Yesterday evening, I attended an event in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, entitled “Transforming the Gun Debate.” The panel discussion was fascinating, including a talk by Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia’s 11th Congressional District. I’ve got more video, but for now, I wanted to focus on one point Rep. Connolly made that’s crucial to winning (or losing) the debate on guns, or really on any issue. According to Rep. Connolly, the key is that, no matter what percentage of people say they are on your side, “intensity matters.” Connolly tells a fascinating story that illustrates this point extremely well. Here’s a transcript of his remarks, with bolding added by me for emphasis of key points.
The other calculation is intensity, what mobilizes people? Let me take my district. Poll after poll in my district says we favor reasonable gun control. But is anybody in my district sufficiently intense about that issue that this is dispositive for them, and they’re going to show up and so forth?
I once sponsored a hearing in Fairfax, and it was simply to amend our ordinance so that it would be illegal to drive around in the county with a loaded shotgun on the back of your car. That’s all. We advertised the hearing, it was televised. I show up…and we have 500 seats in the auditorium at the government center, every single seat was filled, and there was a waiting line to get in, every single person seated was wearing camouflage and had their NRA notice. Not a single citizen on our side of the issue, not one, in a county with 1 million people, showed up, not one good guy even strayed into the room.
Now, what was the lesson? We had a majority on the board to vote for this ordinance change until that happened. And they looked and saw it, and they thought, I may do the right thing, and people might in theory agree with it, but they’re never going to vote on this issue. THEY are, but our people aren’t. And we had to withdraw the amendment, and that’s the last we ever talked about it.
Intensity matters, what moves people to vote. I know, on the other side, many of them it’s a single issue and it’s going to move them to vote, and I’d rather not rile them up. And I know I’m not going to rile you people up…We have to change the calculus and the dynamic; if we do, you’re going to see a significant shift in public opinion and in legislative action in America.
So, there you have it: even if 80% of people agree with you on an issue, it doesn’t matter if they don’t DO anything. If the people on “our” side don’t speak up, don’t get involved and organized, while people on the “other” side do all those things, guess who’s going to win that fight? That’s right, the 20% (or 10% or whatever) passionate minority. That’s what Rep. Connolly’s saying here, and it’s a lesson we all should pay close attention to.