Part of operating in a representative democracy is convincing other people to align with our policy stances. This has been true since the Romans debated in forums and founders debated in the public square. In modern times, the venue has changed toward online social media platforms — such as Twitter and Facebook — but the fundamental principles have not.
If we want to advance policies that favor gun rights and stymie policies that infringe on our rights, we have to reach people across the electorate. Political advocacy is inherently a leadership function: You have to influence your audience in a way that will win their confidence, respect and cooperation toward your objective. It is important to mentally frame advocacy in that way when you wade into the frustrating and occasionally toxic world of online debate. Therefore, consider these strategies and tactics to help arm yourself for online skirmishes over gun rights.
Know Your Audience and Case
Before you post a comment or a response, take a minute to consider who is reading the discussion. Many people might be reading who aren’t participating in the actual debate. It is unlikely that you will sway passionate anti-gunners, but they aren’t your target audience anyway. You are trying to sway the folks who are undecided or maybe a little skeptical about gun rights who are reading your discussion and observing your actions.
In the case of argument, who is such a person on the other side? Is he or she making an actual case or an emotional plea? Is he or she part of an organized advocacy movement, or a relative repeating a talking point he or she got from a pundit on cable news? The answer to those questions may well inform the approach you take in your responses.
Equally importantly, it helps to look at the discussion and consider what the issue at hand actually is. Are you discussing gun rights in general, or school shootings in particular? Are you discussing so-called “ghost guns” or so-called “assault weapons”? The strongest cases tend to be calm, organized and supported by credible outside sources. Lay out the undisputed facts, identify the issue, recognize the existing laws and then state your position supported by some factual evidence. That approach — especially when you do it in a clear and pithy way — gives you a lot of intellectual high ground from which to work.
People naturally tend to ignore familiar talking points — meaning that if the audience has heard it before and it didn’t do anything for them, a repeat is unlikely to sway them now. Fight the urge to fall back on common slogans and punditry. When you need support, avoid using links and citations from outlets that are known to have an established agenda. To an individual who disagrees with the source’s agenda, the evidence will be considered suspect without even a glance, let alone a skim. And, as always, knowing that the opposition is going to try to silence and ostracize you, sidestep that tactic by being the calm and collected voice in the discussion.
You have to think a couple of steps ahead in the debate. Is he or she going to paint you as callous and bloodthirsty or beholden to corporate greed? (The anti-gun talking points seem to waffle back and forth between these two narratives.) Either way, don’t wait for the individual to make that case against you. Address it early by showing empathy and charisma. What are the weaknesses in your own argument? Address those concerns as you go, and don’t wait for him or her to make his or her case against you.
You — as a responsibly armed American — are an important voice for gun rights. You are part of our collective public relations campaign. We are up against an organized, resourced and passionate opposition, but we have the moral and intellectual high ground. It is time to take back the public debate spaces on social media through solid and effective advocacy. You may never establish common ground with some troll on Facebook, but believe it or not, you can strengthen our credibility with everyone who reads your online debate with that troll.
Jim is a concerned citizen and gun rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official position of his agency. References and links to other gun advocacy groups do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].