Three Debate Tips for Those Calling for More Gun Restrictions

If you think politicians should pass (and law enforcement agents and bureaucrats should enforce) more laws restricting the sale and/or possession of guns among the general population, then you and I are on opposite sides of that debate. However, my goal here is to help you to more effectively argue your position.

Why would I do that? I’m tired of the irrationality and ignorance surrounding the issue. I believe that, given a reasoned debate, my side will prevail. I grant to you the courtesy of presuming that you believe the same thing about your side. So, if we both want a reasoned debate, what can you do to present reasonable arguments in support of your position?

1. Stop demonizing America’s millions of gun owners.

Not only is the tactic of demonizing (and scapegoating) gun owners unjust and intellectually dishonest, it is strategically stupid on your part. Gun owners tend to be wealthier and more politically active. If you really want to mobilize millions of people against your position, the best thing you can do is subject them to vicious name-calling and unjust character attacks.

To offer a personal example of how this works, after I read some idiot on Twitter call the National Rifle Association a “terrorist” organization, I purchased a five-year membership to the NRA. (I was a member many years ago but let my membership lapse mostly due to disagreements over political strategy.) I regard the NRA as the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, and if its critics persist on maligning it, I’ll seriously consider upgrading to the $1,000 lifetime membership.

2. Don’t confuse faux self-righteousness with an argument.

Many advocates of restrictive gun laws have thought very carefully about the relevant issues. Unfortunately, many have not.

I understand that people get emotional over guns. But don’t expect your rage to persuade me that your policy proposals are a good idea.

Consider the following argument: “If the perpetrator of a mass shooting had not had a gun, he would not have been able to commit the mass murder (with a gun); therefore, the government should restrict everyone’s access to a gun.” If, without further reasoning or evidence, you find that argument compelling, I suggest that you are not thinking at all seriously about the issues at stake. You are instead grasping at pretexts to rationalize your emotionalist commitment.

At a minimum, to seriously grapple with the issues at hand, you need to seriously consider the following questions:

  • What will proposed gun restrictions mean for the many thousands of Americans who use a gun in self defense each year?
  • If criminals have no fear (or less fear) that their potential victims might be armed, won’t criminals be more likely to commit more crimes?
  • Is it a good idea to expend police resources enforcing laws impacting every existing or potential gun owner, rather than use those resources to target actual or likely criminals?
  • How will you prevent criminals from buying guns on the black market or switching to other weapons?
  • Even if you can prevent (some) criminals from obtaining guns, if you also prevent their intended victims (who tend to be physically smaller) from obtaining guns, are you not giving the advantage to the criminals in many contexts?
  • Is it a good idea to create what William Burroughs warned against, “a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military?” If that’s not your goal, what is?

Please understand that what I am asking for here is not an unresponsive or fact-free sound-bite. I’ve heard plenty of those. I’m asking that you seriously grapple with questions such as these and formulate your arguments (and your policy proposals) accordingly.

3. Learn something about guns.

I understand that many advocates of restrictive gun laws know a great deal about guns. Unfortunately, many know nothing or close to nothing about guns.

If you have little or no idea what are the answers to such questions as the following, then why should I believe that you are remotely competent to help craft the nation’s gun laws?

  • What’s the difference between an automatic and a semi-automatic gun?
  • Are automatic guns currently legal in the United States?
  • What’s the difference between a rifle and a shotgun?
  • What is a revolver?
  • What is a magazine as used in a semi-automatic gun?
  • With respect to guns, to what does “9 mm” and “.223 caliber” refer?

If you have never fired a gun, I suggest that you find a competent instructor and actually go shoot a gun. You might learn something useful about guns—and about gun owners. And you might even learn something useful about yourself.

If you take my three tips to heart, you will more effectively argue for your position in favor of more restrictive gun laws (for the general population). As someone who opposes that agenda, I’m okay with that. Because I believe that, the more reasonable your position becomes, the more it will shift to look like my position. At least we’ll each be able to see more clearly where the other side is coming from. And may the best case win.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

13 thoughts on “Three Debate Tips for Those Calling for More Gun Restrictions

  1. John Shepard

    Well said, but one question.

    “Is it a good idea to expend police resources enforcing laws impacting every existing or potential gun owner, rather than use those resources to target actual or likely criminals?”

    What do you mean by targeting “likely criminals”?

  2. ariarmstrong

    Very good question, John. What I had in mind were those who talk about or plan to commit acts of violence. To take a simple example, if somebody calls you and says, “I’m going to drive over to your house and blow your head off,” you are right to call the police, and the police are right to intervene. In other cases it may be less clear whether a person is intending violence. What I do not want to see happen, obviously, is for police agents to arbitrarily declare people to be “likely criminals” and to strip them of their rights.

  3. John Shepard

    Thank you for your reply, Ari (By the way, thank you for all your thoughtful articles!)

    Okay, so you’re talking about actual threats to commit crimes, which are in fact criminal.

    I too would be concerned about having the government deciding who is likely to commit crimes, absent evidence of criminal intent, and enacting preventive laws.

  4. ariarmstrong

    I largely agree with you; however, I recognize a difficult “grey area” here. For example, many people have threatened on social media to murder NRA members. When do those become real threats that the police properly look into? The other issue involves the severely mentally ill who vocalize violent plans. At what point does that become something for the mental health system? At what point does it become criminal? These are not always easy questions. Again, the fear is that government agents will start abusing their power and declare peaceable people a threat in order to curtail their rights.

  5. CBMTTek

    Wonderful write up.
    While some may argue that giving the opposition the tools they need to better argue their position is self defeating, I think just the opposite, especially when it comes to firearms.

    Most folks fear guns because of movies, TV, and news. Most folks have never actually held, or fired a gun. They know little more than guns can be used to kill.

    Get an anti-gun advocate out on the range. Get them to send a few rounds down range. Teach them a bit about gun safety, what guns can do, and what guns cannot do. I have seen this happen personally. Girls sees gun, reacts like she is suddenly in danger. I clear gun, demonstrate the safety features of the gun, and show her how to properly hold the gun. Next thing I know, she is asking to go to the range.

    One new gun enthusiast added,

  6. Mel_M

    Easy or not, I think we should move ahead and do something about these two issues; don’t we reject the idea of the unknowable and that there are no rational solutions? I’ll share my views here, but I don’t claim they are proven; I’d welcome any objections.

    I don’t think people who issue death threats should be given any benefit of the doubt. A threat is real as soon as it’s made; it’s meant to intimidate. Turn the threat over to the police and, at the very least, let the police send a notice that the offender is now registered in a database. If possible, the local police could deliver the notice personally and investigate as many incidents as they have time for. Nobody’s rights are violated by police investigating a death threat. I think it should be jail for any death threat. (There’d be plenty of room if we threw the junkies and drug dealers out.) For those who vocalize violent plans, the situation is more serious. They must be regarded as an imminent threat, taken off the street, evaluated, and possibly kept off the street. We do not have to suffer these people just because the psychiatric profession doesn’t yet know how to cure them; it’s tragic, but the profession is not omniscient.

    Yes, I’m really concerned about the curtailment of rights based on nothing more than hysteria brought on by pop ideas about who is dangerous. And what of those pious who think that atheism is a worse crime than genocide? I think what’s needed is an objective legal structure and review process that takes any whim of judges out of the picture. Under a dictatorship, we wouldn’t be protected anyway, but in other cases, I think a well thought out objective process would work. No matter how good the laws are, a dictatorship is going to repeal them or twist them or ignore them. (BTW, I note that there was a kid taken into custody a day or so ago because he had some plans to do some mass killing. He seems to have approached other students and they contacted a teacher who contacted the police.)

    i’m beginning to think that the lack of an Objectivist legal framework is hurting us because we have trouble coming up with proposals that could be defended and gain support as the actual basis of a law.

  7. Mel_M

    Certainly “likely” turns the concept into rubber words. However, having read the book “Without Conscience,” what to do about psychopaths has become an issue for me. The psychopath, whether white collar or violent gives the impression of something not fully human. The author of the book believes it’s biologically based but modifiable via environment. (I’ve no clue whether he’s right or not.) I suspect that, even after a person is evaluated as a psychopath, they’ll have to be left alone until they commit a crime. But, once jailed for a crime and evaluated as a psychopath, then what?

  8. Mel_M

    I don’t think this is a real good argument: from what I’ve read, none of the kids died. Maybe the guy in China used a more scattered approach. Lanza seems to have used multiple shots for each victim and I’m thinking that he was quite intent on executing them — executing 1st graders. At his 1st press conference, the coroner said that he’d looked at 7 victims himself and that they’d been shot 3 to 11 times.

  9. Mel_M

    I don’t own a gun (I had a .22 as a kid and was in the Army) and would prefer not having any in my apartment (in a locked building). However, I can certainly think of contexts where I’d want one or would want the person i loved to have one. Even so, I rather shudder at the thought of going to a shooting range and coming out a “gun enthusiast,” although I admit that “enthusiastic” is a matter of measurement. I’m cooking the idea that guns for protection is some kind of quasi-police function and nothing to get enthusiastic about; there is risk; stuff happens. In any case, enthusiasm isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an issue in the control debate. I do note that I can get away with not owning a gun partly because other people in the area probably have them and the criminals don’t know who has one and who doesn’t.

  10. Mel_M

    So, what did Rand have to say? As I recall, she hadn’t fully decided. I remember — I think it was in 1989 — that I could see how the Chinese freedom fighters might have overturned the Communist government if the people had had guns. I then decided in favor of guns in private hands.

    Anyway, trying to locate the basis of my thought that Rand hadn’t decided, I did a Yahoo search (after looking in the lexicon) and found this rather good online result of some laborious looking research. From a brief read, the researcher seems to have been meticulous about not drawing conclusions from too little evidence. Other than that, I don’t know anything about the author or the website. The site is called (link) The Objectivist Reference Center and the author is Richard Lawrence. In the “Conclusions” section at the bottom, I did find that I had not remembered inaccurately. The author updated his research over the years and ends with a 2006 update, thus:

    In 2005 the first published material stating Rand’s views on gun control finally emerged, in the form of transcribed question and answer material in the book Ayn Rand Answers.

    In a question and answer session in 1971, Rand stated:

    I do not know enough about it to have an opinion, except to say that it’s not of primary importance. Forbidding guns or registering them is not going to stop criminals from having them; nor is it a great threat to the private, noncriminal citizen if he has to register the fact that he has a gun. It’s not an important issue, unless you’re ready to begin a private uprising right now, which isn’t very practical.

    In a similar session in 1973, she said:

    It’s a complex, technical issue in the philosophy of law. Handguns are instruments for killing people — they are not carried for hunting animals — and you have no right to kill people. You do have the right to self-defense, however. I don’t know how the issue is to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim.
    These quotes show the same non-commital stance found in her interview with Raymond Newman. Barring some additional material being released from the archives of Rand’s private writings, this is probably the most definitive information to be found regarding Rand’s views on this issue.

    So, unless some other Objectivist intellectual has solved these issues in the philosophy of law (I’m not aware of such a thing), we’re on our own to start from scratch.

  11. Tjitze de Boer

    I’d like to have the statistics on the amount of violence prevented just by showing that you have a gun,
    It’s something that I hardly ever hear mention of and I wouldn’t be surprised if the left is just breaking windows here too.

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