As we ring in a new year, we remain shocked and saddened by the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. Unfortunately, Newtown now adds its name to a list of equally disturbing tragedies at the hands of mentally disturbed people possessing semi-automatic weapons -- the others, of course, in Columbine, Aurora, Tucson, and at Virginia Tech.
The public has responded by sounding a call to action. Vice President Joe Biden has been tasked with finding a better way forward. Amid controversy, and prominent anti-gun voices such as former congresswoman and Tucson shooting victim, Gabrielle Giffords, he has met with the families of the newest victims.
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 local and national levels to address gun control. Newtown has been no different, with the Senate, 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.
Yet state after state has 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. I believe in the sanctity of the 2nd 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 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 is necessarily 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 succinctly identified before a plan can be fashioned. For gun control change to be effective, it must first be realistic and enforceable in scope. It must successfully be able to balance the 2nd 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. the National Rifle Association, or NRA, adamantly opposing any new restrictions -- and the realistic threat to politicians that choose to ignore the special interest pressure.
More important, 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 ultimately be successful without it. Finally, it must concede that it is impossible to fully prevent a tragedy from occurring again, but that a 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 culprits 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 is likely one of “better to get something, than nothing,” the argument should be: “Let’s get something that actually makes a significant change.” More practically, 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 doesn’t have majority support, and it doesn’t address how its supporters will respond to both special interest challenges to the current situation. In this case, it is better 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. While there has been historic opposition to restrictions on semi-automatic weaponry, perhaps there can be movement in this direction with guarantees toward protection of overall 2nd amendment rights. After all, hunting or personal protection doesn’t really require the ability to shoot multiple rounds in seconds.
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.
Communication that heralds 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, then this must be communicated. If the legislation is intended to also guarantee 2nd amendment rights as far as handguns and concealed weapons, then this too must be clearly 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 communication and action to not really believe anything a politician says. Furthermore, most of us tend to believe that the politician likely has ulterior motives behind the legislation.
In other words, even if politicians were to really, truly communicate on this issue, we most likely wouldn’t believe them. 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 whatever 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 then 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 available to it. Anything less will be an execution failure that directly results in a change failure.
We can only hope the current attention being given to this issue is not just “yesterdays news” and/or an attempt to mollify the public. If successful and enduring change is to take hold, Gabrielle Giffords’ struggles and voice must be heard in the effort to push for the solution. We should also be encouraged by the efforts of the vice president to solicit as many disparate and diverse voices on this issue -- provided the opinions are seriously considered. 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 will dramatically decrease the likelihood of it. And that’s a change we can, and should, believe in, regardless of political, geographic or demographic affiliation.
Moe Glenner is the founder and president of PURELogistics, a leading consulting firm that specializes in organizational change. Glenner's new book, “Selfish Altruism: Managing & Executing Successful Change Initiatives” explores the best practices in organizational change.