Duck, cover and deflect: notes on defending the indefensible

4:53 pm on 16 February 2018

Mass shootings are now so commonplace in America that gun advocates get lots of practice at deflecting the debate away from solutions, and even profiting from it, writes Phil Smith

People wait for loved ones as they are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting.

People wait for loved ones as they are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP

Sometimes it's worth putting aside the narrative of a tragic event, and noticing the themes and tactics that play out around it.

After yet another mass shooting at a US school yesterday, I want to outline some of the strategies you may notice in the developing coverage of this news story.

And to make it simple, let's pretend that you are a gun advocate and that I'm a particularly soulless political advisor.

In that light, below are some notes for your political responses to a mass shooting

Shock and sympathy

Publicly express shock and horror as soon as possible. Make sure you look proactive. You've 'been in touch with law enforcement', you're 'monitoring the situation', you're 'offering assistance'. You want to appear to offer leadership and decisiveness even if you're just planning on a quiet round of golf.

People reach for religion when their world spins out of control, so show you're their kind of person and reference God. For example, say your 'prayers are with the victims'. Expressing sympathy helps you not appear heartless.

The useful of 'evil'

Make sure to equate the shooter and/or the actions with 'evil'. This contrasts with your 'prayers' comment to give the impression that the shooter is the antithesis of you and all you stand for.

Calling something 'evil' also places it beyond your control; something that only God could have prevented. Any measures to prevent such crimes are pointless in the face of divine mysteries.


Quoting scripture helps with the 'we are in the hands of God' message. The subconscious message is 'what point is policy development if we rely on the grace of Jesus'.

In the first day or two post-shooting I recommend the quotes are uplifting and vague. Later you can quote verses like 1 Samuel 25:13 "Every man strap on his sword" if they become uesful.

Is this tragedy a political gift?

After showing sympathy - consider whether the shooting can fit a useful narrative? For example is the shooter Muslim, or an immigrant? If so, use the event as evidence for your favourite policy (stronger borders, anti-immigration, etc).

Make sure to preface all attacks with a focus on the blameless victims. 'It is our duty to prevent more innocent deaths by…'

In the current anti-Mueller/FBI atmosphere you may want to use any shooting to attack the FBI. Could they have done more? Are they ineffective? Do they need reform? Sowing ideas by asking questions is enough.

Images from the shooter's social media accounts show him wearing a Make America Great Again hat.

Images from the shooter's social media accounts show him wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Photo: Supplied

Ignore the weaponry

Guns don't kill people, people do. Even if the shooter's demographic is not useful (i.e. they are white, male, or God forbid, pictured wearing a 'Make America Great Again' hat), focus on the shooter's issues not their demographic.

If possible, focus on the mental health of the victim. It's not that they were a white supremacist, it's that they were unbalanced.

Avoid questions that lead from the shooter's mental health problems to the need for better mental health care. You can shoot that down by saying it is 'politicising a tragedy'.

Blame the victims

This is dangerous but you can intimate that the victims could have prevented the tragedy if only they had only reported the shooter's mental health, or if only they had carried a concealed weapon. Make these deflections oblique, "I wish one of these poor victims had…"

Now is not the time…

This is your most important response. It remains useful for at least a week and certainly until after all the funerals, vigils and memorials.

There are a number of versions to learn:

"I am not focused on politics at this tragic time, I am focused on the victims and their families. Let's not distract from their pain."

"Using this tragedy to talk politics is politicising the pain of these victims."

"Now is not the time to jump to any knee jerk conclusions, we need to wait for all the facts."

Do make sure to be photographed looking sombre while laying flowers or attending a vigil.

Speech Notes

Giving speeches is tricky. You don't want to look like you're taking advantage of a tragedy, but done right it can lend you an air of statesmanship. Speeches should be sombre, patriotic, and utterly unspecific.

'We come together unified in grief and in resolve', 'the ties that bind us are firmer than any who would try to divide", "our belief in God and in America gives us strength", "we honour the martyrs of our freedom", you get the idea.

Selfless and heroic

The easiest way to talk about a shooting tragedy without saying anything is to praise heroes. You can both make the shooting a heroic event, and take the focus off the shooter and their weapons.

If a heroic member of the public is not useful (antagonistic to your message), focus on praising the 'selfless and heroic law enforcement officers who risked their lives, men like father of four Jimmy Everyman…'

Never waste an opportunity

If a victim calls for action and thus weakens your 'this is not the time' strategy you might want to consider whether you can get away with introducing laws that are all action, if not the kind being called for. Maybe 'concealed carry' legislation, or a bill allowing teachers to carry handguns. However, I recommend waiting until everyone's distracted by a drunk celebrity and forgets the shooting entirely.

States' Rights

Calls for action can be deflected by referring them to another legislative body. So if you are a Federal politician you say 'This is a matter for the states. We don't believe in stripping away states rights'. And if you are a state law maker you say 'I think this kind of issue needs to be dealt with on the federal level, the States can only do so much.'

The Price of Freedom

The gutsy may want to borrow Bill O'Reilly's argument after the Las Vegas shooting, that these events are the price we pay for freedom. Do not respond to questions about Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand etc where they are also 'free' but where gun laws are tight and massacres unusual.

Do not follow Pat Robertson's example and suggest that shootings are God's punishment for a lack of patriotism and not adoring President Trump enough. Even in the South that's a tough sell.

Debate the minutiae

If you are being interviewed and troublesome statistics are quoted or a journalist points out that even the majority of registered Republicans favour banning assault weapons, do NOT debate the issue, debate the numbers. Right or wrong doesn't count, this is about deflection.

As part of this kind of debate you can also employ "I think it is too early… I think we need to wait for all the information before we jump to any conclusions."

Talk tough

If circumstances force you to say something tough - go for generic lines like 'we need to stop talking and take action'. Do not promise anything specific. Do not take action.

Wait out the news cycle

Look for (or generate) other news stories and events that can act as a distraction. The media will tire of writing about most tragedies within a fortnight and much more quickly if there is something else to focus on.

Worst case scenarios

In worst case scenarios you might find it useful for deniable assets (not you, and not your staff), to suggest that the whole tragedy was exagerated, or was a false flag operation, or never happened. Look to Sandy Hook for examples.

Profit from it

You should consider using any shooting's aftermath to call for more money from your pro-gun supporters, in order 'to help secure their freedoms in the face of those who would use tragedy to strip them of their god-given rights'. It works for the NRA.

Phil Smith is a documentary producer and journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia.

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