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Here’s The Playbook Organizers Are Using As They Scheme To Take Down The NRA


If you’re not an organizer, and you’re not the kind of weirdo who reads Lefty organizing manuals so you can write book reports on Twitter, it’s easy to get the impression that the current campaign against the NRA and gun manufacturers came together on the fly. But it didn’t. These campaigns never do.

The strategy has been carefully researched, and it’s being executed now because the political moment is favorable. But the tendency of the press to write about activism as if it’s magic doesn’t help the public understand what’s happening. It’s as if a Bizarro edition of THE GALLIC WARS didn’t mention Caesar much and just noted Gauls dropping dead for apparently no reason at all.

Organizing isn’t magic, but it doesn’t work the way conspiracy theorists think it does, either. The decisions of Delta Airlines and other companies to drop their NRA discounts, and of REI to part ways with Vista Outdoor, is the result of a planned campaign that was designed using a tool called spectrum of allies analysis. You can best understand it by looking at an image; the diagram looks a little like a speedometer, and it’s divided into five categories: active opponents, passive opponents, neutrals, passive allies, and active allies. The illustration shown here is Joshua Kahn Russell’s, from the excellent Lefty organizing toolkit “Beautiful Trouble” (available in book form or online).

The way spectrum of allies analysis works is that you categorize people and groups by where they stand in relation to you and your target on whatever issue it is you’re working on. Active opponents are against you, and fighting you. Passive opponents are against you, but they’re not fighting you. Neutrals are neither against or for you. Passive allies are with you, but they’re not fighting for you. Active allies are with you and are fighting for you.

The point of spectrum of allies analysis is figuring out who you can move one notch. Who can you move toward you? Who can you move away from your enemy? And how do you make sure you don’t push people away from you? You’re not trying to convert everybody to your exact position. All you’re trying to do now is move them *just one notch.*

As the group New Tactics for Human Rights notes, the way you approach somebody to move them a notch depends on which group they’re in. If they’re an active ally, they are already with you and fighting for you, fantastic. Engage them and fight the enemy together. If they’re a passive ally, get them to become active. Give them opportunities to rise to the occasion. If they’re neutral, inform or educate them toward becoming passive allies. If they’re passive opponents, give them reason to worry their position may cost them — but do this carefully; you want them to move to neutral, but backlash could motivate them to become active opponents.

It’s hard to shift active opponents, because they usually have a good reason to oppose you. So make it clear that anything they do against you will cost them. Convince them not to act, making them passive opponents. If you can’t do that, then isolate them.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Because you’ve seen this a million times before, you just didn’t know the name for it. Once you know about spectrum of allies analysis, you start to see it everywhere.

Now that you know how spectrum of allies analysis works, look at the situation through the eyes of people using it. They want to weaken the NRA by divesting it of allies. So first they figure out who the NRA’s allies are, and they figure out which ones are passive allies who can be moved to neutral. Companies giving the NRA discounts are passive allies to the NRA, and passive opponents to gun control activists. So the activists’ goal is to get the companies to drop this discount: ie, move them from passive allies of the NRA to neutral. (Making them passive opponents of the NRA is for a future campaign.)

The hardest part of this request is getting the companies to go against their existing precedent. But it’s not like NRA members really use discounts much. Nobody joins the NRA for a discount, so members forget they’re there. Meaning when the companies look in their books, they see no strong material argument against it. The concession takes no effort and, the companies think, costs them nothing. And, of course, it avoids the activists making a nasty campaign against the company in question. So that’s a small thing.

But it’s not. Because if it works, the activists have a precedent. So now it’s easier to go to the next guy and request a disavowal: “Why won’t you? He did!” Once disavowal becomes a trend, it’s easier to get a disavowal than not.

The disavowal didn’t work out as expected in the case of Delta. USA Today reported that only 13 people ever used the NRA discount, and dropping it cost Delta a $40 million tax break. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see lawfare, or an attempt at it, against the revocation of the tax break, the larger issue is that most companies with NRA discounts are not as vulnerable as Delta was. This is in large part because, unlike the activists, the NRA and its members haven’t done months of research to know what the targets’ weaknesses to pressure are.

That’s right: months. Activists have been researching firearms companies, finding ones vulnerable to pressure, finding out who their parent companies are. The research is careful and takes time. That’s how this stuff is done: preparation, preparation, PREPARATION, then carefully staged release, usually on a calendar. (Literally: in planning an action, activists typically pick out a date and then work backwards.) Or, as we’re seeing here, you can develop plans and hold them in reserve, for use when the political moment is favorable.

The recent announcement that Lyft will provide free rides to the March For Our Lives is the outcome of another use of spectrum of allies analysis. Lyft didn’t just decide to do that on their own. They were asked, and asked carefully, and the people asking knew the people they asked were, on this particular issue, passive allies needing only a push — or an opportunity.

It pays to be familiar with activists’ analytical tools.  Spectrum of allies analysis isn’t the only one. Turn the tools against yourself or your organization, so if you’re subject of an activist attack, you’ll get an idea of where the attack is likely to come from. Don’t get caught blind.

If all this stuff sounds almost military to you, that’s because it is. Don’t think of activism as “that dumb stuff the other guys do.” Think of it as a non-violent army. Because that’s what it is. Activism is unarmed coercion, and this is what nonviolent military science looks like.

Organizing isn’t a stupid waste of time. It isn’t paid protestors. And it isn’t people who don’t have jobs. It’s hard work done by hard workers. Respect it.

And learn to know it when you see it.