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Listen to Me: How to Talk With People Who Are Wrong, Part 1

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I argue gun rights as a hobby, and I work hard to be a credible voice in the discussion and to help others along as I go. Although us gun-rights advocates are holding the line on gun rights in Congress, we seem to be struggling in overall cultural perception, which we will feel in future elections. We are up against a highly organized and disciplined strategic communications campaign, and we often aren’t getting our side of the story out.

Illustration By: Brian Fairrington

When we do try to tell our side, the message is so unpolished that it is easy to paint us as belligerent, paranoid and callous. That doesn’t work for me. I am tired of ceding the moral and intellectual high ground to people who are tactically, factually and conceptually wrong.

We have to engage and do so in a way that advances our position and halts the advance of anti-gun-rights individuals. We have to understand what “winning” and “losing” look like, even in the context of mutual trolling on the internet. To effectively debate, you have to approach it in a way that makes you hard to ignore … and THAT requires credibility and charisma.

People Have to Want to Listen

This is usually pretty easy in a forum of like-minded people, but it is a lot harder when you are dealing with individuals who are skeptical or downright hostile, let alone when you are trying to influence them toward your position. You can’t develop influence if you’re banned for trolling, and you don’t get a voice if you never get invited to the closed group in the first place. If you’re excluded from the conversation, those who oppose your views get to monopolize the discussion and dominate the narrative. That’s what losing looks like.

Instead, you have to be more likeable, entertaining and persuasive than you might want to be in a hostile crowd — and more conciliatory than you probably want to be. That means that if someone calls a magazine a “clip” or tells you he or she “can’t imagine arming teachers,” you don’t question his or her mental faculties. This kind of charismatic engagement approach calls for different debate tactics, more friendly discussion and less hostility ending in a clash. Let’s look at some options.

You have to be more likeable, entertaining and persuasive than you might want to be in a hostile crowd — and more conciliatory than you probably want to be. That means that if someone calls a magazine a ‘clip’ or tells you he or she ‘can’t imagine arming teachers,’ you don’t question his or her mental faculties.

Educate, Don’t Alienate

Many of the people who want to add restrictions on guns are pretty ignorant about both guns and gun laws. But no one wants to be told he or she is ignorant, and no one wants a condescending lesson about what he or she got wrong. In such individuals’ minds, the only thing that is important is there are too many guns, guns are too easy to buy, and the available guns are capable of too much lethality. It doesn’t matter to them whether the bayonet lug was relevant in a mass murder. All these people care about is that, in their minds, certain guns are “capable of mass murder.”

When I’m confronted by an individual with this mindset, I find it helps to start by asking what exactly he or she is proposing. Let him or her “educate” you. Ask the person to clarify what he or she means and to define his or her terms. And then ask the individual to prove to you why the proposal will work. Try to be helpful and friendly, like he or she is a new visitor to your shooting range. (Speaking of which, never pass up a chance to invite the individual to come shoot with you.) Respond more with curiosity than with skepticism or derision.

Humanize Your Position

The popular narrative about the gun-rights crowd is that we care more about guns than about kids or, worse, that we somehow care more about profits for the gun industry than we do about children. Either will almost certainly be followed by a question along the lines of, “Why do you even need a…?”

You absolutely must answer that question, and not with something flippant like “none of your business” or “because America.” Put your tactical education and training to work, and if you don’t have any yet, go get some. Explain the scenarios that concern you, like the fact that you might have to go up against a home invader and that it usually takes several bullets to incapacitate just one bad guy to protect you or your family. You might have to do that against three to five assailants. Cite situations in which exactly that has happened and in which firearms, such as AR-15s with 30-round magazines, have saved innocent lives from violent predators.

Don’t Indulge the ‘Gun-Nut’ Fantasy

In most cases, don’t bother with the “tyranny” argument. It is not wrong, but it is very easily misrepresented. If the individual already thinks you are a paranoid anti-government lunatic, talking about how you might have to one day resist a dystopian government just confirms his or her biases against you. If you do mention the “fail-safe” reasoning for gun rights, do so very carefully. If you sound too cavalier about violence, you are giving the individual an excuse to marginalize you.

We own the moral high ground, and this approach will help us keep it.

Rather, talk about yourself and your loved ones. Explain that you are at least as concerned about the safety of children as he or she is, but then explain that you haven’t seen meaningful evidence that his or her proposal will actually protect your kids better than you with your firearms. Remind the person that we are all working toward the same goal of fewer dead and injured innocents and that you would like to help him or her understand something he or she might not have ever had the chance to study much.

Doyle is a concerned citizen and gun-rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. References and links to other gun advocacy sites do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached at jim@tacticaltangents.com.

Further Reading

White, Ken. “Talking Productively About Guns.” Popehat.com. Popehat.com/2015/12/07/talking-productively-about-guns/.

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