Bike Advocacy from the NRA Playbook

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:

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.

Post navigation