A grandfather killed his former daughter-in-law and another woman on Monday morning in Wilmington, Delaware, before dying in a shootout with the police. Three blocks away, a former gun-industry executive was boarding a train.
The executive, Bill Wohl, was a public relations specialist at Remington Arms between 1992 and 1996. I interviewed him yesterday for a piece about the gun industry's expectations for the State of the Union Address, and that's when he told me that he happened to be three blocks from the courthouse when the shots rang out earlier that day. "I don't think there's any question that there needs to be a change in this country," he said. "The question is what kind of change needs to happen."
To start with, he suggested that the industry could do more to improve its image. "If you go back and take a look at the situation in the United States ten, fifteen years ago about the challenges of drunk driving, I think you can see that the alcohol industry had a similar problem," he said. "What did those companies do? They got together uniformly* and supported a very strong effort through Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving and created an awareness that drinking and driving is a bad thing. The pressures that threatened them with regulations eased off and they got very good marks for the work they did."
"Now the gun companies are facing a moment of extraordinary pressure and the question is: are they representing themselves or are they leaving that to the NRA?"
The answer is that the gun industry has largely avoided communicating with the mainstream media in the wake of the Newtown shooting. The NRA, meanwhile, has engaged in a number of controversial PR efforts.
Last month, Wohl wrote a column in PR Week criticizing Wayne LaPierre's decision to blame Hollywood and videogames, and to call for more guns in schools. "The result: the NRA was painted as extremist, its leaders as out of touch, and some groups even blamed mass shootings on the NRA," he wrote.
*It's worth noting that the alcohol industry hasn't always marched in lockstep when it comes to promoting safety.