A Matter of Messaging: A New Tactic for the Gun Control Debate

I normally stay away from politics, but this is an important subject. Given the series of politically-driven moments since the start of 2016, and the prevalence of the subject in the national debate running up to this year’s election, I believe it is prudent to spend at least a little bit of time on the topic.

I used to be much more heavily involved in this debate, especially across various message boards and social media. I even credit myself with using certain argument tactics and statistical sources long before they were commonly used by the NRA. I backed off of the debate after the tragedy at Sandy Hook when I realized that I was alienating many of my friends, and even some family. I simmered down to merely challenging or correcting bad information when the opportunity arose and I felt that it would be productive to do so.

These few years of more restrained debate, with a lot more watching than debating, have given me some new perspectives and helped me solidify my own arguments. I believe the gun control debate is more or less stagnated because neither side has a good grasp on messaging; they simply playing to base that already agrees with them, and therefore not reaching the undecided fence sitters.

There is also an element of cultural bundling on both sides, where support for gun rights is “bundled” together with a bunch of other stereotypical traits (white/rural/redneck/Republican/conservative/anti-gay/anti-woman/etc.) and support for gun control is tied to negative stereotypes of the left (hippies, communists, liberal, Democrat, anti-baby, anti-family, vegan, etc.). This practice was explained quite well by Ken White on his blog Popehat and an LA Times editorial. I want to skip over this aspect of the debate for the moment and focus on how we, the proud gun-owning citizens of this nation, can better communicate with our target audience (the undecided fence-sitters).

There is a great TED talk by Simon Sinek about how great leaders communicate; it is worth 18 minutes of your life, but I’m going to focus on the first half.


Consider the golden circle of communication. We do exactly the things that all the unsuccessful companies do: we communicate from the outside-in. We don’t talk about why we believe in an armed citizenry, and why it is such an important symbol of freedom and democracy. Instead, we focus on the “what.” We talk in results, such as statistics about suicide versus homicides, or good guys with guns defending themselves from bad guys with guns. The best arguments that we have managed to put forth are essentially emotional appeals to fear: “When seconds count, the police are only minutes away!”

To our benefit, the anti-gun forces essentially argue the same way. They use the same sets of statistics we do, but interpreted differently- such as rolling suicides together with homicides as a general category of “gun violence.” They use the same appeals to emotion, “If only they wouldn’t have had that gun, this tragedy might not have happened!”

Because both sides are arguing the same way, basically using different interpretations of the same data, the debate has become a continuous cycle of squabbling over definitions & technical details (clips vs magazines, assault weapons, sniper rifles, armor-piercing, etc.), and a battle over which side’s emotional appeals are more impactful. Neither side is really gaining or losing ground because nobody is listening anymore. This is actually quite sad, since we have some truly outstanding people on our side trying to communicate (Colion Noir, Billy Johnson, Bill Whittle, and many others)- but I fear that these individuals’ efforts are simply falling on the ears of those who already agree with them.

Well, enough of that.

Perhaps the best characterization of the debate I’ve ever read came from a self-professed Marxist-leftist arguing why an armed citizenry is so important. From his perspective, the underlying philosophies boil down to the distribution of power in our society. One side believes it is inherently risky to allow the state a monopoly of armed force, as that kind of power is historically corrupting and easily turned against the populace it is meant to protect. The other side believes that the state takes the role of benevolent benefactor and will provide the fair, just, and balanced use of force that is required to reach an idealized vision of civilized society in which the state always acts in the best interest of the people.

In short, the former views it as a fundamental political right and the other does not.

If you do [believe in the fundamental political right], then you ascribe it a strong positive value, you will be predisposed to favor its extension to all citizens, you will consider whatever “regulations” you think are necessary (because some might be) with the greatest circumspection (because those “regulations” are limitations on a right, and rights, though never as absolute as we may like, are to be cherished), you will never seek, overtly or surreptitiously, to eliminate that right entirely- and your discourse will reflect all of that. If you understand gun ownership as a political right, then, for you, if there weren’t a second amendment, there should be.

I think this is a great observation. It is sad, however, that the very same people who will act and speak in this fashion concerning the right to bear arms will turn around and abandon this thinking for other areas. Call it the aforementioned cultural bundling, but we should be saying fundamental rights are fundamental rights regardless of liking them or not.

If, on the other hand, you do not hold that the right to possess firearms is a fundamental political right, if you think it is some kind of luxury or peculiarity or special prerogative, then, of course, you really won’t give a damn about how restricted that non-right is, or whether it is ignored or eliminated altogether. If you reject, or don’t understand, gun ownership as political right, then you probably think the Second Amendment should never have been.

This is how the most ardent of the gun control crowd (and all of their leaders) communicate. They are well known for using the phrase, “I believe in the Second Amendment, but…”

Whatever follows the “but…” is usually the latest item de jour on the gun control want-list. Despite their protestations to the contrary, this group has never seen a gun control law that went too far. The only reason they don’t propose more drastic restrictions is the reality that most reasonable people simply don’t agree with their real objective. So, they are stuck with incrementalism over a long game. This is the reason prohibitionist groups whine about the importance of passing “common sense” reforms, but constantly change the definition of “common sense,” and refuse to negotiate by rolling back other ineffective restrictions that to get them (dropping suppressors off of the NFA, or 50-state CCW reciprocity, for example).

Eschew, for the moment, individuals on both sides of the debate who shout arguments more out of tribal loyalty than deep philosophical thought; these groups speak more out of a desire to signal their credibility among their friends than advocating for substantive policy change. Instead, consider the average gun control debate between two reasonably well-informed participants. Once you get past the statistics and emotional appeals, the pro-gun debater will usually focus on the Constitution and the fact that the 2A was written to serve as a check against overreaching power; the anti-gunner will focus on the outdated nature of the 2A and how it has no place in a modern civilized world, especially one in which drones, tanks, and special forces units will “easily” destroy any opposition. It is a circular debate, and it’s boring.

If we are going to be truly effective advocates, then we have to realize that talking about statistics, founding fathers, and constitutional law are simply not effective on people who don’t already agree with you. At best, they make people’s eyes glaze over. At worst, they make us look like paranoid nut jobs waiting for our chance to shoot down black helicopters. Those same arguments can be, and often are, reversed to support the opposition. That is how we end up in situations where we’re banking on the Supreme Court to bail us out of poor voting decisions.

Instead, I propose that we approach the debate from the core of why we believe what we do. Consider the NRA and its message. If you’ve been listening lately, it goes something like this:

We are the NRA, we protect the rights of Americans to buy firearms by lobbying congress, fighting anti-gun policies in the courts, and stopping Democrats who want to ban the most common firearms in the country. We need your help in protecting your constitutional right to defend yourself and your loved ones while limiting the ability of the mentally ill or criminals to buy weapons. Would you like to donate money to us?

The true believers among us will nod along and send more money. But to everyone else, this message is, well…meh. The antis easily turn this around by saying that the NRA really exists to bolster the sales firearms manufacturers and employ fear, misinformation, and doubt stop the country from enacting “common-sense gun safety laws that might end the daily carnage.”

What if the NRA argued from the why?

We are the NRA, we believe in the fundamental right of empowered Americans to own firearms for the effective protection of themselves, their families, and their communities. We believe in the safe and disciplined use of firearms by all citizens who are not criminals or deemed mentally unfit. We do this by offering safety courses, marksmanship training, sponsoring competitions, seling insurance, and advocating for your rights in congress and in the court system. Join us in the preservation of our traditions and freedoms .

What do you think of that message?

My argument is that we should be focusing on the fundamental truth that an armed and disciplined citizenry is something to be admired precisely because it promotes a civilized society. We should advocate that we believe in the goodness of people (left, right, red, blue, and purple), and we want to make sure that they always have the tools to look out for themselves and their communities.

We should be arguing that the core belief of the anti-gunners is that fellow citizens cannot be trusted, and should therefore be relieved of those rights that could be a danger to themselves and others- rights that will still be retained by their intellectual, economic, and social betters (i.e. an oligarchy).

We should point out that it does not matter what shape a grip is, or how large the magazine is- if a person cannot be trusted with a firearm, then they should not be trusted with a weapon of any kind (including gasoline, fireworks, or pressure cookers).

We need to say that we believe in the rights of individuals to choose their own path, without being coerced or forced, but that we hope that they realize we are all stronger as a community than we are as individuals.

For most of human history, the ability of the common man to legally wield arms was a sure sign of freedom. Consider the Romans, who gifted a wooden sword (or spear) to freed slaves as a symbol of that freedom. Armed individuals cannot be forced or coerced to the will of others, they have a choice to comply of their own free will, or to fight. A government that seeks to remove the right of the people to bear arms is effectively signaling that it no longer trusts the people to make the “right” choice (reference the British trying to disarm the colonists, leading to the battles of Lexington & Concord). This is exactly the core of the anti-gun argument: people are not trustworthy. If we call them out for their cynicism and misanthropy for what it is, while highlighting our belief in giving people choices, we stand a better chance. 

Our message is one of freedom, personal responsibility, and civic mindedness. We believe in the fundamental right of citizens to bear arms for the defense of themselves, their families, and their communities. We believe in the myriad of activities that follow such a freedom, including hunting and competition. We believe in the goodness of our neighbors, and we trust them to exercise the same rights responsibly. We strive to connect others with their rights. We shun those who act irresponsibly. We grieve for the loss of life that sometimes follows, but we recognize that such events are rare and can be overcome without the wholesale sacrificing of our rights. That is my message.

Always remember that you will rarely change the mind of someone you are arguing with. They have made up their mind, and are probably arguing from a place of tribal loyalty. In their eyes, you will never be right (and you are probably evil). The people we care about are the fence-sitters that are reading the discussion and weighing the pros and cons of each argument. These are the people we want to win, and we will do it with effective messaging and a friendly offer to take them to the range some time if they ever want to learn what all the hoopla is about.



3 thoughts on “A Matter of Messaging: A New Tactic for the Gun Control Debate”

  1. “This is exactly the core of the anti-gun argument: people are not trustworthy.”
    Add, “But the government is.”
    There you have it.


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