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Target Audiences of Gun-Control Ad War Reveal Each Side's Strategy

President Takes Message to People, While NRA Goes for Base--and Politicians

By Published on .

The tussle over gun control is looking more and more like a political-campaign-style advertising war, complete with attack ads.

Indeed, after an earlier ad from the National Rifle Association struck out at President Barack Obama, one of the gun-control players took out a local Super Bowl ad in the Washington D.C. market showing NRA president Wayne LaPierre arguing for mandatory background checks.

But aside from headline-grabbing attack ads, what is more interesting is the strategic approach of the two sides. Each side in the high-stakes debate is targeting distinct audiences and using different tactics, analysts say. Mr. Obama, for example, is largely bypassing Congress and reaching out to the public hoping to use them to influence lawmakers.

"He knows that if the American people get behind him, then those who are fearful of the gun lobby will be less so," said Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Political Communication and Civic leadership.

Vice President Joe Biden is planning campaign-style events across the nation. The White House is blasting e-mails urging Americans to call their representatives and senators and tell them to support gun control. Mr. Obama is expected to outline his initiatives at his State of the Union address Feb. 12.

"We can only do what the American people allow us to do," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a White House ally on gun control.

Another presidential ally, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ran a national 30-second spot on cable on the one-month anniversary of the Dec. 14 Newtown, Conn., massacre. It was titled "Families of Gun Violence Victims Demand a Plan."

In the ad, unidentified family members say loved ones have been "murdered with a gun" and "it could happen to your child." Someone says "a line has been crossed in Newtown," the town where 20 children and six of their teachers were gunned down. Others urge viewers to contact members of Congress and "demand a plan to reduce gun violence."

"Washington needs to hear your voice," a family member of a shooting victim says.

Mayors Against Gun Violence also ran a much more targeted campaign, airing its ad in districts of lawmakers who might be persuaded to change their minds about gun control.

According to an Advertising Age analysis, the ad ran in the districts of four Democrats who've received support from the NRA but ran afoul of the gun group when they voted against holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over the "Fast and Furious" program—Reps. Michael Michaud of Maine, Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico.

The gun-control group ran in markets where there have been mass shootings another ad, featuring Roxanna Green, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who was killed by a gunman in Tucson, Ariz. In it, she says: "I have one question for our political leaders: When will you find the courage to stand up to the gun lobby? Whose child has to die next?"

Mayors Against Gun Violence also produced a public-service announcement featuring more than 50 celebrities, including Conan O'Brien, John Hamm, Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyonce and Jennifer Anniston, urging viewers to say "enough" to gun violence.

Another gun-control group, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, ran print ads in North Dakota newspapers criticizing newly elected Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp after she expressed doubts about Mr. Obama's proposals.

The NRA has adopted a different strategy. It's messaging includes a hard-line stance against any change in federal gun laws, an insistence the Second Amendment is in peril and a call to arm school teachers and school guards. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre summarizes the gun-rights stance with a slogan "the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun."

That message is aimed at warning its supporters in Congress against any moves toward increased gun control. It's meant to rally members and curry favor with gun manufacturers who support the NRA financially, said Mr. Parry-Giles.

The NRA has been condemned for a video calling Mr. Obama a hypocrite for protecting his children with armed guards. However, Secret Service agents have always provided protection for a president's children.

NRA lobbyist Jim Baker split with the group over the incendiary video.

But Mr. Parry-Giles said it may be successful in getting the president to pull back. "He's the most important audience, and they're making it personal," she said.

The NRA's tactics may already be bearing fruit. The president and his congressional allies seem to be stepping back from some of their more ambitious proposals—the reinstatement of a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazine cartridges that expired in 2004.

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