The confrontations always begin the same way: Someone asks what I do, I tell them, and if they aren’t for the U.S. Bill of Rights as written, I see battalions of “I’m-more-enlightened-than-you” thoughts assembling behind their politically correct eyes. Soon, they’re firing anti-gun sentiments at me.
Until I learned a better way, I’d counterattack with shock troops of facts. Before long there would be gaping wounds in their logic, and their ignorance would be bleeding all over them.
Those debates were always a lot of fun—especially when the people were from England—but over time I noticed that my opponents were mostly leaving angry. I was winning debates, but I wasn’t helping to change views. They’d soon use pride, and quite possibly conceit, as tourniquets for their hemorrhaging self-esteem. They’d hate me, and would be consoled by others who share their viewpoint. Soon, the facts I’d used to attack their unfounded convictions would fade, and they’d go back to feeling morally superior.
I was winning debates, but I wasn’t helping to change views. All of that changed one evening when my wife dragged me, like a chained bear, to a cocktail party with her colleagues. She teaches at one of those esteemed universities that celebrates diversity, but where every staff member seems to have the same politics. So there I was in a room full of her highly educated friends who don’t know the first thing about ballistics or how to clean their own game. For my wife’s sake, I tried to fade into the background, but apparently all the hours I’ve spent concealed in trees hunting deer didn’t help in the cocktail scene. Before long, a history professor noticed me hiding behind a plant.
He approached and asked what I do. I should have been more prepared for this question, as this is a very American thing to ask. Europeans rarely ask this question. They’re more often interested in someone’s social status. Americans ask this question because we’re still a nation of doers, of people who define themselves. America is the place that coined the phrase “self-made man.” Knowing this, I usually enjoy this question, but with this crowd I wanted to evade the subject.
This professor, however, had spent his career judging students. So he expertly parried my attempts to change the subject. I finally told him I write.
He asked what I write about, so I answered honestly, though evasively. He then shot me this knowing glare over the top of his glass of chardonnay before haughtily saying, “If we could just ban all those evil guns we’d be a much safer, happier and a less ossified nation. Don’t you agree?”
Now I love a debate: I even enjoy a brawl. My favorite Winston Churchill quotation is: “I like a man who grins when he fights.” I used to box, and I miss getting in the ring. And this guy had thrown the first punch. Anywhere else I would have asked why he thinks an inanimate object is evil. I’d have asked what is so happy about the strong dominating the weak—I mean, didn’t the ancient maxim “might makes right” go out of style with the Enlightenment?
Before long I’d be firing facts at him about how, when you compare FBI crime statistics with gun-ownership rates and sales figures, you find that more guns equal less crime. I might even ask, “If sometime after midnight you were awoken by one of your home windows breaking, would you rather there was a telephone or a 12 gauge by your bedside?” Then I’d really start swinging.
But in this situation, I couldn’t say anything as pugilistic as all that."You believe we should just give up our individual rights so we can try to create a society that has never existed and for which you can’t give even a theoretical template?” I chose my words carefully, and kept my tone friendly as I said, “You teach world history, so I’m curious: What period of history do you wish to take us back to, professor?”
“Well, I ...”
“What time and place, maybe before the invention of gunpowder, was there a disarmed, safe and, as you say, happy populace—a people held in the loving and protective arms of a king or government, who needn’t fear thieves, madmen or tyranny?
“Well, now let me see ... I guess I’m not looking to bring us historically back to any time or place, but rather to take us forward to a better place.”
He smiled. He thought he had made a point predicated on something tangible.
“So you want to create a utopia, a Shangri-la, a place where evil no longer exists and where everyone loves their fellow man?”
“Well, I ...”
“What philosopher articulated an ideal state where a single mother at home with her two kids has zero chance of stopping a thug twice her size coming through a window?”
“Well, I ...”
“Maybe Rousseau’s “Du Contrat Social,” James Harrington’s “The Commonwealth of Oceana” or perhaps Thomas Moore’s “Utopia”?
“Well, I’m not sure if anyone has ever articulated it exactly.”
“So, although you’re a professor and, therefore, believe in education, you believe we should just give up our individual rights so we can try to create a society that has never existed and for which you can’t give even a theoretical template?”
“Um,” he mumbled before pivoting with, “countries like England and Australia have more gun control and lower violent-crime rates, I believe.”
As this conversation took place a decade ago, I answered by citing a 2001 study from the International Crime Victims Survey, conducted by Leiden University in Holland. It found that of 17 industrialized nations, Australia led the list with more than 30 percent of its population having been victimized by a violent crime. England was the second worst with a rate of 26 percent. The u.s. wasn’t even in the top 10.
(Today if I’m asked this question, there is a lot of other interesting data to cite. Although the comparison of violent crime statistics between countries is difficult, as countries classify types of crime differently and measure them in various ways, the English newspaper The Daily Mail reported in 2009: “Official crime figures show the u.k. also has a worse rate for all types of violence than the u.s. and even South Africa.” More comparisons of various crime statistics can be found here.
After debating international crime statistics for a few minutes, the professor looked contemplatively into his glass of chardonnay and admitted, “Well, maybe I need to do some research.”
“Don’t we all,” I said amiably. “And, I understand, you’ve never personally been a crime victim and crime statistics aren’t a part of your chosen field of study, so why would you know these things?”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said.
So I let him off the hook and we talked about Ancient Rome and other things. In the years since he has slowly come around, and now even says he wants “to shoot skeet some time.”You’re not going to completely change a mind on the spot. You can, however, make people think, and by thinking they can begin to grasp the importance of individual freedom.
His point of view is becoming educated, but I think I learned more from the conversation. There isn’t only one way to debate someone who wants to repeal the Second Amendment, but there is a strategy that works. You’re not going to completely change a mind on the spot. You can, however, make people think, and by thinking they can begin to grasp the importance of individual freedom.
I’ve learned that the best way to accomplish this is to let them speak first. Simply ask them why they feel the way they do. This way they’ll expose their own ignorance. If you begin by pointing out their lack of knowledge, they’ll only wall your empirical arguments out with anger. By letting them first stumble over their own views, they’ll instead find themselves in an internal struggle. As they thrash about for reasons to support why they feel this way or that, they’ll be looking for real answers, not just emotionally pushing back against your facts.
As they explain their feelings, keep in mind that when you answer them, there is no reason to slip and slide down the porcelain wall of their ignorance. Address their points, but lead the conversation quickly to a fact-based debate. Do this by waiting for them to finish before politely challenging their false premises—go right for the basis of their point of view. (Asking the history professor for a historical justification for his anti-gun views was a simple example of this.) If you do this well, they’ll soon realize they’re in over their heads.
When they do realize that, resist the urge to push them all the way under. Instead, throw their drowning ego a life preserver. You need to let them save face as they swim toward the truth. By pointing out to the history professor that in his bookish life he just hasn’t yet had the opportunity to practically learn the truth about his own freedom, I gave him a way out. This is critical because the viewpoints of anti-gunners are typically based on emotion. You need to guide them toward reason.
Using this strategy, here’s how I respond to four common types of people I’ve encountered over the years.
A school teacher who thinks he or she is on the moral high ground when telling you guns should be banned and that gun- free zones work.
I ask, “Why do you feel gun-free zones save lives?”
They typically respond with a generality, such as that they feel there are too many guns in society. They don’t have any experience with guns and are afraid of firearms.
I like to tell them about my conversations with Evan Todd, a young man who had a gun held to his head by one of the Columbine killers, but who now has spoken at hundreds of schools and in other places about how he wishes a good guy with a gun had gotten on the scene sooner. Then it’s easy to calmly point out that mass murderers have a habit of taking guns into “gun-free zones.”
Finally, I give teachers a way out by telling them they can attain an educated opinion by taking a local gun-safety course. The NRA lists these and other courses at findnra.nra.org.
Those who naively think disarming law-abiding citizens will make them safer.
I ask, “Why would disarming your neighbor make you feel safer?”
After they answer, I ask if they know their neighbors. This humanizes the point. I then ask why they feel average Americans can’t be trusted. Now that I’ve broadened the point, I explain that the nation’s violent crime rate hit an all-time high in 1991 and thereafter declined in 18 of the next 20 years—49 percent overall, to a 41-year low in 2011. This decline includes a 52-percent decrease in the nation’s murder rate.
All this happened even as the number of privately owned firearms and the number of states with right-to-carry laws rose to all-time highs.
Now it’s easy to explain that many people don’t know this because newspapers find more profit in printing bad news. Then I can end the discussion by asking them to be neighborly and tolerant (they love that word), and by showing them how to learn more about their freedom.
The well-meaning, but startingly ignorant, types who just want to be safe.
I ask, “How would you feel if you were trapped in a public place with some madman who was assassinating people?”
After they answer, I ask, “Now, in that state of helplessness, would you like it if an average American gun owner was there with a chance of stopping the killer, or would you prefer to wait for the police?”
Most reasonable people will stop and ponder that. Maybe they finally say they just want all those military-style arms taken away from people. Maybe they flounder about for another false premise. Either way, they’re looking for answers.
It’s easy to explain that just about every type of firearm has been used by the military and u.s. citizens, and about how, in a free country, the two are necessarily linked. You can explain all about semi-automatic firearms, and how this century-plus-old technology represents the most commonly owned firearm type today.
Wherever the conversation goes, just be sure to let them know that it’s okay they don’t know these things, as schools rarely teach this information. Then tell them about your favorite books or articles on these topics, and offer to share them.
The committed anti-gun zealot who truly hates you.
I like to ask, “What makes you feel so cruel toward women and the elderly?”
They usually respond with shock, as they gasp, “What?!!” After they’ve had their say, I explain that it’s cruel to prevent, for example, an elderly man or woman from having the one tool that we know can stop a bad guy from badly injuring or killing them.
I point out that anti-Second Amendment policies empower thugs and murderers. This is a cruel thing to do to good, law-abiding people. Depending on the particular person and the context of the opportunity, you can easily let their egos off the hook by explaining that they probably just haven’t had the opportunity to hear this side of the argument before. If they have any reasonableness left in them, you can then begin to help them see past their bias.
Note that with all these types of people, if you ask the right questions you can at least make them start considering more seriously the real truth about gun ownership. And since we have the facts on our side, once they start looking for the truth, it’s up to us to help them find it.