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How to talk about gun control

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, there has been a vast, seething discussion on gun control on the Internet, as well as in our homes, offices, and places of worship. Much of this discussion, in my humble opinion, is utter rubbish and serves only to enhance the speaker’s feelings of superiority and self-worth. If you’re interested in an honest, open discussion on the tragedy of gun violence and how to solve it, I humbly suggest a few guidelines.

Do not use the term “gun control”

There are probably at least 100,000 different definitions as to what this term means; so much so that it is, in essence, utterly meaningless. If you find yourself saying, “we need gun control,” it might make you feel better, but it adds nothing to the conversation. Instead, try to focus on concrete proposals backed up by hard evidence, not pure speculation on your part. “If we prohibit gun magazines from holding more than five rounds, it would force gun owners to purchase more and slow down shooters whilst they reload,” is a much better statement than “We should stop people from owning assault weapons.”

Do not use the term “assault weapon”

Why? Like gun control, this is a vague and ambiguous phrase that had a very clear definition in the Federal Assault Weapons ban, and is misused nearly everywhere else. Under the now-expired assault weapons ban, an assault weapon is defined as a semi-automatic rifle that has a place to put a bayonet, a collapsible stock, a flash suppressor, and a removable magazine. If it only had three of the four, it wasn’t an assault weapon. If was a .22 caliber (very small gun) but had those four items, it was still an assault weapon. Thus, the assault weapons ban was trivially easy to get around; in most cases, the manufacturer would leave off the bayonet lug, since that’s the easiest thing to do. Instead of using “assault weapon,” use specifics: “I think we should ban all guns that have a removable magazine.”

Do not dismiss your opponents

Sadly, political discourse in this country has reached the point where people on differing sides of an issue simply ignore each other. When you start out a statement by saying, “Anyone who supports gun ownership is a killer,” you’re a fool and you’re only trying to make yourself feel better. Your opponent (in both direction) has been around for years and at least deserves the respect of a worthy opponent. The NRA has, to this date, been vastly more successful than the disjointed voices of liberals whining about this or that. It will take a concerted, heavily funded effort to counter their resources and the culture they represent. Dismissing the people from the other point of view as “idiots” and “lunatics” serves no purpose and will only ensure that the status quo continues. Ask yourself if that’s what you want.

Talk about the Second Amendment

Ultimately, any law about gun control will be judged in the courts against the US Constitution’s Second Amendment. You cannot simply dismiss it with “That was valid when we used muskets; it’s not valid any more.” Yes, it applied to muskets, the highest-quality weapons of the time, and not just to flintlocks, which is what most farmers and rural people used for hunting. The purpose was to establish a standing army from the citizenry and, if you read the writings from the period, was to ensure that citizens could overthrow their government if it became corrupt. Using those standards, courts will continue to uphold private gun ownership, and no meaningful progress towards gun control will be possible without addressing them.

Ask yourself if your proposal would work

Seriously. I’ve seen some of the stupidest things come out on the Internet; ideas that would have had zero impact on the Columbine or Newtown killers. Background checks would not have stopped them, since none of those killers actually purchased the weapons used. Nor would requiring registration; criminals and the criminally insane can steal registered weapons as easily as they can unlicensed ones. Ask yourself: would this have stopped the killer in Newtown? If not, then it’s going to be a lot of work to justify further restrictions of civil rights without showing a benefit.

Don’t cherry-pick your data

People are not idiots. If you have a graph showing gun deaths in the USA vs. Denmark, Switzerland, Findland, Germany, and England, then the USA comes out way behind. But Mexico has some of the strictest gun control laws on earth, and yet Mexicans are far more likely to be killed by guns than are US residents. Any discussion needs to include a spectrum of examples, and not merely the ones that make our case. Failing to include other examples proves to thinking people that you’re an idiot and your ideas can safely be dismissed. I don’t think that’s what you’re intending to do.

This is not an easy problem to solve, given the American culture and history. At the very least, we should be able to have a civil, thoughtful discussion of the issues without recourse to slander and slimeball tactics.

Glen Campbell
December 21, 2012