Every six months or so there is an especially horrific gun massacre. The cold-blooded slaughter in Las Vegas, the most deadly single-shooter incident in American history with 58 dead and more than 500 injured, was only last October. So, it’s just the appalling truth that if you don’t have the chance to argue for gun restrictions following this latest high school shooting, there will be no shortage of future opportunities—unless we act now.
The problem is not American public opinion. The highly-respected Quinnipiac University Poll reported on February 20 that Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases by 97-to-2 percent, a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons by 67-to-29 percent, and a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases by 83-to-14 percent.
The problem is that too many elected officials are irrevocably allied with the pro-gun lobby. The only way to strengthen federal and state gun laws is to defeat those officials. Perhaps 2018 will provide a unique opportunity to do so.
In any case, right now progressives need to stand up for their values, stand beside the students of Stoneman Douglas High School, and face down the pro-gun extremists. To help you do so, let me offer a little message framing advice.
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.
While this advice is true for any discussion of gun policy, let me illustrate it with pro-gun arguments being expressed right now.
Pro-gun argument: The solution is to arm schoolteachers
Answer: That’s absurd. Do you know any schoolteachers at all? The only reason you are embarrassing yourself with this argument is that you desperately want to avoid addressing the actual legislation in Congress. Federal law banned assault weapons for ten years and it’s long-past time to reenact that ban. Do you really think we should be selling weapons of war to teenagers?
Why: Generally speaking, you need to turn away from the fallacious pro-gun arguments and get back to the extremely popular legislation as quickly as you can. Remember, you’re not going to persuade a gun nut—and you should not try. You are speaking, or writing online, to reach swing voters. So, swat away the crazy.
Pro-gun argument: The AR-15 is not an “assault rifle” because it is not fully automatic
Answer: There is absolutely no question that 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 teenagers are gunned down in high school. The question is whether to respond to the slaughter by reenacting the federal ban on assault weapons. Doing so is simple common sense.
Why: “Assault rifle” is an 80-year-old term for certain machine guns. “Assault weapon” is the term that gun manufacturers made up in the 1980s to sell semiautomatic versions of machine guns. This is pure evasion of the issue.
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: 14 teenagers and 3 teachers were murdered in Florida with an AR-15 assault weapon. A few months ago, 58 people were murdered in Las Vegas with an AR-15. 49 were killed with a type of AR-15 in an Orlando nightclub. 20 tiny elementary school children and six teachers were killed in Newtown with an AR-15. Do you think this is okay? That we should continue to do nothing?
Why: The 2008 Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller guarantees Americans the right to have a handgun in the home for self-protection. The Court also said: “[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” And that ruling explicitly reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s 1939 U.S. v. Miller opinion that upheld a law banning sawed-off shotguns (the same law bans machine guns, silencers and grenades) and stated that policymakers have the power to prohibit “dangerous and unusual weapons.” Based on this opinion, federal courts across the nation have upheld assault weapon bans. That’s the long answer—cut it short so you don’t sidetrack the debate.
Pro-gun argument: An assault weapon ban won’t eliminate/substantially reduce the number of violent crimes
Answer: To be successful, an assault weapon ban doesn’t have to stop thousands of murders, if it just prevents some—especially another high school shooting like the one in Florida, or elementary school shooting like the one in Connecticut, or concert shooting like the one in Nevada. How many children have to die to justify this simple law? Let’s reenact the ban that was in effect for ten years.
Why: The law against murder doesn’t stop all murders. The law that lowered the blood alcohol level for driving didn’t stop all drunk driving. This policy will not stop every gun crime, but it will save some lives. That is all that matters.
Pro-gun argument: This law will give the federal government the data to create a gun registration list, and that’ll lead to gun confiscation.
Answer: Federal law forbids our national government from establishing a gun registration list. Let’s return to the real issue. This legislation would reenact the federal assault weapon ban that was successful for ten years. It’s just simple common sense.
Why: Only gun extremists believe or care about the “confiscation” argument. Brush it away.
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?
Why: This is a common distraction tactic. Don’t fall for the either-or argument, get the discussion back to your gun restrictions.
Right wing argument: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Answer: That just doesn’t work in real life. 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. It 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?
Why: This and all the other arguments I’ve addressed 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.
Bernie Horn is the Senior Director for Policy and Communications at the Public Leadership Institute. Years ago, he was one of the chief lobbyists for federal and state laws banning assault weapons.