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Targeting Fear : NRA Ad Uses L.A. Riots to Attack Gun Control and Attract New Members

September 04, 1992|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ad shoots for the gut and hits like a hollow-tipped slug from a .357 magnum.

"AS VIOLENT MOBS ADVANCED, police were ordered to retreat," it reads. "TERRIFIED AND ABANDONED, L.A. citizens raced to gun stores to buy firearms to protect themselves. But their GOVERNMENT HAD ABANDONED them years ago."

Accentuated with full-color photos of burning buildings and faceless looters, the National Rifle Assn. of America's four-page advertisement, carried in the September issues of 28 magazines, makes its point bluntly: "We said gun control is wrong, and L.A. PROVES IT."

Laid out like a cut-and-paste ransom note, the ad targets readers' worst urban fears. Frightened citizens who hoped to buy guns during the riots were turned away, it says, but "the criminals were denied nothing, waited for nothing. . . . They killed who they wanted, stole what they wanted, vandalized what wasn't stolen, and burned to the ground what was left."

Jim Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, says the ads are aimed at those among the nation's estimated 60 million gun owners who have not joined the 2.9 million people already in the ranks of the NRA.

"It's a wake-up call to American gun owners who are not involved and not active in efforts to preserve their rights," he said.

Gun control advocates, predictably, view the ads differently.

"It's classic NRA, trying to exploit serious, maybe dangerous situations," said Gwen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the Washington-based lobbying group Handgun Control.

". . . It appeals to your emotions. You read this thing and think, 'Gee, maybe I'd better get a gun too.' (But) there is nothing here to make someone say 'Hey, wait a minute, 12 kids are killed a day in America with guns, 18,000 people a year commit suicide with firearms.' People do not need to make a decision about buying a gun in such an emotional, frantic situation."

In May, the NRA ran similar ads in selected newspapers, which wondered "how many neighborhoods weren't terrorized, property wasn't destroyed and people weren't killed because countless thousands of L.A. citizens armed themselves in lawful self-defense under the constitutional protection of the 2nd Amendment?"

The new ad, appearing in a narrow range of special-interest publications--American Hunter, Field & Stream, Handgunning, Police, Progressive Farmer and Western Outdoors, to name a few--hits readers with even grimmer questions: "Must your flesh and blood be maimed? Must your livelihood be looted? Must all you've built be torn down?"

Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles finds the ads "unconscionable."

"It's unbelievable that they would use a situation like the recent rebellion here in an attempt to increase the sales of guns, which are already skyrocketing," he said.

In the month after the riots, more than 58,000 guns were purchased statewide--a 20-year record, according to the California Department of Justice. In Los Angeles County, handgun sales jumped from 8,143 in the month before the riots to 15,160 in the month after.

A similiar surge in gun ownership occurred in the wake of the urban unrest that swept the nation in the 1960s, said Josh Horowitz, legal counsel for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "And we've seen the handgun homicide rate skyrocket since then," he said.

"The NRA's whole notion is that guns are going to make us safe, and they really just contribute to the problem."

But the NRA's ads are not aimed at anti-gun people. Nor do they claim to be balanced.

"There is another side to the (gun ownership) argument that you can make that's not in this advertisement. But that's not what advertisements are for," says David Stewart, a marketing professor at USC who is not connected to the NRA ad campaign.

"To evoke fear and then say, 'This is what you can do about it,' has a real powerful appeal," Stewart said. "My guess is that it will be a pretty effective ad."

The NRA has experienced an ongoing 10% increase in membership since the riots, Baker said. The effectiveness of the new campaign, he said, will be judged by how many prospective members call a toll-free phone number listed in the ad, and by less easily measured criteria, such as increased gun-owner activism.

As for charges that the ads exploit and sensationalize the tragedy of the riots, Baker counters: "It was a dramatic thing that happened. To describe it in less than dramatic terms is less than realistic."

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