CONCEALMENT 20 6 Signs that Your Gun Rights Group is a Scam Sarah Hauptman 11 Comments, Join the Conversation You know how this goes. You see a TV ad with a disheveled puppy staring wistfully through the bars of its cage while Sarah McLachlan’s music plays in the background. Donate now to help the poor animals. Who wouldn’t want to help starving puppies? So you send a few bucks, thinking it’ll go toward rescues and maybe save a few lives. Turns out you got played. It was a bait and switch, not the good folks down at your local shelter. Less than 1 percent of your money actually went toward shelter expenses and saving puppies; the rest went to endless fundraising, administrative expenses, bloated salaries, and increasingly sophisticated emotional manipulation. To add insult to injury, you thought your money was going to the kind souls doing the real work, pulling puppies out of ditches and rehabilitating them for adoption. Instead, what was left of your money (after lining some pockets) went to activists who pour blood on people in supermarkets while screaming meat is murder. Let’s pause for a second; feel free to donate to a “meat is murder” cause if that’s what you believe in. The problem is the bait and switch. You were the victim of a predatory fundraising group with the perfect formula to override your good sense and prey on your emotions. The same thing is happening all across the U.S. with gun rights groups, and you need to know how to spot it. Fake groups often look legitimate on the surface; it can be very difficult to uncover the rotten core underneath. In some areas, it’s so well disguised that it’s almost indistinguishable from legitimate activism. But there are warning signs, if you pay close attention. 1. ALL MONEY IS FOR FUNDRAISING All groups need funds to survive and do good work. Therefore, all groups must fundraise. But unlike legitimate groups that raise money so they can do stuff, fake gun rights groups channel almost all their donations right back into more fundraising. Even when they use funds for a potentially legitimate purpose — for example, sending mailers about an upcoming bill or lit-dropping a candidate’s district — they still divert those funds to themselves. One of the most common ways to do this is by having ownership interest (either directly or via their board members) in a direct mail, print, or advertising company. For example, they hire themselves to print literature. Or they’ll pay themselves as consultants or hire their own firms to create catchy memes to share on social media. Since real groups also fundraise, it can be hard to articulate exactly what’s off about the fake groups. Legitimate nonprofits should generate profits, pay fair prices for work, have fairly compensated staff, and run more or less like a business. But while the mechanics may be similar, it’s important to make note of where funds actually go. The difference between a real and a fake group is that a fake gun rights group takes your money without accomplishing the thing you thought you were donating for. Has anything illegal occurred? Not necessarily. But is your money supporting what you think it is? Also no. 2. THEY DON’T DO ANYTHING THEMSELVES Fake gun rights groups may take credit for the passage or defeat of gun bills, but they don’t actually have much (if any) influence in the legislature. This is hard to discern without a working knowledge of the political process, but when you have good relationships with legislators yourself, you’ll know who has real influence and who doesn’t. Both legitimate and fake groups want to energize their supporters with success or galvanize them with failure, so fundraising efforts sometimes look similar on the surface. Additionally, all groups are incentivized to exploit emotion to get donations simply because it works well. The difference lies in whether the gun-rights group can actually do what they claim. Let’s take a look at a sample fundraising email. Photo by Sarah Hauptman “VICTORY IN MINNESOTA! We did it! You flooded the legislature with calls, letters, and e-mails, and YOUR HARD WORK defeated gun control.” Let’s say both the fake and legitimate group make the exact same claim. Both want to inspire their supporters and roll that momentum into more donations. As an uninvolved outsider, you’d have no easy way to tell them apart. But there’s a big difference in the inner workings that’s sometimes hard to see from the outside. The real group wrote the bill, found a sponsor, and lobbied every single legislator. They were on call 24/7 for questions. They networked and built solid relationships. They wrote FAQs and talking points for legislators to use in speeches. They secured votes to get the bill through committee. They coordinated public testimony and picked impactful speakers to advance the cause. They managed media coverage and found friendly reporters. They organized volunteers, hitting the streets at every gun show to talk to gun owners. They busted their humps to build a large network of informed, active voters to be mobilized when needed. And years before their bill came to a vote, the legitimate group used their resources and influence to get many of those pro-gun legislators elected in the first place. What about the fake gun-rights group? They helped, right? Sure … they paid themselves to print some mailers, fundraised, and used manipulative tactics to whip up outrage. They even drove up to the Capitol to make a frothy livestream video from the Capitol steps. They drove home before the vote started, but they totally helped, right? Both groups look identical from their fundraising e-mail. With an insider’s view, though, you can see that one group did nothing useful and claimed victory, while the other group did an incredible amount of groundwork to get their bill passed. Fortunately, it’s easy to learn which group is doing real work. All it takes is to invest some time. Get involved, and you’ll know exactly which group is actually doing work when you’re part of the volunteer team that actually does the work. 3. THEY’RE A STATE GROUP, IN MULTIPLE STATES It’s common for national-level groups to have chapters in multiple states. But it’s a huge red flag when a state-level advocacy group operates in multiple states, especially with the same staff. Legitimate state groups usually operate in only one state, because they’re run by people who actually live there. It takes a lot of time and effort to build the groundwork needed for effective advocacy. If a state level group has several franchises, that’s a clue they’re running a trotline for donations rather than doing the work necessary to build successful movements in each state. Traveling salesmen may be great for vacuum cleaners, but not so great for successful political advocacy. 4. THEY USE CONFRONTATIONAL POLITICS Confrontational politics is basically a joke. It’s a clear indicator that a group doesn’t have any real influence. This can also be hard to discern from outward appearances. Legitimate groups often say things like, “We FORCED Legislator Smith to change his vote.” But they don’t mean they just shouted at him or picketed his house. A legitimate gun rights group “forces” a vote change by pressuring a legislator with incentives or deterrents, by coordinating his caucus to override him, by leveraging other legislators who hold favors he needs, by targeting vulnerable legislators at election time, or by doing backroom deals (this happens and isn’t necessarily sinister) wherein they iron out an acceptable solution. If necessary, they’ll gin up outrage in his district and cause his constituents to ruin his day. They may even give the legislator a catchy nickname that brings to mind his various sins. Photo courtesy of Richard Vaughan However, they won’t name-call, bully, or resort to empty posturing. They won’t poison a relationship that may be useful later. That’d be counterproductive. They may use negative tactics (sparingly) as a means to an end, but not as a primary mode of operation. Additionally, once you go confrontational, it’s hard to restore a working relationship with that legislator in the future. It’s a last resort, only useful if you know you can effectively neuter them for good (preferably by defeating them in the next election). If a group constantly name-calls, postures, and attacks legislators, that’s an indicator that they’re ineffective behind the scenes. The yapping dog resorts to yapping because he can’t bite you hard enough to win the fight, and you both know it. 5. THEY DILUTE INFORMATION This is subtle, but insidious. A fake group will make it difficult to know what’s true. They sow confusion, encourage mistrust, and inspire doubt in the political process. They make little effort to inform voters on the legislative process. They don’t have extensive educational resources available to the public. They’re not clear about the status of a bill, next steps, or how likely it is to pass. All bills are 100-percent panic, all the time. Part of the reason fake gun rights groups are so negative is they don’t want you to trust anyone else. While they may appeal to your emotions and occasionally flatter your ego, they don’t actually want to teach you how to be a more effective activist. They really want your dependence. “True patriots know that we’re the ONLY group who fights for you against the corrupt swamp creatures at the Capitol! Send money so we can reach more patriots like you!” A crowd of gun rights supporters filled the Four Corners downtown of Bennington, to protest the Legislature's passage of S.55, legislation that puts new limits on gun ownership in Vermont. A fake gun rights group also makes stupid mistakes. No group is perfect, but a fake group often mixes up hearing times and dates, fails to report steps in the process, or otherwise demonstrates ignorance about how bills are made into law. Some groups have even been known to copy/paste bills from other states that are invalid under your state’s laws. They’ll also inaccurately represent the success/failure ratio to emphasize failures — because that’s more profitable for their negative fundraising style. A legitimate gun rights group will encourage you to be part of the process, inform you about every step, and be realistic about the prospects of upcoming legislation. If you follow a real gun group for a while, you should notice ebbs and flows in the urgency of their communication. They should tell you which hearings are worth taking a day off work and which are less important. They should be realistic about whether they have enough votes to kill a bill. They shouldn’t be on red alert all the time. Building political momentum takes effort. A good gun rights group is strategic about what they ask for and respectful of your sacrifices. 6. THEY DESTROY ALLIANCES Politics isn’t an individual sport. Beware of groups that are excessively or exclusively negative. If they tell you to distrust everyone, even people who should be your allies, that’s a red flag. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that the fake groups consistently position their followers as victims, whether it’s a corrupt system, a nebulous “elite,” the anti-gun lobby, the “radical leftists,” or something else. The persecution narrative is the same, but the bogeymen is carefully chosen to inflame your emotions. The sky is always falling, and they always need your money to bravely fight against fill-in-the-blank. You’ll also notice a subtle but consistent theme of purity. A real gun right group will focus on building support among their allies, while getting as many useful concessions as possible from their opposition. In contrast, a fake group will focus on the purity of their allies, often attacking otherwise useful legislators for not being strong enough in their support. They’ll use misleading tactics to attack pro-gun allies, regardless of collateral damage. They don’t care if attacks cause a pro-gun candidate to lose an election — they’ll fundraise twice as hard once there’s an anti-gun majority anyway. Fear is currency. NOW WHAT? One of these signs alone could be an honest mistake. When you see several, though, there’s f*ckery afoot. Once you’ve recognized a fake gun rights group, what do you do about it? First, make sure their influence stops with you. Don’t give them money or share their content, not even those carefully crafted, hilarious memes. Nor the hot takes meticulously designed to appeal to your biases and political identity. Be aware of the information landscape, be skeptical, and don’t amplify their message. Also, fake gun rights groups relish controversy. Negative attention helps them spread their spores. They thrive on persecution — attacking or denouncing them feeds into their narrative and makes people they’ve duped donate more. Instead, starve them out. Ignore them. Devote your time and resources to the most effective groups you can find. Amplify educational messages. Teach your friends the warning signs so they can spot a scam gun rights group, too. Better yet, bring them with you when you go to the Capitol. The most important thing you can do is find where you can make a real-world difference and put your energy into that. Focusing on areas of personal effectiveness is not only better for your mental health, it’s better for your community, your state, your country, and the future of democracy. 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