As we ring in a new year, we remain shocked and saddened by the tragedy in Newtown. Unfortunately, Newtown now adds its name to a list of equally disturbing tragedies at the hands of mentally disturbed people possessing semi-automatic weapons: Columbine, Aurora, Tucson and Blacksburg (Virginia Tech).
The public has responded by sounding a call to action and Vice President Joe Biden has been tasked with finding a better way forward, meeting this week with representatives of victims groups and gun-safety organizations as well as the National Rifle Association and other gun-owner groups as he drafts the Obama administration's response to the Newtown shooting. Meetings with video game manufacturers and representatives from the entertainment industry also are planned.
"I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion (that) unless we can do everything we're going to do nothing," Biden said today. "It's critically important (that) we act."
Every tragic incident is subsequently followed by calls for gun control change. The politicians quickly pick up the baton and legislative bills are crafted at the local and national level to address gun control. Newtown has been no different, with the Senate, Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama determined to change the laws, ostensibly to protect the public. While this is indeed a noble goal, a closer look at successful and enduring change management is necessary to better predict the likelihood of its success.
State after state have passed laws allowing concealed weapons in public. All of this is in the context of fewer shooting deaths overall. Are we safer now or more at risk? Do we have a gun control issue or are they isolated incidences of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people?” (In the interest of full-disclosure, a disclaimer: I am not anti-gun and I believe in the sanctity of the Second Amendment with its right to bear arms, but I have always strongly questioned the inclusion of weaponry that goes beyond personal protection and/or hunting.)
As a change management consultant, I’ve found successful change is predicated on a three-step process: plan, communicate, execute. All three steps are critical to the probability of change success. Assuming that we want to implement a successful and enduring gun control change law, let’s apply these three critical steps.
Step 1 – Plan
Any plan must include an honest assessment of the situation, the proposed scope of the change, probable and likely risks with implementing the plan or with failure of the plan and the team charged with conceiving, implementing and executing the change. This necessarily is predicated on identification of the real issue and catalyst for the proposed change. The planning stage must also address how support will be generated, including providing personal returns for the investments of those affected.
In regards to the gun issue, what is the real problem? Is it access? Is it legality of certain guns and ammunition? Is it screening for mental illness? Is it all of the above? The problem must be identified before a plan can be fashioned. For gun control change to be effective, it first must be realistic and enforceable in scope. It must balance the Second Amendment right to bear arms with restricting access to weaponry that goes well beyond. It must address the reality of special interest groups (i.e. National Rifle Association) adamantly opposing any new restrictions and the realistic threat to politicians that chose to ignore the special interest pressure. More importantly, it must find a way to gain majority support across a diverse population. While a law can be rammed through without majority support, it won’t be successful in its ultimate goals without it. Finally, it must concede that it is impossibly to fully prevent a tragedy from occurring again, but the new legislation will make its occurrence much less likely.
Sadly, current legislation being proposed is little more than a public relations stunt to make it appear that someone is doing something. If the assumption is that semi-automatic guns are the culprit for the recent tragedies, does exempting a large class of these weapons make this law practically successful? Also, does exempting current ownership of these weapons significantly alter the current situation? While the thought process likely is one of “better to get something than nothing,” the argument should be, “let’s get something that actually makes a significant change.”
This law, even if passed, won’t reduce the likelihood of another Newtown. In fact, sales of semi-automatic weapons were sharply higher following the tragedy. People are anticipating a whiplash reaction and want to protect themselves from this reactive force. If anything, the scepter of this legislation has had an opposite affect and the legislation hasn’t even been debated yet, let alone passed.
The currently proposed legislation is an example of planning failure. While it is limited in scope, it is fatally limited. It also doesn’t have majority support nor does it address how its supporters will respond to both special interest challenges and to the current situation. In this case, it is better that there be no legislative response than a poor, ineffective legislative response. A better solution might be to engage the special interest groups, who also don’t want repeats of Newtown.
Step 2 – Communicate
Any change initiative requires honest, relevant and timely communication between the sponsor, team leaders, team members and those affected. The key is honest communication. Communications that herald bad news, setbacks or failures cannot “punish the messenger.” Effective gun change legislation requires clear and honest communication as to intent, scope and reach. If the legislation is intended to drastically reduce the public’s access to semi-automatic weapons and nothing more, than this must be communicated. If the legislation is intended to also guarantee Second Amendment rights as far as handguns and concealed weapons, then this too clearly must be communicated.
Unfortunately, the term “honest politician” is now considered an oxymoron. There is a distinct shortage of politician credibility. We have been trained by past communications and actions, to not really believe anything that a politician says. Is there hope then of passing effective gun control change? Yes, but it will take a real and sizeable majority across party, geographical and demographical lines for us to consider believing the communication. Without this, it all might sound good, but we won’t be buying what they are selling.
Step 3 – Execute
Finally, the change initiative must be executed according to plan. While no initiative ever proceeds exactly as planned, the ability to “roll with the changes” and respond to changing landscapes is key to seeing the change initiative through. Probable and potential changes should be addressed in the planning stage, communicated throughout the initiative and executed appropriately.
If the gun control plan (legislation) is intended to drastically reduce the public availability and access to semi-automatic weaponry, then the scope and reach must reflect this in the planning stage, must be communicated to the public prior to and throughout the legislative process and then must be acted upon by the legislators with their affirmative voting. Finally, it must be signed into law and then enforced with the full resources provided and available to it. Anything less will be an execution failure that directly results in a change failure.
We can only hope that the current attention being given to this issue is not just an attempt to mollify the public. The real solution must be inclusive and not exclusive of any of the affected constituencies (aka, all of us).
While meaningful gun control legislation might not prevent another Newtown, it dramatically will decrease the likelihood of it. And that’s a change we can and should all believe in, regardless of political, geographic or demographic affiliation.
About the author: Moe Glenner is the founder and president of PURELogistics, a leading consulting firm that specializes in organizational change. He earned his MBA at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt Certification from Villanova University. Glenner's new book, Selfish Altruism: Managing & Executing Successful Change Initiatives, explores best practices in organizational change. For more information, visit www.moeglenner.com.