Pando

Ken Lerer: It’s a ludicrous situation... the country has been bullied by the NRA for so many years

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 31, 2015

From The Guns Desk

Ken Lerer is as successful as anyone has been at figuring out how to make money by publishing online journalism.

As one of the co-founders of Huffington Post, he assembled a team that included Eric Hippeau, Arianna Huffington, Jonah Peretti and acheived unquestionably the biggest monetary exit of that wave. Now, as chairman of Buzzfeed, you could say the same about the second wave. [Disclosure: Lerer is also an investor in Pando through Lerer Hippeau Ventures.]

But there’s one area in which Lerer’s mastery of online media has fallen short: Harnessing its power to somehow combat the NRA and bring what he calls “sensible” gun control laws to this country.

He and I last spoke about this in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, when he lead a coalition of East Coast and West Coast entrepreneurs and VCs to make a statement and raise money to push for more aggressive gun laws. For a time, it looked like change might happen. But lawmakers lost their nerve.

In the aftermath of yet another public shooting and in the run up to the Presidential election, I spoke to Lerer last week to ask his latest thinking on this issue and specifically if he has another run against the NRA in the works.

Ken Lerer: I want to do something with you on this but I have nothing intelligent to say. All I have is emotion. It’s such a ludicrous situation the country has put itself in by being bullied by the NRA for so many years. There’s a myth that exists that every Republican and way too many Democrats believe, that they will not get reelected if they go against the NRA. They are putting their own selfish views above what many of them believe in their hearts. They are all voting based on their pocketbook.

This is an issue that is never going to change unless it comes from the bottom up. Other issues over the past…. well, since forever… all major changes come from outside not from Washington out. Until people and corporations and the populace decides enough is enough the NRA will win because they only have to convince 535 people that they will beat them up in an election.

Sarah Lacy: Why is this the issue that we don’t see change on. I’m stunned we saw change on gay marriage quicker than gun control.

KL: The only hope is what you just said: At some point issues flip. They just do. And once they flip, they don’t flip back. I incorrectly thought the tragedy in Connecticut would be a tipping point, and it wasn’t and that is still mind-boggling to me. We had Obama and leadership on this issue and it’s still so confusing why nothing happened.

But the NRA brought the hammer down. They are the most obnoxious, controlling, horrific lobbying group in Washington and people are just afraid of it. It has to start from the bottom up. Bloomberg and his organization are doing spectacular work. If the horrific news stories on a weekly or monthly basis won’t change it… it’s just going to be a long slog.

It’s about the most frustrating thing I’ve seen in my life.

SL: Do you think the frequency of these attacks is starting to numb people to the horror of it?

KL: You mean are people getting immune to it because it’s endless? I don’t know. Moynihan had a theory about the homeless 40 years ago -- I’m probably going to screw this up-- but that there were so many homeless people that everyone became immune to it. I think that maybe at some point this will be looked at as an epidemic and then maybe something will happen. Crime in New York City streets became an epidemic thirty years ago and people got together and said “This has to be stopped,” and it was turned around.

I don’t know that people are becoming immune, it’s just those 535 people in Washington that are scared of the NRA. I don’t even believe the polls. I don’t think they are asking the right question. They are asking for a ban, no one is talking about a ban, we are talking about gun laws that make sense. People who are mentally ill shouldn’t be able to own guns. The NRA is a horrific organization that has scared the bejesus out of Washington.

SL: What makes the NRA so effective?

KL: They’ve been at it a long time, and they have a very small and very vocal constituency and they take credit for elections when they give even a little money to the campaign. They are probably the best lobbyists in Washington right now.

SL: So what can anyone do to fight them?

KL: I don’t have any good thoughts on it. Bloomberg’s organization is doing amazing work. At some point maybe this will flip. If it flips, it flips. It’s going to be a lightswitch. Like seat belts or smoking or gay marriage. Whether it takes -- God forbid-- another tragedy or series of tragedies or a Democratic president or the Senate going Democratic...I don’t know.

SL: You’ve spent your whole Internet career pretty much fighting the NRA… has digital media accomplished anything meaningful in this fight?

KL: I started an organization called StoptheNRA.com, that’s how I first got into the world of the Internet. The whole point was to start a guerilla digital content company. We signed up 150,000 people back then and that was a lot, I think it was like 2001. We had petitions and we made great progress and were even a part of defeating a bill about assault weapons.

SL: Has social media helped or hurt?

KL: Social media plays both ways. You just have to go onto any social feed and see all the horrific things going on about this issue, and then see very positive things. Each constituency takes what they can take from it. I don’t think it’s been meaningful either way.

SL: So what are you doing? Are you just done? Do you have another attempt to fight this in you?

KL: I’m on the board of the Bloomberg group and working with them. Every once in a while I say to myself, “Kenny, you should go do this full time again.” I guess I’m always thinking about and looking for an opening, and I haven’t seen an opening.

After Connecticut I did it nonstop for a time. We took out that full page ad from the New York Times and a bunch people signed on and we made some noise. We were on the cusp of getting legislation done and then it just pooped out.

I think about it all the time. I’m racking my brain for an opportunity to step back in in a big way, but timing is everything. It’s depressing.

We’ll see. You have to get through this presidential cycle and see who wins and then regroup and start over again. We are on hold until January 2017.

SL: What do you think about this political cycle?

KL: Oh the Trump stuff? It’s August, it’s not May. It’s totally gonna flameout. People are already starting to get tired of “I’m gonna have smart guys figure that out for me.” There are 12% to 15% of the right wing of the Republican party who will support him, but is he going to be the nominee? Not even close. Is he going to be a serious contender for the Presidency? Not even close. The media is way, way, way off on this. They are covering the guy screaming fire in the theatre.