How to talk about gun policy

Posted on June 1, 2022

In just two weeks, we have seen two massacres where 31 innocent people were killed by gunmen who were both male, 18-years-old, and using AR-15 assault weapons. It’s time to stand up and speak out.

The fact is, Americans on our side. The POLITICO/Morning Consult nationwide poll of registered voters (topline here, crosstabs here) reported on May 26 that:

  • 88 percent support requiring background checks on all gun sales while only 8 percent oppose this commonsense measure. Even Republicans favor it by a margin of 86-to-9.
  • 67 percent favor banning “assault-style weapons” while only 25 percent oppose. Republicans favor an assault weapon ban by a margin of 49-to-41. This proposal would have gained even more support if the pollsters had specified that they mean guns like the AR-15 used in the recent massacres and more still if they said federal law used to ban these weapons.
  • 69 percent favor banning high-capacity ammunition magazines while only 22 percent oppose. Republicans favor it by a margin of 53-to-35.
  • 84 percent favor preventing gun sales to people who have been reported dangerous by a mental health provider, a type of “red flag” law. Only 9 percent oppose. Republicans support such a “red flag” measure by a margin of 81-to-11.
  • 80 percent favor requiring a gun purchaser to be at least 21 years old (instead of 18). Only 14 percent oppose. Republicans favor this by a margin of 75-to-19.

So, those pundits who argue that average Americans—or even average Republicans—oppose the gun legislation currently under discussion are just plain wrong. Voters are not standing in the way, it is pro-gun special interests allied with Republican elected officials.

What to say

Start in agreement and lay out the problem in a way that is consistent with average Americans’ preexisting beliefs and concerns:

The most fundamental purpose of government is to keep our communities safe and secure from violence. But every day, dozens of Americans are murdered, hundreds of others are shot, and about one thousand are robbed or assaulted with a gun. It’s not just a horror and shame when little children are murdered in school, gun violence threatens you and your loved ones every single day.

You may want to add this, depending on the situation and audience:

Gun violence can be reduced. The United States’ rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people is ten times higher than Canada and one-hundred times higher than Great Britain. That’s because they—and every other developed country in the world—have stronger gun laws than we do.

Then link the problem to whatever solution you’re debating. For example, for requiring background checks for all gun sales, say:

Unfortunately, our communities can’t be safe if we allow guns to be sold to felons or the dangerously mentally ill. That’s why current law requires that no gun can be sold by a licensed gun dealer without a criminal background check. But millions of guns are sold by unlicensed sellers at gun shows and through Internet sites with no background check. We need a simple change in the law in order to cover all gun sales. The few minutes it takes to complete a computerized check will save lives. It’s common sense.

You don’t have to argue too hard for this. Americans already agree with us. And anyone who doesn’t agree now is not persuadable.

How to respond to pro-gun arguments

First, understand that pro-gun advocates almost never argue the merits of specific legislation. Their constant tactic is to sidetrack the discussion, talking about the Second Amendment, the technical definition of certain guns, their misperception of what a law does, their bizarre ideas about how other countries’ laws work, or proposing an entirely different policy that they claim will solve the problem. So, when you argue with pro-gun people, you must concentrate on steering the conversation back to the specific proposal at hand.

There is, of course, a role for detailed rebuttals of pro-gun assertions, but I will leave that to others. When you are actively engaged in a live or online debate, you need to focus and re-focus the terms of the debate, or persuadable listeners/readers will walk away confused.

Here are a few examples:

Pro-gun argument: The solution is to arm schoolteachers.

Answer: You are arguing for the mythical “good guy with a gun.” As you surely know, there was a retired police officer guarding the Buffalo, New York supermarket where ten were killed. An 18-year-old with an assault weapon outgunned and murdered him. As you know, there were 19 police officers in the elementary school hallway in Uvalde, Texas who failed to save the lives of 19 students and two teachers. Maybe you don’t remember there was an armed Deputy Sheriff at the high school in Parkland, Florida. There was an armed Deputy at the Columbine High School massacre. And remember when President Reagan was shot? He was surrounded by armed police and Secret Service agents. Arming people simply doesn’t work. Let’s get back to the real debate—Why should we sell weapons of war to civilians when a federal ban on assault weapons was in effect and worked for ten years (or whatever you propose)?

Pro-gun argument: The AR-15 is not an “assault rifle” because it is not fully automatic.

Answer: The AR-15 is an assault weapon. It was banned by federal law as an assault weapon for ten years and is currently banned as such in several states. It is wrong to play rhetorical word games while children are gunned down in school. The question is whether to respond to the slaughter by reenacting the federal ban on assault weapons (or whatever you propose). Doing so is simple common sense.

Pro-gun argument: An assault weapons ban violates the Second Amendment.

Answer: That’s obviously false since neither the federal ban on assault weapons nor the bans in seven different states have been declared unconstitutional. Here’s the real issue: 10 shoppers were murdered in Buffalo, New York with an AR-15 assault weapon. 19 elementary school children and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas with an AR-15. The AR-15 has been used in the great majority of mass killings in the U.S. Do you think this is okay? That we should continue to do nothing?

Pro-gun argument: We should do something about mental health/make parents take responsibility/ban violent video games, or… We’d save more lives stopping texting while driving/addressing opioids/curing heart disease.

Answer: Proposing one policy is not an argument against a different policy. If two laws would work, we could do both—this is simply not an either-or debate. Can we get back to the legislation on the table: Why should we sell these weapons of war that have no real purpose other than to slaughter people (or whatever you propose)?

This and all the other typical pro-gun arguments are “logical fallacies,” a style of rhetoric that has been used since at least the time of Aristotle. You can read more about the five most common logical fallacies here and more about arguing for progressive public safety measures here.