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Bike Advocacy from the NRA Playbook

by Tom Bowden

Tom BowdenTom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a “suit” – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative – You betcha! He is also a board member of BikeWalk Virginia, a pro cycling and pedestrian group in Virginia that raises money to promote cycling, walking and active lifestyles. Tom’s lawyerly blogging can be found at:
http://vabizlawyers.com/author/tbowden/


Should cycling advocates take their lead from the NRA?

No, I don’t mean by stockpiling ammunition or packing heat in your middle jersey pocket. Or appointing Chuck Heston as our national spokesperson (he’s still dead). And after all, we have Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).*

Charlton Heston on a Bike

Charlton Heston on a Bike during the filming of Arrowhead

I mean their tactics and their strategy. This article by Dan Baum and Leslie Bohm (PDF) describes how the NRA mainstreamed gun ownership and brought the Second Amendment to the forefront of the organization’s message and embedded it deeply in its DNA. Baum and Bohm explain how the NRA made itself the self-appointed guardian not just of gun ownership, but of the American Way of Life.

The NRA existed for 100 years before it became political. After JFK was shot, the agitation for gun controls began. The NRA exploited that moment, and manufactured an interpretation of gun control as anti-American.

A little research reveals that for much of its history, the NRA was a non-controversial association of hunters, target shooters and enthusiasts of various shooting disciplines, not the militant defender of individual rights against the evils of judicial activism, black helicopters and world government — as it is perceived to be now.

There is no denying that the NRA holds tremendous sway with politicians — even the most liberal candidate will have an anecdote or two designed to demonstrate some level of sympathy with the universal right to bear heavy weapons, even if they couldn’t tell an AR15 from an AK47, or a Glock from a Red Ryder.

There is a lesson in there. What is it then? Some insight was offered recently by Bike Commuter boddhisatva Mikael Colville-Anderson, founder of the Slow Cycling Movement, Copenhagen Cycle Chic and inspiration for dozens of sister sites from around the world. In his recent take on the folly of promoting specialized winter cycling gear, he made the following point:

When sub-cultural groups start trying to indoctrinate and convert the public, it rarely ever succeeds.

Colville-Anderson’s message is that cycling should be portrayed like walking — nothing unusual — mainstream. Don’t paint it as extreme, radical, hip or too intellectual. Just ride. Because, fundamentally, most people don’t want to be converted. They don’t want to be told — let alone admit — they’ve been wrong all their lives. Sure, some are drawn to cults and radical lifestyles, but by and large, people want to be normal. So bombarding them with messages extolling radical (or seemingly radical) lifestyle choices that they really, really should make to (a) save the planet (b) please the gods or (c) punish the 1% is probably doomed to failure.

And that’s not what the NRA did.

Instead, their campaigns over the years have blasted away with the normalcy of gun ownership, its inextricable connections and contributions to American history — the good ones anyway  (think “Colt Peacemaker“) — and the downright wholesomeness of straight shootin’ clean livin’ flag lovin’ gun totin’ American Family Values.

You can agree or disagree whether these associations are valid. And you can argue the meaning of the Second Amendment until your high capacity magazine of bullet points is empty, but you cannot deny that the NRA has maintained and increased its power in the face of some mighty challenges — such as multiple presidential assassinations and attempts, and thousands of accidental and criminal gun related deaths and injuries.

Bike advocacy has historically taken a different approach. Lately it seems we tend to define ourselves as a subculture, the kind Colville-Anderson says is doomed to remain on the fringe.

Led on by aggressive marketing of high tech gear, and fueled by a desire to emulate our heroes, like Lance, Greg, Earl and others, we set ourselves apart from the mainstream of society, in our appearance, our attitudes and our statements. We engage in finger-wagging superiority struts that would do the Church Lady proud, and then wonder why people don’t flock to our side.

Charleton Heston as Moses

Cycling Advocates: Thou shall not be haughty.

We say, in effect, if only all you cagers were half as smart as we are, and as unselfish and public-minded, you too would spend all of your excess disposable income to buy clothes that make you look like a candy bar and wear hopelessly impractical shoes while riding to work, heads down, teeth clenched as you monitor your heart rate and ponder the implications of sharrows vs. lanes vs. multi-use paths, or the virtues of SPDs vs Eggbeaters.

“Listen up” we say, “stop worrying about the cost of ground beef and college tuition and ride with us while we save the planet and make the world safe for cyclocross.”

Wow! Sign me up and pass the tofu! Life’s too easy, and this is just what I’ve been looking for! In contrast, the NRA simply portrays guns as a part of everyday life — and for many of their members, they truly are.

The NRA is consistent in its messaging: Guns are good. Guns are patriotic.

We cyclists send mixed messages — we trumpet the health virtues of cycling while we squabble over mandatory helmet laws, because everyone knows, Cycling is dangerous — for Pete’s sake wear a helmet! OMG! If you don”t you”ll splatter your brains all over the road and i’ll have to pay for it in our single payer health care system! (But you’ll have a beautiful corpse and you’ll be a very good organ donor.)

You’ll never hear an NRA spokeperson say “Guns are fun and guns save lives, but always wear your kevlar vest when you shoot — ricochets can kill!” No, they teach their members how to operate their guns safely — it’s all about “muzzle control” and “a gun is always loaded.”

Responsibility is placed squarely on the shoulders of the shooter to be safe, not to take precautions of marginal value against the possibility of being reckless and stupid, or the remote chance of vehicular homicide.

Have you ever wondered why bikes have labels that say “Cycling is inherently dangerous and involves risk of serious injury or death — always wear a helmet!” but guns have no similar labeling? What would it say? Don’t point this gun at your head or your children?

I think the NRA wisely chooses not to emphasize the negatives or belabor the obvious. Instead, they have slogans like, Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. For cyclists, that would be something like, Bikes aren’t dangerous; cars are dangerous to cyclists, pedestrians and other motorists.

Bullseye! Why terrorize the victims and potential members when you can change the behavior of the true source of danger? (I think someone actually said that at the Bike Summit last year.)

One challenge to cyclists in adopting NRA style tactics is that we have so many organizations. The NRA, whether by luck or design, was pretty much the only game in town at a national level, to my knowledge. That helps them control the message and the debate. Cyclists have the League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong, the Alliance for Biking and Walking, (For guns I guess the equivalent would be the NARAB — the National Alliance for Rifles and Aboriginal Blowguns), NORBA, USA Cycling, Ultra Marathon Cycling Association, and others. Not exactly monolithic. I think that’s a problem for us.

Bohm and Baum conclude by saying “…cyclists might be able to be recruited as the vanguard of the campaign to save the planet from climate change, urban congestion, overweight children, and so on.” That’s a misfire in my judgment. Those are worthy aims, but they are too specific and even controversial.

The NRA avoids the specifics. It’s all about “heritage” “values” and “citizenship.” As they correctly point out:

The NRA doesn’t talk much about guns. They connect directly to what guns stand for. They elevate their campaign to rest on many unassailable American values.

That’s good strategy.

So what can cycling advocates learn from all this? Is there value in the NRA’s playbook? I think there is, but not so much that we should emulate them too closely. For example, the author talks about being willing to engage in the politics of resentment. I think he’s off-target there too; it doesn’t ring true to me and I don’t think that’s what the NRA does.

The important lesson is to stay on the main messages — the ones most people can accept.

  • Bikes are good for America! Let people make their own assumptions why.
  • Bikes solve problems! Just let people decide which ones they care about.
  • Bikes are fun! But let the riders decide how and where they like to ride.
  • Bikes are healthy! And riders can decide if they are interested in weight loss or improving their half-ironman times.
  • Bikes are safe! And let people make their own judgment how much protection they need based on the riding they do.

Maybe by adopting and adapting these limited lessons from the NRA, we can avoid the perpetually marginal subculture trap that Colville-Anderson has identified. As we set our sights on the upcoming National Bike Summit, I suggest that we in the bike advocacy community keep the NRA’s example in mind. What do you say we give it a shot?


*Congressman Earl: Love you Man! I was just kidding — after all, the editor of Commute by Bike took a little swing at my congressman so I couldn’t resist.


Thanks to Diane Lees, The Outspoken Cyclist, for the tip about the Baum and Bohm article.

Leslie Bohm is the Chief of Everything at Catalyst Communication, and provided his permission to publish his article.

Dan Baum is a writer currently working on a book about the NRA.

 
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30 Responses to “Bike Advocacy from the NRA Playbook”

  1. FellowRichmonder says:

    I’m having a hard time deciphering what you’re arguing here. It seems (emotional appeals) – (details) = WIN!, followed by “Cars are dangerous, so don’t worry about wearing a helmet.” Forgive me if I don’t care to have a Ted Nugent analog as the face of bicycle commuting.

  2. Mark says:

    Besides bike riding, I am also a member of the NRA. Excellent advice!

  3. Tom, this is excellent.

  4. Tom Bowden says:

    Mark, Richard, thanks! Hope this helps frame things in a useful way.

  5. Interesting.

    I have to say I often find distasteful the kind of disingenuousness that PR campaigns like this embody: the whole truth be damned, details be damned, complexities be damned.

    But, yeah, apparently they work. And I guess this is what PR is all about. I guess I should focus on the ends and not get hung up on the means.

    And I suppose it can’t be much worse than the sanctimonious messages we sometimes hear from bike advocates. As you say, if the goal is making bikes-on-the-road “normal” sanctimony is not effective.

  6. Rick Bartels says:

    Very nice write up, thanks Tom

  7. Sheryl says:

    Well said Tom,
    Although I’d change it to people driving cars are dangerous….
    And make it Bicycling is good for America, … Bicycling is fun…. Bicycling is safe …

  8. mwmike says:

    Every NRA member I’ve ever met has been an extreme, right wing, tea-publican, nut job. Nothing in common with the cool, compassionate, environmentally responsible cyclists I know and love.

  9. Tom Bowden says:

    Mwmike- I fear you have missed the point. I am not defending the NRA. I am talking about how to be effective advocates for cycling. I might just as well have chosen PETA or the ACLU, but actually I think the NRA has been more effective, like it or not.

  10. The DangerousElf says:

    I’m not trying to insult you, but you really need to get past helmets; a helmet won’t do SQUAT against a car! Helmets are designed to resist the impact of falling to the ground at 11-12mph, that’s ALL.

    CARS aren’t dangerous, DRIVERS are; that’s more in-line with the NRA anyway (“guns don’t kill, people kill”).

    We just have the Mt. Everest to climb — that of convincing America that they don’t individually own the roads….

    • Ted Johnson says:

      As much as I love tweaking the helmet haters of the world, and watching their predictable apoplectic performance whenever someone says “helmet,” I think you misunderstood — completely misunderstood — Tom’s point about helmets. Try reading the passage about helmets again, and when you get to the passage in italics, switch into a mocking voice.

  11. Tom Bowden says:

    Elf – not sure if your comment is directed at me, but I am with you on the helmet thing. I only raised it to show how confusing our message can be when we talk about safety and health on the one hand while overemphasizing certain risks on the other, and then proposing “feel-good” solutions (e.g. wearing plastic popcorn/tupperware hats to protect us from 4000 pound automobiles).

  12. JohninSD says:

    mwmike;

    How do you know when you’ve met an NRA member? Do they wear special insignia? I have many friends who have expressed surprise when they find out that I’m an NRA Life member and have been for 30 years – it’s not something that comes up in conversation all that often. You have probably met more than one NRA member without realizing it – we can “pass” as normal in many ways.

  13. Tom Bowden says:

    And when cyclists become mainstream (again) to the point where no one knows you’re a cyclist, or it is so ordinary that no one cares, we will have succeeded.

  14. Tom Bowden says:

    Of course at that point, what will there be to blog about? Will it be as much fun to be a bike commuter, or are we all a little bit caught up in the subculture, and like it that way?

  15. Ted Johnson says:

    Tom,

    When cycling becomes mainstream, it will be like cars, shoes, or underwear.

    There will still be some people who are really into their bikes — just like some people are really into cars, shoes, or underwear and want to write about them, and look at photos, and read magazines.

    The rest of the mainstream will have their preferences — or not — about bikes, but will largely take them for granted.

  16. Eddie says:

    I don’t think too many gun owners, even enthusiasts, identify as being part of a subculture — at least not openly!

    OTOH many cyclists do. I’m glad they love cycling, and that we have this in common. But bike advocates who wear bicycling as part of their anti-establishment clown costume aren’t helping us any.

    This includes a lot of the VC-only, anti-bike-lane-and-path crowd.

  17. Dan Koach says:

    Tom,
    As a reader of Mikael Colville-Anderson’s blog, I think you have hit on the talking bullets that we bike advocates in America need to stay on topic without getting preachy. I agree with Sheryl, change bike to bicycling.

  18. On the one hand I disagree, as I am very much of the “Just Ride” Camp to a certain extent. It is true that people don’t want to be told they are wrong….They could care less if I ride my bike year round, and sold my car. They just really don’t.

    On the other hand I agree. I am involved in cycling “advocacy” on a local level, and think it is vital to encourage kids and families to get on bikes.

    The NRA has it figured out, yes, and perhaps we can learn from them. But first I think the petty differences that keep all of the cycling organizations apart would need to disappear. I wonder, which of the existing cycling organizations would be the first to dare and submit to a larger more powerful “all being” or “Best for all” type of organization???

  19. There is something missing from this thesis. The Dutch were able to develop their strong people centred cycle culture and transport system because of the strong sense of injustice to the creeping dominance of the motor vehicle.
    http://cyclingauckland.co.nz/general/2012/01/the-ingredients-necessary-to-make-a-vibrant-cyclized-city-have-been-identified/
    Dutch communities were galvanised over their desire to chose how they travelled and to be able to do it safely. People power. Everyday people. Not small groups of ‘enthusiasts’.

  20. OzarkPeddler says:

    Tom, I think you have a well written argument here, and of course I like your song because I am a member of the bicycling choir. I hope you are right, but there is one very significant problem with arguing that bikes are as natural an American experience as guns. Please understand I do not even own a firearm, but I do have bicycles for many purposes. The problem I see with believing that we can use the NRA approach as effectively as they have, is that guns have a longer history in the American psyche than bikes. Private ownership of guns, not bicycles, played a role in our national independence. For at least three centuries, guns, not bicycles, played a key part in the average American family’s ability to put protein on the table. Guns, not bicycles, are remembered (rightly or wrongly) for protecting us from tyrants, marauders, wild beasts and starvation. That history goes back a long way and is drilled in us deep. Bicycles do not enjoy such a history. Their adoption into the American culture is relatively recent and generally as a recreational toy for children. That is the place bikes reside in the average American’s psyche. I so wish you were right, I am just not sure…

  21. Tom Bowden says:

    OzarkPeddler

    You are quite right – guns go way back. Bikes pre-date cars though.

  22. Jennifer says:

    When people who haven’t ridden a bike in a while actually get on one again, they find it’s “fun.” I think the goal here is just getting people on them again – make them fun, flirty, and fashionable (okay, this is from a chick’s perspective.) Things fall into place from there; it’s just not going to happen over night. :)

  23. I agree. Too much selling of bicycling as transportation focuses on being green, reducing one’s carbon footprint, how to be safe on a bike, share the road, etc. Those things are important to me but I wouldn’t have committed to bike commuting had it not been fun and fashionable. I needed to see images of people on bikes that I wanted to identify with. Looking like a gear geek, covered with 25 red blinky lights and reflective tape doesn’t really inspire me. A photo of a neatly dressed person pedaling down an urban neighborhood street with a bike basket filled with bagettes and a bottle of wine does. Sex sells.

    I was also motivated by the economic benefits of being able to sell one of our cars, leaving more money for savings, bills and entertainment.

  24. Drew says:

    I agree. The more that bicycling is seen as a normal activity, the more it should catch on with the general public. I live in the suburbs and when I chose to ride my bike to get someplace, I often feel like I have to give an explaination for why I didn’t just drive my car. Riding a bike for transportation is just not viewed as normal in my community.

    I listened to the interview that Ted was on, highlighted a few posts ago:
    http://www.commutebybike.com/2012/01/09/ted-johnson-me-on-the-outspoken-cyclist/
    I liked his idea about getting a celebrity to show up to an awards show by bike. I’d think that would have some positive impact on the way many people think about bikes as a mode of transportation.

  25. A, Ruston says:

    Calling Colville-Anderson a bodhisattva is an insult to Buddhists everywhere.

    Furthermore, Colville-Anderson is certainly not in a position to criticize sub-cultural groups trying to indoctrinate and convert the public. His trademarked brand identity is built around the premise that tweedy-pie fashionista cyclists are morally superior to everybody. Sub-cultural group anyone?

  26. Jake Helmboldt says:

    Ozark, how many more people own bicycles than guns? Even if they don’t routinely ride them, or use them only for recreation in the neighborhood?

    Bikes are arguably more mainstream than guns, even though “cycling” isn’t mainstream. And why is that? Because it has become defined by the niche, esoteric elements of “cycling”.

    The Dutch analogy above is actually what Tom’s point is getting at; the Dutch became appalled that autos had come to dominate the transportation landscape and resulted in death, congestion, etc, especially among kids (deaths that is). It was antithetical to their democratic and human nature. So they mainstreamed bicycling. That is precisely what I aim to do through my professional work. I refer to it as the normalization of bicycling. In America we should be incensed that we no longer have the FREEDOM to select our choice of safe mobility; that our kids must rely upon parents to take them to every single activity, friend’s house, etc because they can’t walk or bike beyond their own street. As a society we are starting to understand that, but bicycing is still seen by many in power as a special interest because they view it through the Toy Bike Syndrom prism.

  27. Steve says:

    Really? Every single one? Not just one or two but all of them? How many have you met? How many have you met but didn’t know about their NRA membership? How many people have you struck up a conversation with on a plane or at the grocery store were NRA members and you just don’t know it. Open your mind and try not to be so negative about what other people like to do in their spare time.

  28. WmLowe says:

    I agree with your underlying premise, that biking should be viewed as a normal part of everyday life, not as a fringe activity, and should be a normal, regular part of transit planning. The NRA analogy also has some power; they’ve done a good job. But let’s not forget that (1) the right to bear arms is a right explicitly stated in the Constitution, and (2) those who would infringe upon that right are attacking not just guns, but the founding principles of the Republic. In other words, the NRA is fighting against change, not for it, and they have an enemy (over-reaching government) that can be painted in sensational, anti-democratic colors. I suspect that our fight — the fight for cycling — can learn from certain NRA tactics, but that our overall approach will need to be fundamentally different.

  29. eworthi says:

    I like the premise. A commentor (sorry, typing on my phone and can’t properly reference )noted that instead of BIKES ARE GOOD FOR AMERICA it should be CYCLING IS GOOD FOR AMERICA and although I agree that is better, I would suggest that an even closer to the premise of the post slogan would be BIKES ARE AMERICAN. And the picture on the poster that bears this title would be of Paul Newman riding Catherine Ross on the handlebars of that bike from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid film. Now that image and slogan capture the essence of this piece. But the problem is that the politically correct police (of which the bicycling crowd has many) would jump on the fact that they don’t have helmets and that she is in an unsafe position.
    Someone else commented (again I apologize for not referencing ) that until Americans learn that the road is not theirs “individually ” we will not adopt cycling, and this is completely illogical, not to mention unAmerican . To follow the NRA we must proudly declare that it is precisely because the road IS mine that I get to bike on it.
    One more thing. We have a unique opportunity with this generation as they are not interested in cars like when I was their age, they do not see cars as expressions of themselves, from the pick up truck to the muscle car the notion of the car as extension of the self is waning. Seize this moment by selling the idea that the bicycle is the extension of self and that it is from a time before cars, that embracing cycling is to welcome a calmer way of life.

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