Political discourse is fundamentally a form of leadership. We are trying to influence people in a way that will persuade them and win their cooperation on our policy agenda. To lead people, you have to understand with whom you are interacting. How informed are they? Where on the political spectrum are they? How likely are they to change their minds?
To be effective, you need to be able to make a strong case for gun rights. Our opposition hates that; in fact, the anti-gun crowd actively seeks to alienate us from the public discussion. They look for every chance to paint us as extremist, alarmist, paranoid, delusional and bloodthirsty. That is frustrating, and you may feel like debates are a lost cause and you are better off disengaging — but that is exactly what they want. We are not helping our cause when we get blocked, silenced, removed, shouted down or self-eliminated from a discussion.1
Put the Burden of Proof on Them
Knowing that our opponents are trying to make us look unhinged, we are in a battle to look more reasonable than the other side in the discussion. This often comes down to tone. You can deliver a strong argument with soft wording. Go out of your way to humanize yourself, express compassion and use a friendly approach. That might be counterintuitive when someone is accusing you of enabling mass murder of children because you oppose a so-called “assault weapons” ban, but it is what you must do in order to hold a seat at the debate table.
One way to do this is to lead with questions such as, “I understand you want to ban assault weapons. Can you talk me through exactly what you mean when you say ‘assault weapons’?” or “I have kids I want to protect as well, so what do you suggest I do in the event of a mass truck attack like the one that took place in Nice, France, or the arrow attack in Norway, where I can expect it to take five to 15 minutes for police to arrive?” Questions that start with “how” are valuable here too. This keeps the burden on anti-gunners to explain their positions, which will often expose their gaps, contradictions and flaws without having to attack them directly.
It’s usually not worthwhile to chide an opponent about every technical error he or she makes. Correcting every instance of “clip” instead of “magazine” may seem like exposing his or her intellectual weakness, but more often it looks like quibbling. Acknowledge his or her argument, ask him or her to support his or her case in detail and then crush the argument in a calm and credible way.
Cater to the Outsiders Looking In
In a social media debate, most of your audience is not actually participating. You may be arguing with one or several people, but you are unlikely to sway those people. Remember that you are also making the case to anyone following the comments. Your target audience is neither the pro-gun crowd, who already agrees with you, nor the anti-gun crowd, who will never agree with you. You are looking to persuade the undecided folks and the skeptics.
Maybe they didn’t grow up around guns. Maybe their perception of guns has been shaped by movies. Maybe they are sympathetic to personal freedom and civil liberties, but their social reference groups are strongly anti-gun. These are the people we are trying to reach. The spectator value of these arguments can’t be overstated. You want to be the “everyman” so the spectator can relate to you and see the argument from your perspective, which is only possible if you are sympathetic and your values resonate widely.
Avoid language that makes you appear clearly partisan. Skeptics expect you to come in waving a Confederate flag and repeating what they imagine pro-gun people say, so if you can disrupt that by intentionally taking them off guard, you stand a better chance of capturing their attention. That makes you harder to dismiss and clouds tribal identifiers, which can reduce hostility.
Stay On Message
Our strongest case is when we calmly explain the basis for our position: Life is a fundamental human right, and we have an embedded right to defend our own lives with proportionate force. For practical purposes, police cannot adequately provide that protection because it takes too long to get them on scene. Guns do not guarantee our safety, but they offer us a choice and a chance — something better than begging for our kids’ lives.
In addition to self-defense, guns also offer a myriad of legitimate sporting purposes, including competition and hunting, and provide a failsafe against the unlikely-but-real possibility of foreign invasion or a domestic government gone genocidally crazy. We can debate internally how likely those possibilities are, but — knowing that our opposition is trying to label us as “domestic terrorists” — we shouldn’t offer that discussion to them to use against us.
Gun-rights advocates must appear humble, approachable, credible and, perhaps above all, normal. If you want to win, you have to close the gap between yourself and your audience. Help us make the case for gun rights and take back the narrative in the public forum.
Doyle is a concerned citizen and gun-rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official policy of his or any other agency. References and links to other gun advocacy groups do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached by mail at [email protected].
(1) Sarah Cade and Jon Hauptman of the Guns’ Guide to Liberals podcast provided extensive insight and advice on this topic.