeanine Baker, president of the SSAA's South Australia chapter, "and usually that's the extreme side of the NRA." Baker doesn't believe the NRA is extreme, but "outspoken" -- because it has to be, she says.
Some uneasiness about NRA influence cropped up in Canada in 2001, when some gun owners there became concerned about the association's close ties to the Canadian Institute for Legislative Action (CILA), another gun lobby modeled on the NRA's lobbying arm. In an e-mail to members, Executive Director Tony Bernardo justified the relationship. The NRA, he said, was "instrumental in the formation of CILA" and provides "tremendous amounts of logistic support." He added that, although the NRA's charter prevented it from providing money, "[t]hey freely give us anything else."
The Canadian link is still close. In December, an NRA official was scheduled to offer a "legislative training workshop" at the annual meeting of CILA's parent organization. "How do we protect our rights?" went the promo for the event. "By being more politically active and effective at the grassroots [level]. And who better to show us how than the most powerful lobby group in the world, the National Rifle Association and their Institute for Legislative Action."